In the Suburbs: A pandemic Hanukkah still about lights, rededication and food

Pandemic aside, I fully intend to enjoy the festival of Hanukkah, which means rededication and celebrates the freedom of the Jewish people from Greek oppression.

Hanukkah begins this Thursday night and lasts for eight nights. It marks the rededication of the second Temple in Jerusalem, which had been left in disarray and was used for pagan animal sacrifices and practices other than spiritual growth.

When the Jewish people, led by the Maccabees — members of a brave family, who had raised an army to overrun the much larger Greek army — entered the Temple one of the first things they noticed is that the eternal flame above the holy altar had been extinguished and needed oil.

Sadly they found only enough oil for barely one day and it would take their messenger at least eight days to return with more oil. But, the one day of oil burned for eight days and represents a miracle and one of the most significant symbols of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah remains one of my favorite celebrations because of the miracle, but another symbol that remains significant to me is that Hanukkah is called the “Festival of Lights.” Millions of Jewish families worldwide help to light the world by using menorahs with space for nine candles to symbolically replicate the oil in the eternal light. There is a candle for each of the nights and the Shamis (head candle) is used to light the others.

This year, light means so much more to me. Because this virus has snuffed out the light of so many lives, lighting the candles is going to have so much more significance to me. We have an obligation, it seems to me, to make each of those who lost their lives part of the light of the holiday.

And there are other memorable symbols of the holiday that traditionally make it such a beautiful time for the Jewish people, pandemic or not. There are delicious potato latkes (pancakes) and equally wonderful sufganiot (doughnuts), which are both made with oil.

There is so much for kids, like the dreidel (a top with Hebrew letters indicating “A Great Miracle Happened Here”) and the gifts, generally not one for each day. During this tough time, my family will understand if I give fewer gifts and instead donate to a COVID fundraising organization.

Because this Festival of Lights will definitely be very different in this time of COVID-19, I decided to ask family and cherished friends to talk about how they will make their own Hanukkah celebrations successful.

Our older daughter Stacey, now a mother herself, said, “this year will definitely be different without being able to be with all of my family. We usually go down to mom and dad’s for some dinner and exchange of gifts for the kids. But, this year will probably be a Zoom call and a drive-by quick gift exchange. As long as we all stay healthy, is what’s most important.”

My cousin Joel from Chicago said, “Yes, it has been quite a year. I am just grateful for what I do have, such as decent health, good friends and a family that cares about each other. I can only hope next year will bring better and improved conditions for all those around me and the world in general. Be well, stay safe.”

I thought our dear friend Marilen, my high school friend, who lives in St. Louis, captured so much of what we need to feel about the bottom line of this holiday — rededication, both for the Maccabees then and us with COVID now.

“We are struggling to stay on a straight, narrow, and safe path to regain our lives,” Marilen wrote. “As the pandemic nears its end, we, too, will need to rededicate our lives, giving thanks for the miracles we are witnessing now, just as we did in days of old.”

She said the Festival of Lights also relates to COVID.

“Hanukkah is really like the lights of all the holidays during the month of December, to help brighten the dark clouds still hovering over us.”

Another close high school friend, Bobby, offered a few different perspectives. “It is such a shame that politics has had to be so all consuming this time of year when thankfulness, happiness and joy should be the first priorities of the days ahead till the New Year. Let's hope that the coming few weeks recede into our memories as quickly as possible with as little or no more tumultuous incidents politically.

“Though we're limited to immediate family gatherings at Hanukkah this time around, let's have them well immersed in the love and nurturing we have to offer each other within our homes and make the absolute best of what this holiday has to offer us.”

Our close friend Susan, who celebrated so many Hanukkahs with us before she moved to Florida, shared her grandchildren are in Massachusetts, Florida and Illinois. She’s rethinking lighting the candles in person with her 11-year-old granddaughter in Lakeland, Florida because of the virus.

“Perhaps, I can virtually light the candles, with all of my children, who are far away,” she wrote. “It is a different and scarier world, but the priority is for all to be well and safe. Foregoing the in-person candle lighting is the least I could do to ensure everyone's well being. At Passover, Jewish people say, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ For Channukah, I wish, ‘Next year may I just be together with my family somewhere.’”

Our niece Pam focused on the other significant symbol of Hanukkah, the food. “It will be like many Hanukkahs. I will light the candles, say prayers, and eat latkes,” she wrote. “I guess that might be the difference this year. I have a tradition to make latkes for my non-jewish friends (we usually do it on Christmas Eve). While they won't be the same as we can't eat them straight from the pan (well, I can), I may need to make them anyway and have contactless delivery. On another level though, I can have a video call for candle lighting with family who live elsewhere!”

Though my wife and I will light our candles alone this year, we will still celebrate this Festival of Lights with joy that we are healthy and our family is healthy. And we will continue to feel such gratitude for our two miracle grandsons, who, even when we don’t see them, give us such energy and spirit.

And above all, we hope the light of the candles this year will show us the way to greater rededication toward family, friends and colleagues, our health and our own lives.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears each Friday. He can be reached at stevengaynes44@gmail.com.