PHOTO: In this undated photo, Chabad of Oregon Rabbi Moshe Wilhelm lights the organization's chanukiah, often known as a menorah, at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland. (Jewish Review file)
By ROCKNE ROLL
The Jewish Review
With the physical darkness of winter and the psychological darkness of war and rising antisemitism, it’s hard to remember a year where the light of Chanukah would be more welcome.
Chanukah, running from Dec. 7-15 this year, marks the rededication of the Second Temple – the holiday’s name is Hebrew for “dedication” - and the miracle of one day’s worth of consecrated lamp oil lasting eight days. A key observance of the season remembers this miracle with the lighting and display of a nine-candled menorah called a chanukiah. These are typically tabletop size, but can be much larger.
Chabad owns a 12-foot menorah that has been displayed each Chanukah in downtown Portland, typically at Pioneer Courthouse Square, for 40 years. This year is no different, but Rabbi Motti Wilhelm thinks it’s especially important.
“We need more light than ever,” he said.
To that end, all are invited to join him at 5 pm on Dec. 7, the first night of Chanukah, at Pioneer Courthouse Square to light the first candles. The goal is to light up downtown with 1,800 candles.
“We want to publicly share the miracle and share their message that light is stronger than darkness
“We know that there is the growing need for vigilance, the growing need to be situationally aware, but we also believe that at this time it’s more important than ever that we not go into hiding and we not stop sharing our message,” he said.
Rabbi Wilhelm recalled the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, z”l.
“Our master tells us that a little light sheds a lot of darkness,” Rabbi Wilhelm said. “We are attempting to not only have a little light, but we want to have a lot of light, so we’re going to shed a lot a lot of darkness.”
You can RSVP for the downtown menorah lighting at tinyurl.com/ChabadChanukah1800.
There are other – less flammable- ways to share one’s festive spirit and Jewish pride this season.
Rabbi Eve Posen, associate rabbi of Congregation Neveh Shalom, has amassed a collection of Chanukah-themed clothing – enough for a Chanukah outfit each day of the festival without repetition.
“You’re supposed to put the menorah, the chanukiah, in the window, you’re supposed to say, ‘Look at this,’” Rabbi Posen explained. “But we don’t have a window, we can’t put one in in our house, so the next best thing was to wear the clothing.”
Rabbi Posen’s collection started not with Chanukah, but with a matzo-patterned dress from a store called Midrash Manicures, founded by her friend Rabbi Yael Buechler. Then there was a dreidel-patterned dress, and things took off from there.
“I didn’t intend to have a collection, but it happened that as Chanukah merchandise has become popular over the years, I’ve been fully sucked in,” she said.
This includes Chanukah pajamas – in matching styles for her family – that come from either Midrash Manicures or Portland pajama purveyor Hanna Anderson. While the matching is fun, Rabbi Posen also sees a deeper symbolism in the idea of pajamas that celebrate this holiday. Unlike the High Holy Days, which are typically spent in a synagogue, Chanukah is observed at home, with family, typically at night; conditions which are made for pajamas.
“It’s about being in the home and like cozying up with family and being present with family for the holiday,” she said. “So having Hanukkah pajamas is also about that moment of bringing light in, being present with each other in that way.”
She also noted that pajamas are an ideal garment for latke consumption thanks to elastic waistbands and the ease with which the smell of frier oil washes out of them.
But much like the public display of candles, Chanukah themed garb is a way to proudly proclaim Judaism -very much the spirit of the season.
“If you look at the Chanukah story as a whole, it really is a story about having Jewish pride,” Rabbi Posen said. “The Maccabees, they were the ones that said, “We want to keep being Jewish. I know that you have shopping malls and gyms, Greek culture, that’s great. But this is also important to us.”
Now that oil is used less for illumination and more for cooking, the modern miracle of Chanukah is, to many, made of potatoes.
The latke, a fried potato pancake that originated amongst Ashkenazi Jewish populations in eastern and central Europe, has become something akin to the official food of Chanukah, with the frying oil standing in for the oil of the ancient menorah.
“Beyond the symbolism of the oil, fried food in the wintertime is just comforting,” Rabbi Posen noted.
Portland chef, culinary instructor and food writer Sonya Sanford’s parents emigrated from Ukraine in the 1970s – the same part of the world that brought us the latke. Her first cookbook, “Braids: Recipes from my Pacific Northwest Jewish kitchen,” debuts late this month.
“My platonic ideal of a latke is something that is not too thick and not too thin,” she explained, “definitely not a hockey puck like you sometimes find in restaurants, that is very crisp and golden brown on the outside and very soft and tender on the inside.”
Traditionally, latkes are served with applesauce or sour cream. Sanford, a self-proclaimed maximalist in this area, prefers both. She also explains there are a much broader range of topping choices available.
“A chutney is good on a latke. Ketchup is good on a latke, just like a hash brown, “ she said. “A great aioli could be good on a latke. Whatever you like on a fried potato could fit on a latke.”
But there’s more to the Chanukah than fried potatoes – Sephardic communities around the world have centered their celebrations on various kinds of donuts, some stuffed with delicious fillings. Sanford, who admitted she gets burned out on latkes after a point, said that there are plenty of oil-themed foods that are in keeping with the season that never go near the fryer. She is particularly fond of a one-bowl olive oil cake recipe as well as her grandmother’s oil marinated roasted peppers.
“I also think it’s a really good time to maybe buy a couple different oils, good quality, extra virgin olive oils, and you could set up a little tasting with different kinds of bread or things to dip in the oil,” she said. “There’re so many ways in the culinary world that you can celebrate the miracle of oil.”
Sanford described one of her most meaningful Chanukah experiences was quite recently in 2020, where a friend invited a group to an outdoor, Covid-safe celebration on Sauvie Island north of Portland.
“It was the first Chanukah where we couldn’t gather with family,” she said. “We lit menorahs outside in the night on the beach and sang songs, and it was such a touching and beautiful way to be connected to the water and the air and the land here and celebrating the bringing in light in the darkest time of the year in a very dark time.”
With dangers abounding at home and abroad, this Chanukah feels darker than most. But its these moments when light is needed the most.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Portland is encouraging everyone to "Shine the Light" by lighting and displaying chanukiahs this year to add more light, joy, and Jewish pride to the world.
"In these challenging times, every bit of light counts," Federation President and CEO Marc Blattner said. "We're counting on every family to help our community shine our light together this Chanukah."
Find more Chanukah resources at jewishportland.org/ourcommunity/chanukahresources23.