I grew up in a small farming community in rural South Africa so had very few Jewish friends around me as a child. I feel very lucky though that, although I did not attend a Jewish school or have a Synagogue nearby, my parents and especially my mother made sure I knew what it meant to be Jewish and to celebrate or observe the Festivals and Holidays of the Jewish Religion.
One of these Festivals is Chanukah which falls around November or December, is also known as the Festival of Lights and can be spelt Chanukah or Hanukkah. We celebrate Chanukah to remember a time, some 2,000 years ago, when the Greeks ruled and tried to force the Jewish people to convert to their customs and beliefs. A small band of Jews, the Maccabees, took on and defeated the mighty Greek army. When they claimed back the Temple and went to light the candles of the Menorah to rededicate the Temple they found only enough oil that had not been contaminated to last for one day. The miracle was that this oil lasted for eight days, long enough for new oil to be prepared under ritual purity and so we have Chanukah to celebrate this miracle.
Each night of Chanukah we light the Menorah, a candelabra that holds nine candles, eight for the eight days of Chanukah and a ninth for the shamash or “attendant”. We use the shamash to light the candles starting with one candle on the first night and adding one each night until all eight candles are burning brightly on the last night. Special blessings are said over the candles and then traditional songs are sung.
As oil is at the centre of Chanukah and, along with the fact that Jewish festivals always include being with family and enjoying foods for the festival, it is customary to eat foods fried in oil. Some of the favourites include Eastern European classics like latkes which are like pancakes and are sweetened with apple or there is the delicious jam-filled sufganiyot, Hebrew for doughnuts. Nowadays the donuts are taken to a whole new level as they are filled and topped with all sorts of decadent options, the toughest part is choosing what to eat!
Although Chanukah falls around December it is not like Christmas with gift-giving but rather we played with the Dreidel, a four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter on each side and received something small along with some Chanukah Gelt. Chanukah Gelt was some money given to children to reward good behaviour and study and to encourage giving of charity. Later this Chanukah Gelt also came in the form of chocolate coins which were an exciting treat especially as a young boy on a farm! Today some families do give gifts to children and some even give a small gift each night of Chanukah. This shows how traditions can evolve but the significance of the festival remains the same.
For me now as an adult and with just a small amount of peripheral vision remaining as a result of Retinitis Pigmentosa, I still enjoy Chanukah and take part in the candle-lighting each night. Some families will have a Menorah for each person in the house. Annie and I share one Menorah and take turns to light the candles each night so, on my lighting-nights I may need guiding to each of the candles but, once they are alight, my little bit of vision still enables me to take great pleasure from the lights of these beautiful, colourful candles. And, of course, eating donuts is something I can do with no help! As I write this, I am thinking about the amazing Kosher bakeries in Golders Green and Temple Fortune that make filled mini-donuts which means we can choose a selection of fillings ranging from jam to caramel or custard to chocolate and, no doubt, there will be something new as there are competitions to design the best donut for Chanukah. I think we will be heading off to the bakery soon…
There are also giant Menorahs lit in public spaces from London’s Trafalgar Square to Edinburgh’s St Andrew Square and many places between and beyond so, if you see a nine-armed candelabra with some of the lights lit and others not, you will be able to know which night of Chanukah it is. I encourage you to join in our tradition of a donut or sweet pancake, it is a time when we all need some sweetness and happiness, and this can only help.
One of the public Menorah lightings I went to a few years ago was in Trafalgar Square and, for the first night candle lighting, Mayor Sadiq Khan joined Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and thousands of us Jewish people for songs, celebrations and, of course, donuts. As a Registered Blind man I walk with a long White Cane and, no matter where I am, people always do their best to help me. even when walking through crowds of people like this everyone will make space for me to be able to be there and partake regardless as to whether or not I can see. I feel very fortunate and privileged to live in a city and time when being blind does not mean I am disabled and unable to join in whatever I choose to do but rather I am encouraged and able to do whatever I want to do.
Regardless of whether you celebrate Chanukah, Christmas or any other festivals or holidays, I will also take this opportunity to wish you much happiness, good health for you and your loved ones and may 2022 be a year when we move towards a world that is able to open up again and when we can all meet each other without such concern for our health and well-being. As we Jewish people celebrate the miracle of the oil of Chanukah, I too celebrate and thank our amazing scientists, healthcare and frontline workers for all they have done for us and continue to do for us in such trying and difficult times.
Thank you for taking the time to read about my Chanukah and me!
Written by Jonathan Abro
An image of a Menorah with 8 different coloured candles lit up with one still yet to be lit up.