Celebrating Hanukkah: A chat about the Jewish Festival of Lights

This evening marks the fourth night of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. The holiday commemorates the reclaiming of the Holy Temple by the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil, but for a lot of people it’s simply known as that cool holiday where you get a present every day for eight nights.

In an effort to provide some perspective, I took the time to speak with Cindy Seni, a fourth year psychology student at York University’s Glendon College. She is co-president of Glendon Hillel, a branch of Hillel International, an organization that creates communities for Jewish students on college campuses. She had also been involved with Aish HaTorah, the United Jewish Appeal (UJA), and GoSephardic. While all of these organizations have unique mandates, they share the ultimate goal of uniting and working with the Jewish community. Cindy kindly took the time to speak with me about the meaning of Hanukkah, some of its main messages, and how one manages to keep a party going for eight days straight.

Cindy Seni, York student and co-president of Glendon Hillel

Most people have a basic understanding of Hanukkah from what they’ve seen on television or in movies: the lighting of the menorah, eating latkes, and kids playing dreidel. What are some other aspects or traditions around Hanukkah that people may not be as familiar with?

Usually the movies don’t capture our holidays perfectly, but I think for Hanukkah they do a pretty good job, probably because it’s such a popular one. Of course, there are religious aspects of Hanukkah like the recitation of prayers that people may not be familiar with, and certain songs and messages. But it is more of a laid back holiday in comparison to others. For a lot of our holidays, we aren’t able to do certain things, like use electricity for example, but Hanukkah isn’t really one of those. It’s much more relaxed in comparison.

As I understand it, Hanukkah is a celebratory holiday marking the reclaiming of the Holy Temple by the Maccabees and the sacred oil that miraculously stayed burning for eight days when there was only enough for one. Aside from the historical narrative of Hanukkah, what are a few key messages or themes of Hanukkah that are promoted during its observance?

One of the main ones is that Hanukkah is about the light and spreading the light. There’s this idea in Judaism that talks about how when you use one flame to light another, the original flame doesn’t lose any part of itself. The same idea applies when you give. When you give to others, you aren’t giving up any part of yourself. So Hanukkah is about giving. In addition, during Hanukkah we have to put our menorah in the window in order for it to be seen because it all comes back to this idea of sharing the light. I think that would be the main theme: spread the light and be a light for other people.

It’s also definitely a holiday about miracles. There is the big one, of course [about the oil lasting eight days]. But it’s a reminder that we should also be looking out for smaller, day-to-day miracles. So one good example is childbirth – the everyday miracle.

And going back to the history of Hanukkah, there is also a message about overcoming obstacles when you think about the story of the Maccabees defeating the mighty Greeks who had them outnumbered. It’s a story about fighting against the odds.

A catchy iteration of the story of Hanukkah by the a cappella group, the Maccabeats, set to Taio Cruz’s Dynamite.

Are there prominent spots in the city of Toronto where Hanukkah celebrations take place such as productions of the story of the Maccabees or a public lighting of a menorah?

I don’t know about any productions, but there are public lightings of the menorah, especially on the first night. There is one in Yonge-Dundas done by Chabad. Chabad is a group of really religious, but very tolerant and open, individuals. Their mission is to do outreach in the Jewish community. They don’t want a Jew anywhere in the world to be left alone. So they’ll go to places like China or the Fiji Islands among others, and they’ll have a Chabad house so that if you’re on vacation or on exchange and you want to keep kosher, or maintain a connection to the Jewish community, or make Shabbat, they are there to provide that. So during Hanukkah if you’re a student and you’re living away from home and you want to light the candles but you don’t know how, they’ll have a public one available. There was a menorah recently lit in Paris, in front of the Eiffel Tower. It was a message to share the light and spread the light.

So eight days! That’s a lot of celebrating and a lot of presents. I imagine that work and school make it difficult for people to dedicate the same amount of time and energy to all eight days. How do families and individuals typically prepare for Hanukkah, and are there particular days that are celebrated more prominently than others?

We’re used to it. We have a lot of holidays. Traditionally, this holiday is mainly about lighting the menorah. Over the years people have added things like making latkes and sufganiyot. People usually do all of that on the first night. That’s the night when all the fun happens, and you’re baking and opening presents. If you have the strength, you do it again in the middle of the week and maybe during the last few days. But it’s mostly about lighting the candles each night.

So the whole “getting gifts for eight nights” isn’t that integral to the holiday?

Yeah, the giving of the gifts just developed as a cultural thing. It’s not really religious.

Do you have any recommendations on Jewish restaurants, museums, or entertainment in the city?

There is an official museum in New York, but in terms of Toronto one can visit the UJA. On their website there is a calendar that compiles all these events from different organizations. It doesn’t matter if those organizations are affiliated with them or not; they still include them. They also have a mini-museum at their Sherman campus on Bathurst. That’s a good place to start.

Thank you for your time and happy Hanukkah!

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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