Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca tells us about the ancient Jewish festival of Hanukkah, with its origins in the early BCEs and the Seleucid Empire
Growing up in a Jewish home, Hanukkah, also spelled Chanukah (which means dedication in Hebrew), or the Festival of Lights, was one of my favorite celebrations. I loved this time of year as we lit the special Hanukkah Menorah (the candelabra of nine flames) lit by a Shamash, or main candle, for eight days, one candle for each day. The ninth candle was the ‘lighter’ or ‘helper’ candle. The older, more traditional Menorah had seven candles. The Menorah in my home is special since it was a gift to me from a dear aunt in Israel. In my mother’s home, the Menorah had pride of place in a corner of a special shelf in the living room.
I have read that traditionally, the Indian Jews light an oil lamp instead of candles, but I remember the lighting of the candles in The Menorah in my home. I have also read that the late Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, who lost his life during the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks had started the tradition of lighting the spiritual and festive lights of Hanukkah in 2003 at the Gateway of India, close to the Taj Mahal Hotel. Over the past decade, Chabad Mumbai has continued the tradition of lighting the menorah at Gateway of India with a wish to spread light and love.
I loved Hanukkah as I listened to the beautiful melodious prayers sung by the elders of the family, and the special dishes that were prepared. Like Diwali, it is also a time for gift-giving, especially to children. Each day, we prayed the Hallel, the selection of five gratitude-themed psalms (113 – 118) from the Bible.
It is apt to compare Hanukkah with Diwali, the festival of light, albeit with a different history. The importance of light in all religions is significant as it represents the triumph of good over evil, the dispelling of darkness, which is said to be banished with wisdom, and obscurity is said to be be illuminated with truth. In Judaism, light is also linked to creation, and to hope and redemption. The candles are never used for pleasure but have a holy significance. Light has always been a metaphor for wisdom.
In 2020, Hanukkah will be celebrated from the evening of December 10th to December 18th, coinciding with the Jewish month of Kislev. The Jewish calendar is a lunar one. It commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in Israel, where according to legend Jews had revolted against their Greek Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt. The event took place before the birth of Jesus Christ. It is also a time to celebrate religious freedom, especially for Jews in India, a phenomenon unmatched anywhere else in the world because Jews never faced any sort of institutionalized anti-Semitism in India.
According to early studies, it was said that the first Jews in India never celebrated Hanukkah, which indicates that their arrival in India pre-dated the re-dedication of the Second Temple which took place around 516 BCE. They were only introduced to Hanukkah much later.
It is customary to eat fried foods during Hanukkah, as oil is symbolizes the miracle of the feast, where a single night’s supply of lamp oil lasted eight days. I remember eating the coconut milk curries, sweet flattened rice (poha), rice pancakes and the onion pakoras, at my grandmother’s home in Bombay. The biggest treat was China grass halva, which is a dessert, made of Agar-Agar and coconut milk. One of my aunts was well-loved for making this halva, and I have written and published a poem dedicated to her. The poem was named China Grass Halva. I missed her and the sweet dish when she immigrated to Israel. The Indian Jews, called the Bene Israel Jews, the community to which I belong, had this kind of cuisine at Hanukkah time. The cuisine was also influenced by Maharashtrian and Konkan cuisine.
In the Eastern-European tradition, the potato latke, which is kind of a pancake is usually served with applesauce. In Israel, a popular jelly-filled doughnut, called sufganya, is eaten. My French-Canadian neighbor makes potato latkes, shaping them into small potato cakes, not into a pancake. She serves them with applesauce. Her husband’s mother had many Jewish friends.
A popular game played by the Ashkenazi Jews (Jews in Israel from western countries, as opposed to the Sephardic Jews who are from Africa and the Middle East) during Hanukkah, is Spinning the Dreidel, which is a kind of four-sided spinning top with some Hebrew letters on it. Legend has it that the Jews were forbidden by their Greek Syrian masters to study the Torah. They would do so in secret, but whenever a patrol passed by, they would hide the Torah and pretend to be playing ‘Spinning the Dreidel’. The letters on the dreidel have values and determine the winning or losing of the game! There is also a dreidel song that the children sing while spinning the top. We played with tops growing up in Bombay, but not the game of ‘Spinning the Dreidel’.
In Calgary, Alberta, Canada, which houses the fourth largest Jewish community in the world, there is a special Hanukkah celebration at City Hall, where the Mayor lights the Shammash or ‘lighter’ candle on the Menorah to kick-off the 8-day celebration.
This year I wonder how such community celebrations will be impacted?
Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca was born and raised in a Jewish family in Mumbai. She was educated at the Queen Mary School, Mumbai, received her BA in English and French, an MA from the University of Bombay in English and American Literature, and a Master’s in Education from Oxford Brookes University, England. She has taught English, French and Spanish in various colleges and schools in India and overseas, in a teaching career spanning over four decades. Her first book, Family Sunday and Other Poems was published in 1989, with a second edition in 1990.
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