Hanukkah celebrations shine in a darkish pandemic world

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(CNN) – The celebration of Hanukkah, the festival of lights, is a ray of hope for the Jewish people in an otherwise dark year. Over 1.5 million people have died from Covid-19 and countless events have been canceled. Rising coronavirus numbers have forced many Jews to cancel their traditional celebrations in favor of safer virtual events.

A light in the dark

One of the cornerstones of Hanukkah celebrations is the lighting of the menorah on each of the eight nights of the holiday. The lighting of the menorah reminds Alana Rudkin of Pittsburgh that a little light can dispel a lot of darkness.

“While we cannot gather to celebrate the traditional way this year, I would encourage people to connect with their inner light and create space for self-reflection and growth,” said Rudkin.

Rudkin volunteers with the Pittsburgh Friendship Circle, a Jewish community that works to enrich the lives of youth and adults in the Pittsburgh area. The group usually celebrates Hanukkah in person, but this year its members are postponing the celebrations online, including the menorah lighting.

One of the virtual video lights is Disney-themed, Rudkin said, which featured Disney trivia and music in previous events.

Rudkins family celebrations have also changed due to the pandemic. She usually makes latkes, fried potato pancakes with her family, and then invites friends to share the meal.

“My father would really have us hand-rub potatoes until our fingers bleed,” said Rudkin.

She’s not inviting friends this year, but she still plans to make latkes at home with her parents.

Online family celebrations

Last year, New York-based Lisa Gaetjens threw a party for dozens of family members and friends that was filled with traditional foods like latkes and sufganiyot, which are fried jelly donuts.

Her family has decided to put their party online this year which, according to Gaetjens, will be a minor affair.

“It is very disappointing not to be able to be physically with our families for this vacation, but it is also the best option,” said Gaetjens.

Your mother-in-law coordinates the food that is delivered to each participant’s home so that everyone can enjoy the same meal together.

Virtual celebration plans have not yet been finalized, but Gaetjens knows that they will light the menorah that night. One activity that she expects to be skipped is singing, which has been a popular activity at the party for the past few years.

Video calls often have an echo that makes it difficult to synchronize multiple voices. So “I don’t think we’ll be singing a lot this year,” said Gaetjens.

Honoring traditions

Rabbi-in-residence Avram Mlotek of the Marlene Meyerson Jewish Community Center in New York City also plans to virtually postpone the celebrations. A latke cooking class and menorah lights are already planned online.

Meyerson believes Jewish people are ready to party online because they had to do it early in the pandemic. “When it was Passover and we had to celebrate in isolation, I reminded people that the first Passover was actually celebrated in a kind of quarantine,” said Mlotek.

In the Bible, Mlotek said, the Angel of Death swept over Jewish houses, but because they marked their houses and stayed inside, they were safe.

As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, Mlotek is no stranger to darkness and despair. He hopes to reach a wider audience of current and future generations of Jewish people to virtually celebrate life and Hanukkah this year.

This story was first published on CNN.com: “Hanukkah Celebrations Shine in a Dark Pandemic World.”

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