The Jewish festival of Chanukah is here, but like everything else this year it will be changed by Covid-19 restrictions. Here, a young Jewish woman tells us how she will mark the holiday a little differently in 2020.
Chanukah is here, which marks yet another Jewish festival changed almost unrecognisably by Covid-19 restrictions.
Chanukah (which is the traditional spelling, even though Hanukkah is more widely used) has fallen victim to the same virus restrictions as Tu Bishvat, Purim, Pesach, Shavuot, Tisha B’Av, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, and Sukkot. While each of these festivals celebrate a different thing, they all have one thing in common: gathering to pray, sing, and socialise – remembering our rich culture and history.
But this year, like other festivals, Chanukah looks completely different. There are many things that define what it means to be Jewish – but social distancing is not part of the Jewish lexicon. But here we are – largely confined to our homes, besieged by an invisible enemy.
The festival of Chanukah occurs on 25th of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, which falls around late November to December; it moves around – given the Hebrew calendar is not in sync with the Gregorian one.
The festival commemorates events that happened around the 2nd century BCE between the Jews and the Seleucids. The Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) attempted to force Jews in Israel to assimilate and stop observing mitzvot (Jewish law) and invaded the Temple in Jerusalem.
A small army of Jews, called the Maccabees, rebelled against the Seleucids and took back the Temple. The Temple’s menorah was lit, and burned for eight days – despite there only being enough oil for the menorah to burn for one day. Jews commemorate this miracle by lighting a chanukiah (also referred to as a menorah) each year – adding a candle each night until we get to eight – and eating fried foods, like latkes (a fried potato dish) and sufganiyot (doughnuts). Indeed, the holiday reflects the theme of many Jewish holidays: persecution. Or, as we like to say: “They tried to kill us, we survived – let’s eat!”
This year, how I celebrate this festival will look wildly different to the last.
Last Chanukah, I attended a wonderful party in London Bridge organised by a Jewish communal organisation, surrounded by my members of my community. I went to Israel for a Chanukah wedding, which was beautiful and magical and one of the most lovely ways to spend such a joyous event.
On the last night of Chanukah, I ended up in a bar in Tel Aviv, which happened to be closing down and supplied us with free drinks. Eventually Chabad, a Jewish outreach organisation, arrived and came into the bar to light a chanukiah, pray and sing. Last Chanukah was busy, beautiful, thoroughly Jewish, and international – this one, however, could not be more different.
Instead of large community gatherings, this Chanukah more resembles solitude. Instead of having the freedom to travel anywhere safely, I barely leave the house. Social media and communication have replaced in-person socialisation. Praying and singing happens alone – instead of as a community. So the question arises: how do you find meaning in this festival during such a difficult time? Well, as the days get shorter and the nights get colder in the midst of this pandemic, in many ways Chanukah feels more poignant and meaningful this year.
At a time of fear and uncertainty, I remember the resilience of the Maccabees - who held onto their Jewishness even in the darkest of times, even when it felt impossible to hold onto tradition. And it is not just Chanukah I include in this, but all the festivals that have happened differently due social distancing restrictions this year. As the isolation and loneliness of the pandemic grows, and the nights grow darker and colder, the flames of my chanukiah feels especially bright and warm – and remind me to persevere.
And, of course, while it is the pandemic that is having such a drastic effect on how we celebrate Chanukah, the challenges facing the Jewish community as a whole aren’t limited to this. At a time when antisemitism is rising, both nationally and internationally, the ancient tenacity and vitality of the Jewish people continues to shine through. Be it antisemitism or a pandemic, nothing will successfully prevent Jewish people being Jewish, and I find that inspiring. Despite so much tragedy, millions of us across the world continue to light our chanukiahs, continue to celebrate our faith, continue to spin our dreidels, and continue to eat far too much fried food.
So this Chanukah, I embrace the Chanukah spirit of light and hope and try to and fend off the growing sadness and fear. I let the Chanukah candles warm me, and give me hope. I remember that a vaccine is on the way, soon the nights will start to get shorter, and the possibility of gathering as a community grows closer each day.
The Jewish spirit, as it always has, continues to persevere throughout this pandemic. As I look upon my chanukiah in my window, in a year of so much darkness, it feels especially and uniquely bright and empowering.
Hero image Getty/Masha Raymers. Photos courtesy of Nadine Batchelor-Hunt