Hanukkah - light the menorah for eight festive nights

  • 2001-12-06
  • Andrea Carrasco, RIGA
Before World War II, more than 100,000 Jews called the Baltic states home - between 95, 000 and 96,000 in Latvia alone. But with the rise of fascism, the Holocaust and the eventual Soviet takeover, the majority of them were killed.

More than 4,000 Latvian Jews were deported to Siberia in 1941, but some later escaped to inner Russia to avoid persecution by the Nazis and further deportation by the Russians. Of the remaining 76,000, only about 1,000 of them survived the Holocaust that swept through Europe.

Today, however, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have back part of their thriving Jewish populations as families who fled their homes years before slowly trickle back.

There are about 10,000 Jews in Latvia, with more than 9,000 living in Riga. The far smaller Lithuanian community numbers only 5,000. The Jewish community of Estonia is made up of about 3,000 people.

While the Lithuanian Jewish culture flourished after the 14th century, the Nazi occupation almost wiped out the country's Jewish population. In 1949, the Kremlin's anti-Semitic policy closed most of the remaining schools and museums.

After Stalin's death in 1953, restrictions relaxed and the remaining Jewish community formed several amateur art collectives, a first for the Soviet empire.

With the restoration of Lithuanian independence in 1990, the government guaranteed equal rights for ethnic minorities allowing remnants of Jewish cultural life to be resurrected.

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, celebrates the rededicating of the Temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated by Syrians. It all began, according to the Jewish calendar, in the year 3622 (165 B.C.) when the Jews were victorious in the battle against the Syrians.

Long ago...

The land of Israel was part of the Syrian empire, which was dominated by Hellenists (idol worshippers) who longed to unite the land in religion and culture. This meant, however, that they had to eradicate other religions, like Judaism.

But the Jews held strong to their belief structure.

Led to victory over the Syrians by Yehuda the Strong, known as Maccabee, and those who fought with him, called the Maccabees, and in defense of their souls, beliefs and the Torah, they defeated the army and set out for Jerusalem to liberate the Holy Land.

There they entered the sacred Temple and cleansed it of idols left by the Syrians. They built a new altar, dedicated on the 25th of the month of Kislev, 3622 (Nov.-Dec., 165 B.C.).

The Temple's menorah, a candelabrum with seven branches, was stolen, so the Macabees assembled a makeshift one from cheap metal for the purification ceremony. But they could only find a small bottle of pure olive oil fit to burn during rededication, an amount which by all rights should only have lasted for one day.

The oil, however, burned strong and bright for eight full days and nights, the time it took to create a batch of suitable oil. The Jewish people saw this as proof that the Lord was looking over them and offering protection.

For the eight days of Hanukkah, Jews burn special candles as a dedication of their lives and souls to the Temple, to their religion and to God.

According to the widely accepted Gregorian calendar, Hanukkah falls on a different day every year. But on the Hebrew calendar it falls precisely on the 25th day of the month of Kislev. This year (5762) Hanukkah begins on the evening of Dec. 9 and runs eight days through Dec. 16.

Hanukkah here

There are practicing synagogues in each of the Baltic states. The Latvian cities of Riga and Daugavpils both house places of worship, while Lithuania has one each in Vilnius and Kaunus - in addition to a small prayer house in Klaipeda. The one synagogue in Tallinn is located in the Jewish Cultural Center.

"The Festival of Lights is celebrated in memory to how the Jews escaped danger and defended their religion, customs and dignity when they acted as they had to under their religious laws," said Gregory Levine, a devout Jew in the Riga Religious Jewish Community.

Cilja Laud, head of the Jewish Community in Estonia, said that Hanukkah in the Baltic states is celebrated the same way as in all the Jewish communities all over the world.

"The festival is dedicated to the liberation of the second Jerusalem Temple. When the Jews went there, they saw it was ruined - full of non-Kosher things and in need of cleaning," said Laud.

Rabbi Aryeh Becker of the Riga Religious Jewish Community agreed. "There may be different events, but it is all the same Hanukkah," the rabbi said.

Menorah lights

Lighting the menorah is the most important of the Hanukkah traditions. They are lit in a specific fashion, one in the evening - just as the sun sets - of the first day, two on the second, three on the third, and so on until all eight candles are together and burning bright on the final day.

The second holiday tradition is the spinning of the dreidel. "Kids love it," Levine said, smiling. Modeled after an ancient gambling game, it is easy and fun to play.

The dreidel is a small four-sided spinning top. On each of its sides is a Hebrew letter: "shin," "hey," "gimmel" and "nun." Together, the letters mean, "A great miracle happened there!" referring to the first Hanukkah in Jerusalem.

Each player needs something with which to gamble - nuts, candies or other light-hearted items. Each player puts one token in the pot then spins the dreidel. If it lands on "nun" then you do nothing. If it lands on "gimmel" then you take everything. "Hey" rewards you half plus one of the loot only if there are an odd number of items while "shin" requires you to place two bits in the pot.

The most coveted food during the Hanukkah season are latkes (potato pancakes). These are reminiscent of the Hanukkah miracle because of the oil they are cooked in. The potato crops were also being harvested about the time of the Festival of Lights.