Latkes and a giant menorah: Jewish communities around the Czech Republic celebrate Hanukkah

The start of the eight-day Jewish holiday coincided with the end of commemorations for the 80th anniversary of the first Terezín deportation.

 William Nattrass

Written by William Nattrass Published on 29.11.2021 12:30:00 (updated on 29.11.2021) Reading time: 3 minutes

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is one of the most important Jewish religious observances. The holiday involves the lighting of the traditional menorah across a period of eight days, this year from November 28 to December 6.

In Prague, a giant menorah is lit every year in front of the Rudolfinum; this year the lighting ceremony took place around 5:30 pm on Jan Palach Square Sunday. The lighting is organized annually by the Chabad House, a center for the Jewish community in Prague.

Chabad Center is a Jewish organization that is active in many countries and organizes Hannukah events for families.

Elsewhere in Prague Sunday, Chief Rabbi David Peter lit a candle as part of a Menorah created by blacksmith Petr Voříšek, set into railway ties from Bubenské nádraží to commemorate the Terezín deportations.

This year, Hanukkah coincides with commemorative events for the 80th anniversary of the first transport of Czech Jews to the Terezín concentration camp by Nazi occupiers during World War II.

The event was accompanied by music and a speech from Pavel Štingl, the Director of the Monument of Silence project at Bubenské nádraží dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust.

In Plzeň, a unique light installation created by students from the city university’s Faculty of Design and Art will illuminate the city’s Old Synagogue from 16:30 to 20:00 during the eight days of Hanukkah.

Israeli Ambassador to the Czech Republic Anna Azari and Chief Rabbi of the Czech Republic Karol Efraim Sidon visited the city on Sunday to light its first Hanukkah candle.

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“Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday that is celebrated in open, public space. We share it through the joy of light. Other Jewish holidays are celebrated in a closed community; in the family,” explained Barbora Freund, a spokesperson from the Czech Jewish community.

On the final day of the celebrations, students of Plzeň Conservatory, who have been studying traditional Jewish songs and prayers, will give a performance which, according to conductor and composer Václav Benjamin Špíral, “will be a unique orchestral work using a combination of music and light.”

A photo exhibition entitled "Light in the Dark," by local photographer Radovan Kodera will also be on display. Black and white images from the interior of Plzeň's Great Synagogue during its first reconstruction in 1996 will be presented, displaying how sunlight broke through the stained-glass windows then under repair and fell into the center of the building; a literal penetration of light into darkness.

“Similar photos may be possible in a hundred years’ time when the windows are being repaired again,” said Kodera about the exhibition.

The Jewish community throughout the country will be lighting candles for the festival, which celebrates the rededication of the Maccabean Temple in 164 BCE, after a war in which the Maccabees fought to defend their religious beliefs, rather than their own lives. The only remaining jar of oil in the rededicated temple contained enough to burn for a single day; but miraculously, it burned for eight.

A big part of that celebration involves eating traditional sufganiyot jelly doughnuts and latkes, potato pancakes similar to the Czech bramboračky, by the light of the Menorah. Latkes are eaten during Hanukkah to symbolize the ancient lamps that held just enough oil for one day but magically burned for eight.

According to the Federation of Jewish Communities, about 3,000 to 5,000 people are registered members of the Jewish community in the Czech Republic, of which 1,600 live in Prague.

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