Celebrating Hanukkah in Latvia

  • 2007-12-19
  • By Talis Saule Archdeacon

MAZEL TOV: Though many Latvians don't know very much about Hanukkah, for the Jewish community it is one of the most popular and important holidays.

RIGA - With Christmas trees standing tall in most major squares, Christmas decorations, Christmas sales, Christmas markets and little renditions of Santa Claus seeming to appear in every direction, it can be easy to forget that Christmas isn't the only major religious holiday in December.

The occasional windowsill menorah, an eight-pronged candle holder lit on Hanukkah, is swamped by the thousands of Christmas decorations around the city. Hanukkah is one of the most symbolic holidays of Judaism. Yet outside of the Jewish community, the holiday is almost completely un-known in Latvia.
"Generally, most people don't know about Hanukkah here in Latvia. It is not like in North America where everybody knows the holiday," Gita Umanovska, executive director of the Jewish community in Riga, told The Baltic Times.

"But for Jewish people here [in Latvia], Hanukkah is one of the most popular, most important holidays," she said.
Umanovska said that the country has built up a long tradition of holding special parties to commemorate the day.
"Everyone has their own traditions for this holiday, and these traditions are a good thing. In winter it is always dark, and this is the holiday of light. People want to be together for this holiday," she said.
The Jewish Community of Riga, an organization which helps bring together Jews in Latvia, arranges huge events for Hanukkah every year. The events take the form of a caravan which travels around the country bringing joy to Jewish practitioners in Riga, Daugavpils, Liepaja and other small towns over the course of the eight day holiday.

The caravan is organized in Riga, which is home to about 80 percent of all Jews in Latvia, with support of  the American Jewish Joint Distribution Commit-tee.
Last year, the organizers of the caravan brought in a Jewish pop star from Bulgaria to participate in the festivities. This year, however, the Jewish community wanted to focus more on the traditional aspects of the holiday.  This year's caravan featured a band playing Klezmer 's traditional Jewish music 's and a teacher of conventional and contemporary Jewish dance.
Hanukkah is a traditional holiday comemmorating the Jewish victory over their enemies in the second century BCE, which has grown to become a powerful symbol of the Jewish faith and is now one of the religion's most widely recognized events.

The holiday lasts eight days and falls somewhere between late November and late December 's always starting on the 25th day of Kislev on the Jewish calendar.
The most important aspect of the holiday is lighting one more candle from the Hanukiah, also known as the Hanukkah Menorah, on each day of the holiday period. The lights are meant as a reminder of the candelabra in the Temple of Jerusalem.
In Riga, the Jewish community lights a massive Hanukiah in a central park of the city every year. This year, the ceremony featured song, dance and a children's puppet show.
The practice met with some resistance in Latvia. In 2005, for example, hoodlums destroyed the large Menorah which had been set up in a park to commemorate the holiday.
Though Hanukkah this year has already come and gone, anyone looking to find out a little more about Jewish holidays can visit the Riga Jewish Community house at 6 Slokas street, which before World War II was a Jewish theater, or go to Riga's only synagogue, located at Peitavas street 6 's 8.