This Wednesday, Oakland residents of the Jewish faith will join millions of people around the world in celebrating Hanukkah. The eight-day “festival of light” begins in the third month of the Hebrew calendar on the eve of Kislev 25, which falls either at the end of November or at the beginning of December on the Gregorian calendar. The religious holiday commemorates the triumph of light over darkness.
Rabbi Judah Dardik, of the Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland between the Trestle Glen and Glenview neighborhoods, said most people know the holiday as a celebration of the miracle of a single lamp of oil burning for eight days. But not everyone is aware of what happened just before this, he said.
According to the Jewish faith, more than 21 centuries ago, the Holy Land was ruled by the Syrian-Greeks, who tried to force the Jews to adopt the Hellenistic culture. As part of this, Dardik said, Jews were not permitted to study the Torah, circumcisions could not be performed, and the Sabbath could not be observed. In resistance, a small band of Jews—known as the Maccabees—defeated one of the strongest armies on Earth at that time, pushing the Greeks out, reclaiming the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicating it to the service of God. “The few were able to triumph over the many,” Dardik said.
When the victors went to light the Temple’s menorah—to purify it in a burning ritual—they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had not been contaminated by the Greeks, who had used it for their own spiritual practices. But the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.
Today this is symbolized by Jewish families and congregations lighting menorahs, which are lit with a single flame on the first night of Hanukkah. On the second night, two are lit; this goes on until all eight candles are lit on the last night.
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, of Temple Sinai in Oakland’s Pill Hill area, said the story of the Maccabees’ victory and the eight nights of light are a message of hope, and the idea of keeping the light alive is symbolic. “When things are tough, what do we do to make it better?” she asked.
Hanukkah is a family holiday, and Dardik said most celebrations take place at homes and feature small gift giving and eating foods cooked in oil—such as donuts and latkes (potato pancakes)—to commemorate the lasting oil. The original gift tradition was to give gelt (or gold coins) to children. Today, it’s instead common to give chocolate coin-shaped candy covered in gold wrapping, Mates-Muchin said. Giving other kinds of gifts is “more of an American Jewish tradition” that has caught on around the world, Dardik said.
Temples across the Bay Area will host celebrations for members and some events are open to the public. Beth Jacob is set to have a Hanukkah ice skating party for its member families on Sunday, December 5, Dardik said. Mates-Muchin said Temple Sinai will have a party on Friday night, December 3, for its members. Families bring their own picnic dinners as well as menorahs that they can all light together, she said. Afterward there will be dancing, she said.
Chabad Jewish Center of Oakland & Piedmont is scheduled to have its 5th annual menorah lighting outside of the Piedmont Community Hall on Thursday, December 2. On Sunday, December 5, the center is also putting on “Chanukah Wonderland” at Splash Pad Park, between Grand and Lakeshore Avenues in Oakland, from 2 to 5 p.m. The free event will feature food, games, face painting, and other activities. In Berkeley, Jewish Community Center of the East Bay will have a “Community Festival of Light Celebration” with children’s activities from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Across the bay, Chabad of San Francisco is scheduled to celebrate Bill Graham Menorah Day on Sunday, December 5, a festival that will start with music at 3 p.m. and end with a menorah lighting at 5 p.m.
Hanukkah begins at sundown on Wednesday, December 1. The holiday ends Wednesday, December 9.