By Sanya Khetani
It was 5:30 p.m. and a crowd was gathering at Grand Army Plaza outside Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. A cherry picker idled prominently in the center, waiting to swing into action. A few policemen stood around. A casual passerby could have mistaken the scene as a rescue operation – except for the 30-foot tall menorah, the tallest in Brooklyn, which stood waiting to be lit to signal the first day of Hanukkah, the “festival of lights.”
The event was attended by Borough President Marty Markowitz and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was lifted up by the cherry picker to light the first candle on the menorah as the sunlight faded. “We’re not in Texas, but when you do things on a bigger scale, it attracts more attention,” said Rabbi Shimon Hecht from the Chabad of Park Slope, the organizer of the menorah lighting.
While the turnout may not have been as high as Rabbi Hecht had expected owing to the weather, those that did brave the elements were rewarded with hot fried latkes and jelly donuts, foot-tapping music and even a break from the rain. Hasidic Jews in traditional garb mingled with young children in strollers and even some non-Jews who were simply there to partake in the festive spirit.
The celebration of Hanukkah can be traced back to the Maccabean revolt of the 2nd century BCE. The Maccabees, who were Jewish warriors, defeated the Seleucid Empire that ruled Judea and re-dedicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
However, according to the Talmud, they only had enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame for one day, but miraculously, the oil kept the flame burning for eight days, which is how long it took the Maccabees to prepare more oil. This is why Hanukkah is celebrated over eight days. Each day, one candle on the nine-branched menorah is lit, along with an extra light, called shamash to publicize the Maccabees heroics.
The Hanukkah lights were not meant to light the house “from within”, but rather for illuminating the house “without,” so that those who saw it would be reminded of the holiday’s miracle. Accordingly, lamps are set up in places where they are most visible to passers-by.
But while this may be ancient history, many who attended the lighting feel the lighting has significance even today, beyond being just a religious occasion. “ It is important for people to know that Hanukkah is a holiday symbolizing freedom for all, because it celebrates the triumph of the weak and oppressed and gives us strength and encouragement,” said Rabbi Hecht. He said that in these times of constant fear of terrorist attacks, such events helped strengthen one’s faith in the belief that good people always triumphed.
Rabbi Hecht’s sentiments were echoed by Mayor Bloomberg as he handed out gifts to the young children present, “Freedom is fragile and we need to fight for it, just like the Maccabees did,” he said.
Not everyone had such lofty expectations from the lighting. For people like Dini Hecht, the celebration was a way to bring the community together and educate children and adults alike about Hanukkah. “Christmas is a big deal. Everywhere you see big Christmas tree lightings, but you don’t see as much at the Hanukkah menorahs. So I think such events help people understand what it is; they think we’re just lighting candles, but we’re actually celebrating,” said Hecht.
Rivkie believes that organizing big events like this one raises awareness about all religions. Says Rivkie: “That’s why we are all out here!”