Hanukkah celebrations shine a light even during pandemic

Jews plan smaller Hanukkah celebrations amid virus, including in East Texas

EAST TEXAS (KTRE) - At sundown, Jewish people all over the world will be lighting the first candle on the menorah to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah is the ‘Festival of Lights.’ Rabbi Neal Katz at Congregation Beth El in Tyler said Hanukkah tells two stories.

“One is the story of a military victory about 2200 years ago, when a group of fighters called the Maccabees fought against the Syrian Greeks to fight for religious liberties, so that way they had access to their holy space, the temple that once stood in Jerusalem.”

Katz said, though it took a few years, they were successful and rededicated the temple back to use.

“The word dedication in Hebrew is Hanukkah,” Katz said.

The second part to the story is a rabbinic telling of the story. When the Maccabees were in the process of dedicating the temple there was oil that was only thought would last one night, “But it lasted for eight nights,” Katz said. “The miracle of Hanukkah was A, the military victory, B, the oil lasting for eight nights, and C, that the Jewish people continued to live.”

Shirley Watterston, from Nacogdoches, is preparing for Hanukkah as she always does, but this year, the gathering will be different than in years past.

“We would meet here, at least several times a week, when they all lived here, and one of the nights I’d make the potato latkes, the famous potato pancakes that we have at that time, and dinner.”

This year Watterston said it will only be immediate family, and they’ve been taking precautions to prepare for a safe and socially distant visit. However, “Most of the nights I’m going to be lighting the candles here by myself, maybe I’ll play Hanukkah songs, I don’t know.”

Katz said they have not met as a group since the pandemic started, but have taken the challenge as an opportunity.

“It’s created a new level of creativity, so as we enter the Hanukkah season, we were able to produce a Hanukkah Klezmer concert,” Katz said. “That was the big thing, that was this past Monday evening.”

Katz said he will be celebrating at home with his family and they’ve been able to connect with others virtually.

“We actually shared a video as a family with a worldwide organization of people around the planet sharing Hanukkah greetings with each other,” Katz said. “And we’ll just celebrate at home with latkes and special foods, and playing dreidel on our own.”

And even though things look different than this time last year, Watterston said it’s important to her that she continues to celebrate.

“It’s tradition, and it’s something I’ve done my whole life, and I just can’t imagine not observing it, and celebrating it. And it is one of the minor holidays, but it does celebrate freedom of religion and I think in today’s world it’s very important to keep fighting for that. I feel it’s very important to just keep on observing, even if I’m by myself.”

Tomorrow night Congregation Beth El will continue with their virtual Shabbat services and add in some Hanukkah traditions as well.

Hanukkah runs through the evening of Friday December 18th.

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