WILDWOOD – As the sun sets early and winter creeps closer, light takes on deeper meaning and significance. The coronavirus’s impact is felt in every area of life, including cherished holiday traditions.
For the congregation of Beth Judah Temple, in Wildwood, celebrating Hanukkah is taking a different form. Yet, this ancient celebration is more than tradition, it’s the season of light and miracles.
“The word means dedication,” said Rabbi Ron Isaacs Dec. 3, in a phone interview. The holiday is also called the Festival of Lights, celebrated by Jews across the world.
According to historical records, Hanukkah reaffirms the Jewish faith and commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem.
In 165 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), ancient Israel’s people suffered persecution and oppression under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Seleucid king, in modern-day Syria.
Antiochus conquered the Jews and passed laws forbidding them to worship openly. History records Antiochus’ mental instability and cruelty.
“You could stay alive if you followed Greek ways,” Isaacs explained.
The Syrians were previously overtaken by Alexander the Great, who instilled Greek culture across the Middle East. As Alexander’s empire crumbled after his death, Antiochus seized his chance at power in Syria and Israel.
Poverty and sadness engulfed Israel as families faced a terrible decision: Would they embrace the Greek culture and gods or worship Jehovah God and face the consequences? Would the lights in the temple shine again?
Then, Judah Maccabee came. Son of a priest, Maccabee and his brothers led a revolt against their Syrian overlords. According to Isaacs, the Maccabees were “hill fighters” and conducted raids on the Syrian army.
“They were not a large group,” Isaacs said. Yet, the Maccabees persuaded many Jews to fight for religious freedom.
The Maccabees took the war south to Jerusalem, vowing to purge the temple of Greek gods and idols. What followed is not contained in the Hebrew Old Testament, in the Bible, but a legend.
According to Isaacs, the freedom-fighters wanted to light the “menorah,” a candelabrum with eight branches, in the temple. However, they found only one jug of oil left unopened and “undefiled” by the Syrians.
Until more consecrated oil was found, the Maccabees had only one source to use. Legend says that the oil lasted for eight days, sparking the tradition of Hanukkah.
How's Hanukkah Celebrated?
According to Isaacs, the first Hanukkah was commemorated by singing and lighting the menorah in the temple. Because Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Bible, Jews are not commanded to celebrate, but in Israel and across the world, similar traditions unfold each year.
For eight days, the menorah lamp is lighted each night, followed by a blessing. Special foods are enjoyed, i.e., potato latkes (pancakes) and jelly donuts.
Isaacs said the oily, fried foods remind believers of the oil in the temple. The latkes are topped with either applesauce or sour cream. Simple gifts are exchanged.
Playing games with a four-sided top called a “dreidel” is also popular. Each side of the dreidel contains a Hebrew letter, forming the initials of the phrase “nesgadolhaya sham,” meaning “a great miracle happened there.” In 2020, Hanukkah will span from Dec. 10 to Dec. 18.
In recent history, Isaacs said many believers participate in charity work in the community, spreading the light of hope.
“It’s not as much this year,” Isaacs said. COVID-19 forced many food banks and other charities to operate differently this holiday season. Volunteers are not able to participate in many places.
Members of Beth Judah will not gather to light the menorah this year, said Isaacs. One of the members may host a virtual lighting in their home, but plans are not definite.
“Our temple has not been open since March,” Isaacs said.
He added that he is thankful for social media and Zoom this Hanukkah season. Without technology, families and congregations would experience a harder time emotionally. Although looking forward to holding in-person services, Isaacs said Beth Judah meetings will be a “hybrid.”
The “new normal” is still unknown. Yet, Isaacs draws inspiration from those who persevered in the past.
Even during the dark days of the Holocaust, Jewish families found ways to celebrate, telling stories and lighting makeshift menorahs.
What does Hanukkah mean to those who celebrate it annually? For Isaacs, Hanukkah is a calm and reflective time.
“I think of having a good time,” Isaacs said. As his neighborsstring Christmas lights and put up their trees, Isaacs said the sight is comforting.
“They make you feel better. We need light,” Isaacs concluded.
Randee Mateo, a Beth Judah member, also shared her thoughts from her home, in Collingswood, Dec. 4.
“It’s the season of love and giving,” Mateo said. She and her family own a home in Avalon. Mateo was raised in a Jewish home, and her husband later converted to Judaism from Catholicism. She works as a yoga instructor and occupational therapist.
“One night, we did something for someone else,” Mateo said, referring to when her children were home.
“I haven’t seen my kids this year. We’re trying to get through,” she said. Despite COVID-19, Mateo said she will put up the decorations and light her grandmother’s menorah.
“We have to stay positive,” she added. She looks forward to making latkes this year and using her grandmother’s potato grater.
Wildwood Crest Borough Commissioner Joyce Gould expressed her love of Hanukkah in a Dec. 7 email.
“My husband, Alan, and I will be alone in our home for the holiday because of COVID, and we will miss seeing our daughter, Traci, and family, especially our grandchildren, Sammy and Paige; however, we are going to leave presents on their front steps,” Gould wrote.
As Gould looks forward to 2021, she hopes that the vaccine will come out “in short order” and that peace will “reign again over the world.”
Faith Matters is an ongoing series exploring the connection between individuals and their faith, impacting their families, community, and beyond. Those with a story of faith to share should contact the writer at email@example.com.