Hanukkah in London with Ruth Shlovsky

The beginning of December this year corresponds with the start of Hanukkah. I have asked our docent Ruth to introduce us to the origins of this festival, the celebrations involved and- considering Ruth’s background- the musical rituals linked to this holiday.

The Jewish festival of Chanukah – the festival of lights – is celebrated for 8 days commencing on the eve of the 25 of the Hebrew month of Kislev which this year coincides with December 1, 2010.

Coming in the dead of winter, Chanukah celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over contamination, of spirituality over materialism, and in the Jewish world, it is also a very important time to give charity to the poor.

Over 2100 years ago, the Land of Israel was dominated by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who sought to convert the people of Israel. Against all odds, a small band of faithful Jews (led by a man named Judea Maccabee and his sons) defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of God.

Hoping to light the Temple’s holy lantern (the “menorah”), they found only a single measure of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks; miraculously, this one-day supply burned for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.

To commemorate and publicize these miracles, the sages instituted the festival of Chanukah. At the heart of the festival is the nightly menorah lighting: a single flame on the first night, two on the second evening, and so on till the eighth night of Chanukah, when all eight lights are kindled.

A special Chanukah prayer Al HaNissim ( “Of the Miracles”) offers praise and thanksgiving to God for “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few… the wicked into the hands of the righteous.

Chanukah customs include eating foods fried in oil — latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (doughnuts); playing with the dreidel (a spinning top on which are inscribed the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hei and shin, an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, (“a great miracle happened there”); and the giving of Chanukah gelt; gifts of money, to children. This custom inspires children to make charity a central part of their lives.

The “Menorah” (The holy lantern)

Menorah lighting was instituted in order to announce to the entire world that God makes miracles for those who stand up for truth and justice. The Chanukah lights can either be candle flames or oil-fuelled. The eight candles of the menorah must be arranged in a straight, even line. The candles should burn for at least 30 minutes on weeknights, and up to one-and-a-half hours on Friday evening.

The Shamash – the “attendant” candle that is used to kindle the other lights – sits a bit higher or lower than the other candles, on the ninth branch of the menorah. Men and women alike are obligated to participate in the menorah lighting.

You can set up the menorah in a central doorway or on a windowsill facing the street.

On Friday night the menorah is lit before sunset, and on Saturday night it is lit after nightfall.
The story of Chanukah inspired many painters and composers throughout the centuries. Probably one of the most famous works written about the Maccabees and their triumphs over the Greeks is G.F Handel’s oratorio “Judeas Maccabeus”. The following words are from the famous chorus : “See the conqu’ring hero comes” which comes towards the end of the oratorio and celebrated the victory of Judeas over his enemies.

“See, the conqu’ring hero comes”

See, the conqu’ring hero comes!
Sound the trumpets, beat the drums.
Sports prepare, the laurel bring,
Songs of triumph to him sing.
See the godlike youth advance!
Breathe the flutes, and lead the dance;
Myrtle wreaths, and roses twine,
To deck the hero’s brow divine.
See, the conqu’ring hero comes!
Sound the trumpets, beat the drums.
Sports prepare, the laurel bring,
Songs of triumph to him sing.
See, the conqu’ring hero comes!
Sound the trumpets, beat the drums.
You can listen to this beautiful piece of music here.

To mark the Jewish festival of Chanukah, Trafalgar Square will be hosting an event on Monday 6 of December from around 6pm as part of the celebrations.

The event will begin with the lighting of a giant menorah, followed by a delicious feast that will include traditional potato latkes, doughnuts and chocolate gelt (coins).

During the Hanukkah event at Trafalgar Square there will be some traditional musical performances, from Yiddish singer Shlomo Gertner and others.

Born in London, Ruth has also lived in Israel for many years. She trained at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem, where she studied Voice and Piano and received a degree in performance in both instruments.
She leads our Jewish London walk.