From darkness into light: Jewish Australians say Hanukkah this year comes at the perfect time

With COVID-19 lockdowns in Australia finally lifted, life is gradually returning to normal. For Jewish people in Australia preparing to celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights has come at the right time.

Teri Lichtenstein and her family at home in Melbourne

Teri Lichtenstein and her family at home in Melbourne Source: Scott Cardwell, SBS News

Teri Lichtenstein is among thousands of Jewish people in Australia looking forward to celebrating Hanukkah in a more familiar way this year.

She and her family in Melbourne have endured months of COVID-19 restrictions over the past two years, living in the most locked-down city in the world.

But with the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights starting on Sunday, and with eased restrictions in Melbourne and other parts of Australia, she thinks now is a fitting time to celebrate.

“It does feel like all the darkness is melting away as we’re getting out to celebrate these festivals with the Jewish community,” she told SBS News.

“There were some really dark days, definitely for my kids who haven’t had a full school term since early last year, and missed out on so many milestones and celebrations.”

Teri Lichtenstein and her family playing dreidel
Source: Scott Cardwell, SBS News

The leader of Ms Lichtenstein's congregation is Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann from the Ark Centre in East Hawthorn.

Rabbi Kaltmann is directing the second year of the Pillars of Light Hanukkah festival at Melbourne’s Federation Square, which brings together guest speakers, dignitaries, cultural groups and live performances and more.

He said Hanukkah celebrates the Jewish people's triumph over the Seleucid Empire Greeks who ruled over Judea. When the victorious Jewish forces entered the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it, Rabbi Kaltmann said a second miracle took place.

“When they came there, they could only find a small jug of pure olive oil that had the seal of the high priest. They lit the menorah (lampstand) and miraculously this small jug lasted eight days when it really should’ve lasted one day,” he said.

To commemorate those eight days, Jewish people now light a candle on a hanukkiah - an eight-branched candelabrum - each night during Hanukkah until all branches are lit.

Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann at Melbourne's Federation Square
Source: Supplied

The significance of oil during Hanukkah is also reflected through the traditional foods - such as latkes, deep-fried potato fritters, and sufganiyot, which are jam-filled donuts - eaten during the festival.

Manfred Freinkel owns Grandma Moses Bakery in the Sydney suburb of Kensington, and he's been busy preparing thousands of donuts for Hanukkah celebrations this year.

“The miracle now is that, from a cholesterol point of view, we survive all the oil that we take in with the latkes and the donuts. That’s the miracle of the oil,” he said.

Manfred Freinkel, owner of Grandma Moses bakery
Source: Tys Occhiuzzi, SBS News

The Great Synagogue in Sydney's CBD was among the many religious institutions across Australia forced to close their doors during the pandemic.

Vice president Lauren Ryder said it was the first time in its 143-year history it had to do so.

“It was really a big impact to the community, but as soon as we were able to open the doors again, everyone came back,” she said.

“It’s been fantastic to be able to celebrate with the community as we were before.”

Restrictions in Sydney have been lifted just in time for Hanukkah this year.

Ms Ryder said the synagogue will be holding a catered service on the sixth night of the festival with a choir, as well as a youth Shabbat - the day of rest where Jewish people remember the story of creation - the following morning.

Lauren Ryder lighting the hanukkiah at The Great Synagogue in Sydney
Source: Supplied, Lauren Ryder

Hanukkah dates back over 2,000 years and its message today is just as powerful as ever.

For Ms Lichtenstein, it's a reminder to focus on the miracles in her life.

“To me, light is so symbolic,” she said.

“The darker the room, the greater the light shines. Even in the darkest of times, it’s about looking for the light."

Published 28 November 2021 at 6:51am
By Tys Occhiuzzi
Source: SBS News