Hanukkah celebrations begins for city’s Jewish community
The Jewish festival of Hanukkah – also spelt ‘Chanukah’ – has begun for Judaism’s faithful followers across the world, and it’s no different in Birmingham and the West Midlands.
The first such annual celebrations since the national lockdown restrictions were eased, the region’s Jewish community are able to mark the eight-day ‘Festival of Light’ making full use of synagogues once again this year, combining religious services in temples with online services where deemed appropriate in light on ongoing safety precautions around coronavirus.
Hanukkah – one of the most anticipated holidays in the Jewish calendar – marks and celebrates the tale of the Maccabees, who defeated the Greek King Antiochus’ troops after a three year war to protect their people from oppression and the restricting of their religious practices. This year falls on Thursday 10 December, ending on Friday 18 December.
King Antiochus tried to force Jews to pray and make sacrifices to Greek gods, banned circumcision and forbid the reading of Jewish holy texts and temple services. The festival commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after the 167-160 BCE revolt against the Seleucid Empire, which had targeted Judaism and Jewish communities.
To celebrate reclaiming the temple, returning Jews lit a lamp there but found they only had enough oil to keep it alight for a day. The miracle of Hanukkah is that the lamp stayed lit for eight days, despite the lack of oil.
To mark this miracle, Hanukkah is observed by lighting a menorah, a nine-pronged candelabra. This features one candle which sits separate from the others but is used to light eight others on the menorah; one for each night of the festival. This continues throughout Hanukkah until all flames are lit by the final night.
How is Hanukkah celebrated?
While some Jewish people choose to celebrate Hanukkah in a similar way to Christmas and Eid, by giving gifts and sharing meals with friends and family, there are many festivities unique to Hanukkah.
To symbolise the menorah miracle from the story of Hanukkah, oil plays a very important role in the festival, with many foods deep fried in oil, including potato latkes and sweet jelly doughnuts commonly known as Sufganiyot.
Children are often given chocolate coins known as ‘Hanukkah gelt’ and it is customary to spin a dreidel, a four-sided spinning top, after lighting the candle each evening.
Special services usually take place each evening at the synagogue during Hanukkah, with the first and last night having key significance. This year, many of these services will take place online due to COVID-19 restrictions, allowing members of the Jewish community to take part virtually.
Celebrations in Birmingham
In Birmingham, all of the Jewish community’s major festivals had been impacted by COVID-19 up until earlier this year. For most Jewish places of worship, this has meant keeping the doors closed and holding events online.
At Birmingham Central Synagogue in Edgbaston, staff and members had been combining both physical and virtual activities. With seating rearranged, everything thoroughly and repeatedly wiped down, and with hand sanitiser and wipes dotted around the venue; the congregation can only gather in the main synagogue hall in very limited number.
With restrictions eased, footfall and access to the synagogue has increased over the course of 2021 but safety measures are still in effect where appropriate to protect the vulnerable.
According to Birmingham Central Synagogue’s ‘Central Shul’ website, the venue is “following guidance from head office where a team of people are constantly reviewing the current situation and advising us what measures we need to take as a shul and community centre.”
Active community member Ruth Jacobs is a member of the city’s central synagogue.
“So this synagogue has a fair number of members, about 150 members, and there are synagogue services here twice a day, and on the sabbath and holidays,” she told I Am Birmingham.
The synagogue in Edgbaston also runs an in-house deli, where essential food items are stocked.
“We have our own deli here which serves the whole of the community across the West Midlands and beyond, people come from beyond for that.
“Some non-Jewish people like the food so they come for that, some Muslims come for that because of the fact that kosher and halal is have some similarities, and some non-Jewish people really like to buy Jewish food which they can use in a sort of sacramental way. I shop here because I keep a kosher home and I can’t get the things that I need anywhere else.”
Other city venues hosting Hanukkah services include the Birmingham Progressive Synagogue in Roseland Way, led by Rabbi Margaret Jacobi; and the Birmingham Hebrew Congregation at Singers Hill Synagogue in Blucher Street, led by Rabbi Yossi Jacobs.
This year, the Jewish festival of Hanukkah is being celebrated from Sunday 28 November until Monday December 6.
WATCH | Rabbi Margaret Jacobi on celebrating Hanukkah: