More Than 150,000 People Celebrate Altered Hanukkah Traditions in Virginia

By Erica Turman

December 17, 2020

This year, COVID-19 caused some families to change how they celebrate Hanukkah.

ROANOKE – For Jewish families across the Commonwealth, the celebration started Dec. 10. Hanukkah, which translates to “dedication” in Hebrew, is an eight-day celebration, ending this year on Dec. 18. It dates back to the second century BC.

Some people believe Hanukkah is the “Jewish Christmas.” That’s not true. People call the holiday by a variety of names, including The Festival of Lights, Chanukkah, Feast of Dedication and Feast of the Maccabees. However, it is not a Christmas alternative.

“Hanukkah is actually a very minor holiday in the Jewish faith,” said Rabbi Kathy Cohen of Temple Emmanuel in Roanoke. “In America especially, it gets tied in with Christmas because the two are so close together in celebration.” 

Cohen cited Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Passover, and Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) as the most important holidays for the Jewish Faith. 

A Change Due to COVID-19

While the tradition itself is ancient, this year’s celebrations might look a bit different. In a recent press conference where he announced new restrictions, Gov. Ralph Northam asked the Commonwealth to think about their form of worship this season.

“This year, we need to think about what is truly the most important thing. Is it the worship or the building? For me, God is wherever you are,” said Northam.

The good news is, when it comes to celebrations, the Festival of Lights is not a holiday that requires a crowd. 

“Hanukkah is largely celebrated in the home,” said Cohen. 

Cohen said that most synagogues do have some kind of dinner to celebrate the holiday, typically. This year, her congregation met in the synagogue’s parking lot. Temple staff brought Hanukkah-related treats and goodies to the cars. 

“We also lit an 8×8 wooden menorah with a light bulb, but you get the idea,” Cohen said. “[We] had an FM radio station we had folks tune into, and we sang a few songs. We made it work.” 

In Richmond, Dovid Asher, rabbi at Keneseth Beth Israel, asked his congregation to reflect on the unique place they find themselves in this season. 

“Hanukkah is particularly special this year as we are more homebound than we would normally really be,” said Asher. “Especially this year, we are forced to think about our home and our faith.”

What Is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah celebrations today look slightly different from what they did in 168 BC, but the account remains the same. 

At that time, the Jewish people were oppressed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Seleucid king who forced the Jews to worship Greek gods and desecrated their holy temple, the Second Temple, in Jerusalem. The Jewish people revolted, and in three years, the Jews reclaimed the Second Temple of Jerusalem. In celebration, the Jewish army leader, Judas Maccabeus, called on his people to purify the temple and reconstruct its alter and light its menorah. 

According to the Talmud, one of Judaism’s most important texts, the miracle of Hanukkah occurred when the menorah only had enough pure olive oil to keep the candles lit for one day. However, the candles stayed lit for eight nights—allowing the Jews ample time to restore the temple. That event inspired today’s celebration.

Today, families don’t typically light a menorah. Instead, they light a hanukkiah. The two look very similar, and both have eight prongs. However, the hanukkiah has a ninth candle slot to light the other eight. Once lit, usually by the head of the family, the entire family recites Hebrew blessings. This is all done at sunset as to remember while their ancestors fought darkness with swords, today families fight darkness with light. 

Giving Gifts at Hanukkah

Families also exchange gifts for each night of the celebration. They play traditional games and food, mostly fried in oil, is served. 

While the candles’ traditional lighting takes place with the immediate family, slightly larger groups, no more than 10 in Virginia, according to Northam’s newest order, can meet outside to light the candles. Others, who want their elder relatives to be involved, are lighting their candles this year via video call. No matter the method, the message remains the same. 

“Faith starts in the home. Are we living the values upheld in the faith? It really goes hand and hand. When we leave our home, we take our home, and our faith, with us wherever we go,” Asher said. 

Erica Turman is a freelance writer with Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].

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