For most people in Prague and the Czech Republic, last Sunday was the Second Advent Sunday marking the middle of the four-week period before Christmas. In their homes people light the second candle on the advent wreath in anticipation of the coming holiday. But this past Sunday, another lighting ceremony took place in Prague as well.
Sunday was the sixth day of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. A giant candelabra, known as the Menorah, had been erected in Namesti Jana Palacha, or Jan Palach Square, just outside the historic Jewish Quarter of Prague. This was the tenth Menorah lighting ceremony held by the Chabad Centre, one of Prague’s Jewish congregations, and it attracted a crowd of about 300 Jews and gentiles both. Rabbi Manis Barash, the head of the Chabad Centre in Prague, spoke from below the giant candelabra.
“We join thousands of public Chanukah Menorahs which are lit all over the world in celebration of Chanukah. Candles are very important in Judaism. We light Shabbat candles, holiday candles, Yizkor candles, memorial candles. This is all about lighting on the Menorah where everyday we light one more light until all eight lights of the Menorah are lit.”
The eight-day Jewish holiday of Chanukah commemorates the re-dedication of the Jerusalem Temple at the time of the Maccabean revolt in the 2nd century B.C.E. While originally a minor holiday, the 20th century saw it develop into one of the most observed festivals of the Jewish year. It has become such a popular festival especially with children because of the proximity of Christmas.
First deputy mayor of Prague, Rudolf Blažek, represented city hall at the Menorah lighting ceremony, and was given a special privilege at the ceremony, too.
“This year, we are honouring Mr Blazek, the first deputy Mayor of Prague, with kindling the first light of the Menorah. The mayor and his deputies are very good climbers, they are not afraid of heights; that makes us very comfortable living this city. We are in good hands.”
Both men than mounted a lift platform that elevated them, with some guidance of the rabbi, to the top of the 6-metre-tall candelabra. Then Mr Blazek kindled the first light, the audience rejoiced.
Ziv Kulman, the deputy chief mission of Israel to Prague was also at the ceremony. He noted the venue is very relevant for the holiday of Chanuka. The Square bears the name of Jan Palach, a student who immolated himself in 1969 in protest of the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia.
“This year it also the International Human Rights Day. I think it is a very nice coincidence. So we think about Jan Palach, we think about fighters for human rights, wherever they are, and we remember Chanukah. That is exactly of the holiday is about.”
Chanukah starts, as an old joke has it, “the same as always, the 25th of Kislev”, according to the Jewish calendar that is. In the Christian calendar it usually occurs from late November to late December, right in the middle of the holiday frenzy engaged in by non-Jewish people in many parts of the world. For some Jews, living as a minority within a society with such a strong emphasis on Christmas traditions might challenge the practice of their own beliefs. Jana Frankova, a member of the Prague Jewish Community, says that her family used to celebrate Christmas, but no longer does.
“Christmas is something I grew up in, something that I followed as a tradition, not a Christian tradition but just as a holiday when the kids get presents. That was nice and I didn't have anything against it. I knew about Chanukah and I started celebrating Chanukah after I sort of separated from my family that was terrified of our being Jewish and of anyone learning about us being Jewish. I though Chanuka was nice, we actually had something for ourselves in my family. I felt I was following the tradition of my old family and our ancestors.”
I also asked Sam Fleishman, an American residing in Prague, whether the attention to Christmas makes him uncomfortable.
“Quite the opposite – it enriches my Jewish identity. I grew up in New York City where we have a very large Jewish population, and I also lived in Israel for a year. I must say that coming to the Czech Republic has given me a stronger sense of Jewish identity in that for once in my life I can live as a minority which brings forth the passion and the identity.”
Things were very different for the generation that experienced the Holocaust. Having returned from the hell of the Nazi extermination camps, they wished to assimilate so they could never be labelled as Jews again. Celebrations of Chanukah, and of any other Jewish holiday for that matter, were off for the time being. Jana Frankova again.
“It was more difficult because of the older generation, the generation of my parents. They were terrified that lo let the neighbours know who their were, certainly because of their war experience. After the change of the regime in 1989, we suddenly felt free; we could go to the Jewish community to celebrate all the Jewish holidays, Chanukah, Passover, everything. And people suddenly, the majority society, became interested in what we were actually doing there, and why we were doing it. It was kind of a satisfaction.”
There was certainly a lot of joy, and satisfaction, to be seen under the giant Menorah. After the sixth light was lit, children formed circles and started dancing to the lively tones of Chanukah music. After a while they rushed off to the Chabad community centre for some latkas, locally known as bramboraky, with hot cream and apple sauce. Jana Frankova believes such public festivals can make people know their neighbours better.
“Besides pulling down the barriers among the various groups of
population, it also enriches them. And I think it would be pretty good if
Czech kids learnt at school not only about Christmas – because they
should know why Czech kids celebrate Christmas – but also about Jewish
holidays. They should perhaps learn about the holidays of the Vietnamese
kids who go to the same class.“
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