Rabbi Gabriel Botnick on what makes this time of year special
Every holiday contains an element of nostalgia, memories of past celebrations with family, friends and community. But there’s something truly special about the memories associated with Chanukah, and there are a number of reasons why this may be.
First, there’s just something cosy about wintertime and Chanukah is the only holiday we celebrate during this season. Almost everyone loves cuddling up in a warm jumper with a piping hot cup of tea or cocoa. There’s also the mystical feeling of being in a darkened room illuminated by the warm glow of candles.
And as children, it’s a rare treat to stay up past dark, with the added excitement and anticipation of exchanging gifts and the joy of spinning the dreidel (sevivon in Hebrew) with your loved ones.
And the food! Nothing beats the aroma and flavour of deliciously crisp latkes (levavot). But then there are also the doughnuts (sufganiyot) and the chocolate gelt.
In short, while Chanukah itself might be a rather minor holiday, it has understandably come to occupy a significant place in our collective conscience because of all the wonderful memories associated with it. And each year offers a chance to create new memories and establish new traditions.
Last year I had my first experience of Belsize’s Chanukah Market. I had no idea what to expect and couldn’t believe how truly wonderful it was. The food! The music! The food! The knickknacks! Have I mentioned the food?! As wonderful as the event was, I realised that what was truly special about it was the nostalgia that was on offer: sweets and treats from the continent, a love of which has been passed down for generations; familiar festive songs; affordable gifts that can bring a bit of joy to our loved ones; and most importantly, the warm embrace of community.
Judaism is a religion deeply rooted in memory – sometimes those memories are more theoretical and academic, other times they’re more visceral. What makes Chanukah special is not so much a deeply religious experience, but rather those deeply held memories that have come to define so much of who we are: a people that values family, friends, tradition, and – of course – food!