Beginning Thursday at sundown, Jewish people around the world will be marking Hanukkah, the festival of lights.
This year, due to COVID-19, many Hanukkah celebrations have been forced to move online with Jewish families seeking alternate creative ways of honouring the holiday.
“We can’t celebrate like we did in the past.. and we’re going to have to celebrate at home but the vibe we’re getting is that everyone is saying ‘we’re not going to settle for less, we’re actually going to make it more beautiful and special and personal for our family,'” said Rabbi Sholom Lezell of Chabad of Danforth-Beaches in Toronto.
He said celebrating Hanukkah amid the pandemic sends an important message.
“When our children see that we’re going through a difficult time, how do we respond to that? and Hanukkah tells us that when there’s a time of darkness, we increase in light,” he added.
Rabbi Lezell’s wife, Devora Lezell, added, “Generally we do a lot of programs for Hanukkah, getting everyone excited and ready, we had to come up with programming that we could do, not together, we have a few zoom events, but our big one is our first ever Hanukkah parade this year everyone will join with their cars nobody will get out of their cars.”
Beyond the festivities, one of the cornerstones of Hanukkah is the lighting of the menorah for eight nights.
“One of the commandments, the mitzvot, is to light the candles in a window to actually share the light and spread the love with your neighbours and I feel like this year that’s even more important than ever,” said Jewish children’s educator Mira Lyonblum.
Her family will be moving the menorah lighting online.
“We have family scattered around the world and we’ve already planned all the different people we’re meeting with,” she said.
Lyonblum listed off a number of virtual events taking place over the course of the holiday.
“There’s online cooking classes, I just saw one that is a Greek Jewish cooking class which I thought looked really interesting, there’s going to be virtual candle lightings and learning sessions online,” she said.
Alysse Rich, director of programming at the Danforth Jewish Circle, said, by now, the Jewish community is becoming accustomed to celebrating holidays with just immediate family, utilizing technology to feel together with loved ones.
“In spring we had Passover, we had Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and so we learned a lot of lessons about how to come together, how to feel community, how to feel family and how to use technology in a way that benefits us,” she said.
Rich pointed out Hanukkah is coming at the ‘perfect time.’
“When things are dark and we need light .. it’s a great metaphor for how things are right now .. It’s a story of miracle and everybody could use a bit of miracle but I also think about it as how to be the light,” said Rich.
Devora Lezell said she noticed this year many more families are getting into the spirit of Hanukkah.
A number of restaurants in Toronto’s east end are offering latkes and sufganiot for purchase this year for the first time.
Small business has taken a major hit during the pandemic, with restaurants suffering greatly.
Crowded House on Queen Street East in Leslieville has been frying up latkes for days in order to keep up with the demand. Ordering is done online and curbside pickup is available.
The Ellery Market & Catering, which opened its doors during the pandemic, is frying and selling traditional jelly donuts for Hanukkah.
Chabad of Danforth-Beaches hosts an annual pop-up shop with dreidels, menorahs, chocolate coins, and other Hanukkah treats. This year, customers can shop online and do curbside pick-up.
“We definitely did not anticipate it, we sold out of certain things right away, like the nicer candles, we didn’t realize how much people would need it this year,” she said.
Her hope is that families make new traditions, while celebrating safely in their own homes.
“I think a lot of people used to rely on their parents, their grandparents, to be like ‘ok, we’ll just come’ and now they can’t do that, they have to make it their own,” she added.
The Lezells are looking forward to Chabad’s first ever Hanukkah parade through Toronto’s east end on Sunday afternoon, to ‘make sure everyone knows it’s Hanukkah and spread the light and the joy of the holiday for everyone.’
“It’s about resilience, it’s about celebrating your Jewish identity and your judaism, your heritage, despite whatever is going on,” said Lezell, adding “the whole theme of Hanukkah is that the Jews fought for their religious freedom and their ability to celebrate so we can’t have a Hanukkah go by without celebrating.”