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What Does Hanukkah Smell Like? Fear of Relatives, That’s What.

My favorite parfumier tried to capture the holiday’s scents. Sufganiot and dreidels and gelt all made the cut, but it’s the family-drama-inspired perfume that most intrigued me.

Marjorie Ingall
December 08, 2017
Marjorie Ingall
Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab's Hannukah perfume lineupMarjorie Ingall
Marjorie Ingall
Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab's Hannukah perfume lineupMarjorie Ingall

This is not the first time I have confessed my unholy love of Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, the goth-y parfumier and purveyor of my favorite scent, Cthulhu. (Who wouldn’t want to smell like the melding of “an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature…a pulpy, tentacle head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings”? Though it actually smells like the ocean, with a whiff of grass and line-dried laundry.)

But excitement! This year, the company has released four limited-edition Hanukkah-themed scents! They are Blackcurrant Sufganiot, Gelt, HaNerot Hallalu, and Nes Gadol Haya Sham. There is also Syngenesophobia, a holiday scent appropriate to all peoples of all faiths. Syngenesophobia means “Fear of Relatives.”

Unlike the bullshit “Hanukkah-scented” candles analyzed by our sister site Jewcy, BPAL’s fragrances a) demonstrate actual cluefulness about this holiday and b) smell to at least some degree like whatever they proclaim to smell like.

Nes Gadol Haya Sham is my favorite of the bunch. BPAL describes it as “one scent in four parts.” Nun is represented by “scents of loss and remembrance”: Opoponax and lemon verbena. (OK, sure.) Gimel is represented by “scents of abundance”: Patchouli, heliotrope, pomegranate, and almond. Hey, with its Semitic root meaning “window,” is represented by “scents of clarity”: Frankincense, myrtle, and hyssop. Shin, which is compared to a hand forming the priestly blessing, is represented by “scents of strength, generosity, kindness, and benediction”: Carnation, myrrh, red poppy, and hibiscus. The four letters’ essences are blended into Nes Gadol Haya Sham. I am entertained by this narrative, but I love the complex scent. On me, it goes on spicy (not surprising – patchouli, which I usually hate, is a powerful thing…but I like it here in concert with the other stuff), then it mellows to something lemony and herbal.

Blackcurrant Sufganiot, on the other hand, is not complicated. It is described as “golden-brown and sugar-dusted, plump with sweet blackcurrant jelly,” and it smells…pretty much exactly like a jelly donut. This makes it the perfect gift for a young girl, as it is reminiscent of the fruit-focused, super-sweet perfumes the kids of today adore: Aquolina’s Pink Sugar, Ariana Grande’s Moonlight, Lavanila’s Vanilla Coconut, Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku, DKNY’s Be Delicious.

I was not fond of Gelt, which is described as smelling of “dry cocoa and golden amber.” I was reminded of a story I did for Sassy way back in the day, in which a colleague and I followed all the “how to get a man” advice in women’s magazines. Cosmo told me to wear vanilla on my pulse points because science showed that men found it irresistible. So I did. I sat next to two cute boys in a movie theater. One said to the other, “Do you smell Rice Krispies treats?” So yeah, Gelt! If you want to smell like chocolate, knock yourself out. (I do not mock. Thierry Mugler owes his entire fragrance career to the smell of chocolate.)

Hanerot Halalu is pitched with the full Hebrew lyrics to the song followed by a translation. It’s described as smelling of “olive oil, beeswax and smoke,” but I mostly smelled honey. Other fans thought it smelled like orange blossoms and amber. Whatever, it’s delicate and pretty.

Finally, let us discuss Syngenesophobia: Fear of Relatives. I very much enjoyed the description on the web site: “God damn it, Uncle Steve. Nobody cares what Hannity has to say about anything.” The fragrance is characterized as “buckets of red wine, a splash of aftershave, and copious amounts of blossoming gin,” which excited me because gin is my Patronus. Alas, to me this smelled flinch-inducingly sharp, like acidic pee. Which is a valid response to certain relatives visiting.

BPAL’s fragrances are inspired by many cultures’ myths and legends, as well as Victorian literature, Neil Gaiman characters, and horror film tropes. Over the years, there have been a number of Jewishly clueful scents, so I asked Elizabeth Barrial, BPAL’s creatrix, whether she herself was a Jewess. “My mother was Roman Catholic and my father was Jewish,” she told me in an email interview. “I have a foot in both worlds. I grew up celebrating both Catholic and Jewish holidays. I’m trying to do the same for my family now.” Barrial’s parents were both teachers, which may explain the wide-ranging curiosity and literary oomph behind the company’s 600 or so fragrances.

When Beth and I emailed, she was heading out to research Krampus festivals in Germany, and I was off to explore Jewish culture in Amsterdam (where I wore BPAL’s Amsterdam, a very light scent which smells of tulips, peonies, water and grass). She told me that late next year, BPAL will debut a line of scents inspired by creatures from Jewish legend, including Estries, Bar Juchne, the dybbuk, and the golem. “One of the most powerful memories I have from recent years is visiting the Altneuschul in Prague,” she told me. “It’s an experience that I am passionate about encapsulating in scent.”

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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