Bundling in their coats and scarves, members of the Temple Brith Sholom gathered Wednesday to celebrate the fourth night of Hanukkah with the lighting of the menorah — which happens to be a 5-foot-tall electric menorah displayed on the Homer Village Green.
Temple Brith Sholom President Carol Levine said the synagogue has been closed since the start of the pandemic, and meeting at the menorah to sing prayers and twist the LED lightbulb into place is one of the few in-person gatherings they’ve had in a year-and-a-half.
“Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, many of us will not be able to enjoy in-person celebrations this year,” Levine said. “Because we’re a mature congregation, most of us celebrate with our grandchildren. I’ll be celebrating Hanukkah on Zoom with my two young great-grandchildren. We say the Hanukkah prayer, light the candles, and eat latkes and doughnuts.”
Temple Brith Sholom is hosting a virtual celebration featuring live music at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Visit
www.templebrithsholomcortland.org or email Levine at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
The nine-branched menorah is lighted during the holiday — on each night of Hanukkah, the center shamash candle is used to light a new candle — and commemorates the miracle of the oil at the Second Temple when one day’s worth of oil lasted eight days, Levine said.
The Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar, meaning it is based upon the cycles of the moon. This means Hanukkah might start as early as late November or even as late as December. Although the Jewish Festival of Lights is celebrated in the winter, it is not to be mistaken as the Jewish Christmas, said Jo Schaffer, a member of the temple’s board of trustees.
Hanukkah also commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem around 160 B.C.E., where a small Jewish tribe, the Maccabees, rose against and defeated their Greek-Syrian oppressors, Levine said. “That was really the first recorded battle for religious freedom.”
“There’s an old funny expression — well, it’s not funny actually it’s sad in many ways — but the history of Jewish people is that they wanted to get rid of us and they declared war on us, so the saying is ‘We won, let’s eat,’” Schaffer said.
Schaffer, 87, said she grew up celebrating Hanukkah with her immigrant grandparents, who had come to the United States after escaping oppression in their home country.
“Hanukkah was a little bit more important to them because it really reflected what Hanukkah had been in the year 160 B.C.E. It was a question of freedom and being in the Americas,” Schaffer said. “I remember my grandmother frying everything in oil because that was tradition. We would make potato pancakes.”
Now, Hanukkah is more of a holiday for the younger children, she said. This year, it was nice timing that the Thanksgiving holiday and week of Hanukkah coincided.
“I think, back in the day, families commercialized Hanukkah because the children felt left out because they saw their friends celebrating Christmas,” Levine said, “but it’s not to be compared to Christmas, it’s just the way we celebrate now.”
After the next light is illuminated on the electric menorah and the songs are sung, everyone goes home to celebrate with their families over video chat, lighting their own menorahs each night.
“The Hanukkah lights are the lights of freedom over oppression, it means freedom and warmth for everybody during the holiday season,” Schaffer said.