Do you remember celebrating Hanukkah last year? Chances are you don’t. It was probably very pleasant, with one or two gatherings of family and friends, eating latkes with sour cream or apple sauce and perhaps even an exchange of gifts. You may have lit the menorah every night, or perhaps you missed a night or two inadvertently because you were out at a meeting, or in a restaurant or watching TV so it slipped your mind.
But Hanukkah 2020 will be different and memorable and probably more intentional: it will be the Festival of Zoom. Gone are the face-to-face gatherings and the parties; even the quest to purchase sufganiyot at a Jewish bakery is now off-limits. Like the rest of our life passages in the era of COVID-19, Hanukkah has become virtual. But unlike in the case of some other milestone holidays this past year, I am feeling less depressed and maybe even more blessed. Within a matter of hours, I managed to fill my entire virtual Hanukkah dance card: we now have a candle-lighting scheduled for every night of Hanukkah with different groups of family and friends near and far. No night of Hanukkah will be forgotten in December 2020.
So, why am I not feeling blue as I was just two weeks ago giving up normal Thanksgiving, and why am I not feeling stressed as I was nervously planning our first-ever online seder last spring?
Partly I have (sadly) become used to life in a bubble. There is really no alternative now that we are experiencing—in the words of Dr. Fauci, “a surge upon a surge.” Caution is the order of this season. Also, there is light at the end of the tunnel with the promise of imminent vaccines. Unlike in the earlier phase of the pandemic last spring, it feels fairly likely that Hanukkah next year will return to “normal,” or close enough. Last Passover, on the other hand, uncertainty about the future caused tremendous anxiety with little hope on the horizon.
The recent loss of Thanksgiving as we know it was another story. The essence of this most American of holidays is the ingathering of close family, and the celebration of those special ties mixed with an abundance of ritual foods and table talk. Recreating that experience was well nigh impossible on Zoom, though God knows we tried our best. Although we managed, it was a challenge emotionally.
But the prospect of Zoom Hanukkah is much more promising: it’s a relatively short ritual to light the menorah, sing songs and wish each other good cheer as the days become shorter and shorter. We will be in contact remotely with many more people than we have been during Hanukkahs past—the COVID-19 silver lining.
For those of us blessed with Israeli friends, Hanukkah is a holiday with historic significance that unites Israelis and Diaspora Jews, which can now happen more easily on Zoom. And Hanukkah is, after all, a minor festival. Unlike our Christian neighbors, we do not face the profound sense of loss associated with an upcoming virtual Christmas, which I imagine for many will be at least as sad, if not sadder, than the online Thanksgiving experience. We are usually invited to our neighbors’ annual Christmas party marked by a crowded dining room and the robust singing of carols. Alas, not this year. My mother keeps reminding me how hard it’s going to be for most Americans this holiday season without large Christmas gatherings. She’s right, but as a Jew, while I feel empathy, I also am relieved not to have this problem.
Our Maccabee forbearers could never have imagined themselves being recalled via Zoom. Indeed neither could we a mere year ago.
But none of us will readily forget Hanukkah 2020, a festival in which we will celebrate life and light at the end of the tunnel. Just as in “days of yore,” the human spirit will prevail. Freedom is just around the corner if we can demonstrate the courage to hold on in our bubbles a bit longer.
Hanukkah is the festival of Jewish resilience, marking our survival as a small but determined people. This festival has been celebrated by Jews in recent history in much darker circumstances than our own. This year we will celebrate miracles apart but together, in a Zoom room, inspired by light and hope for a brighter future, which is finally in sight.
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