For David Blades, Hanukkah is a three-letter word: fun.
“We play dreidel, we play games,” said Blades, president of the Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island, when asked about the importance of Hanukkah for the local Jewish community. “It’s really about family getting together.”
An estimated 1,500 members of the Jewish faith representing a variety of communities and traditions of religious observance call the Greater Victoria area home, and later this month many will gather to celebrate Hanukkah, the Feast of Illumination, according to the Talmund, the primary source of Jewish religious law.
It originated after Jewish rebels led by Judah the Maccabee recaptured Jerusalem from the Seleucids, a Greek-Syrian culture, during a rebellion that lasted from 167 to 160 BC. The Seleucids had forbidden Jewish religious practices, and used the (Second) Holy Temple for pagan practices. After rebels had recovered the temple, they wanted to re-dedicate it. This re-dedication required oil to light the temple’s hanukkiah, but only one day’s supply of olive oil was available. But a miracle happened along the way. The oil lasted for eight days, during which rebels were able to make more oil.
Hanukkah in turn memorializes this re-dedication, and more broadly, symbolizes freedom.
‘That’s the important part of Hanukkah,” said Blades. “We don’t have to live under oppression.”
Ora Stefanic echoes this point. “For our family, Hanukkah is a holiday to remember our right for the freedom of every soul in the world,” she said.
Hanukkah does not have a fixed date, contrary to Christmas. Catholic and Protestant Christians generally celebrate Christmas on the eve of Dec. 24 or the morning of Dec. 25, while Orthodox Christians generally celebrate on or Jan. 7, a difference stemming from western Christendom and eastern Christendom using different solar calendars.
Hanukkah follows the more variable lunar calendar, starting on the 25th day of Kislew, the ninth month of the Hebrew calendar used for Jewish religious observances. On the Gregorian calendar used by western Christendom, it cuts across November and December.
This year, Hanukkah begins on Dec. 12 following sunset and continues through Dec. 20.
Hanukkah, to be clear, is not the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. However, its proximity to Christmas on the calendar has given Hanukkah a more prominent place in popular culture over the years. “There’s without a doubt a proximity-to-Christmas spillover effect,” said Blades.
This said, Hanukkah – like Christmas with its roots in ancient Roman and Celtic pagan traditions – offers an opportunity to shine a bright celebratory light during the darkest part of the year.
Starting on the first night, a servant candle is used to light the first candle of the hanukkiah. On the second, two candles are lit, on the third day, three candles, and so on.
“Lighting one candle each night is an expression of each soul to do something good in repairing the world,” said Stefanic. “Each one little light, each one small “Mitzvah” (in Hebrew a good deed that connects us with the divine) will create a bigger light eventually and will repair the world.”
Hanukkah also has its own culinary traditions. Larry Gontovnick, president of the Jewish Community Centre on Shelbourne Street, said latkes, deep-fried potato pancakes, are a traditional Hanukkah food, and as in years past, the centre’s deli is offering latkes through December.
Ultimately, anything fried in oil can be served, said Blades, as the oil symbolizes the miracle of Hanukkah, said Blades.
While latkes have been a staple of Hanukkah traditions since time immemorial, the history behind another Hanukkah staple – jelly doughnuts – is less clear.
“I don’t think they had jelly doughnuts thousands of years ago,” said Gontovnick, tongue-in-cheek. In all seriousness, Gontovnick believes the tradition started among Jews of eastern Europe. Stefanic, for her part, prepares them from scratch each year, sending them out as gifts.
In fact, it has also become a tradition to give Hanukkah gifts. “Two generations ago, we probably wouldn’t have,” said Blades.
But if Hanukkah might have evolved over the years, it remains a common cause of celebration across the Jewish community, and a reminder of bonds escaped.