Small community, big celebration 

The lighting of the Grand Parade menorah is a rite of the season in Halifax. Photo: HRM

Often overshadowed by that other December holiday, Hanukkah celebrations are vibrant in Halifax 

Known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah may have a bit more glitz and glamour these days, but this is part of adapting the holiday to fit its location while retaining its roots. 

“Traditionally, everybody lights candles: one candle on the first day, two on the second, three on the fourth, and so on until the menorah is filled with eight, so that’s traditionally pretty much the same,” says Aviva Rubin-Schneider, office manager of the Atlantic Jewish Council

For Haligonians, the holiday has grown to include things like putting up white and blue lights, much like those celebrating Christmas. The city also hosts a giant menorah lighting at Grand Parade. Chabad-Lubavitch of the Maritimes, an organization supporting the Jewish community with events and programs, started the tradition in 1995. 

The story of Hanukkah (or Chanukah) dates to 174 BC when the Seleucid Empire ruled the Jewish people and wanted them to follow Greek customs and religion. Soldiers attacked Jewish sites when they refused. Jewish fighters finally took back one of the temples, but they only had enough oil to light their sacred fire for a day — or so they thought. The fire lasted eight days, which is where the eight days of Hanukkah comes from. 

The Jewish community here is almost as old as Halifax itself. The first Jewish settlers arrived in spring 1750, the year after the British founded the city. By 1752, there was a tiny Jewish community of about 30. History doesn’t record how they celebrated that first Hanukkah, but it would have been small and private. 

The Halifax Explosion heavily damaged the Starr Street synagogue (shown here in the 1960s). Photo: Roy Levin/HRM Archives

“As to how people incorporate Hanukkah into their life, it is really a personal, family matter,” says Rubin-Schneider. “We live in the diaspora, in a small Jewish community, and people here will adapt to what is available to them.” 

As of the 2016 census, 1,485 Jews called Halifax home, a tiny community compared with larger populations like Toronto, which is just under 60,000. 

Rubin-Schneider says larger-scale events in smaller communities help educate those who don’t celebrate. 

“It’s not that they don’t know there’s other holidays, it’s that they sometimes don’t know anything about them,” she says. “So, it brings up the question of how do we educate the public? Here we are showing that it’s not just Christmas time. Even though 99.9 per cent of the city is decorated in Christmas, that 0.1 per cent has a menorah up and recognition is there and awareness and that’s a wonderful thing to have.” 

Outside of giant menorah lightings and lights, Hanukkah in Halifax retains the tradition of togetherness with in-home events, such as latke parties, and community events at the synagogue. 

“In their homes, people may have a family Hanukkah party; they may have traditional foods or a nice dinner … things that are made in oil or sweets to represent the miracle,” says Rubin-Schneider. 

And while some people give a gift per day over the eight-day period, others go a different route. She says that in Israel, for example, the focus isn’t on gifts. “Some people will give a book every day, or they’ll give some money because that’s what it’s about: the coins, the games, and the dreidels,” says Rubin-Schneider. “That’s kind of the teaching part of Hanukkah.” 

Christmas might have influenced a few changes. “I think some people just adapt to what’s going on around them and so their kids don’t feel left out when gifts started to be given, but it really is a personal, family thing.” 

Hanukkah’s dates are tied to the lunar calendar. It doesn’t always align with Christmas (as it does this year). “Kids in Jewish families will feel like they have a holiday around the same time as 90 per cent of their friends,” Rubin-Schneider says. 

Hanukkah 2022 starts on Dec. 18 and ends at sunset on Dec. 26. 

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