Czech Jews celebrae Chanukah - and being able to celebrate

Menorah on Jan Palach Square, photo: CTK

Chanukah is the eight-day Jewish festival which falls at the end of November or the beginning of December every year. In the Czehc Republic, along with other religious holidays, Chanukah has become a lot more visible since the fall of communism. Many Czech Jews are today happy to be able to enjoy their traditional holidays publicly for the first time in many decades.

Menorah on Jan Palach Square, photo: CTK
Sunday was the sixth day of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. A giant candelabra, known as the Menorah, had been erected in Namesti Jana Palacha, or Jan Palach Square, just outside the historic Jewish Quarter of Prague. This was the tenth Menorah lighting ceremony held by the Chabad Centre, one of Prague’s Jewish congregations, and it attracted a crowd of about 300 Jews and gentiles both. Rabbi Manis Barash, the head of the Chabad Centre in Prague, spoke from below the giant candelabra.

Rabbi Manis Barash, photo: author
“We join thousands of public Chanukah Menorahs which are lit all over the world in celebration of Chanukah. Candles are very important in Judaism. We light Shabbat candles, holiday candles, Yizkor candles, memorial candles. This is all about lighting on the Menorah where everyday we light one more light until all eight lights of the Menorah are lit.”

Chanukah starts, as an old joke has it, “the same as always, the 25th of Kislev”, according to the Jewish calendar that is. In the Christian calendar it usually occurs from late November to late December, right in the middle of the holiday frenzy engaged in by non-Jewish people in many parts of the world. For some Jews, living as a minority within a society with such a strong emphasis on Christmas traditions might challenge the practice of their own beliefs. Jana Frankova, a member of the Prague Jewish Community, says that her family used to celebrate Christmas, but no longer does.

“Christmas is something I grew up in, something that I followed as a tradition, not a Christian tradition but just as a holiday when the kids get presents. That was nice and I didn't have anything against it. I knew about Chanukah and I started celebrating Chanukah after I sort of separated from my family that was terrified of our being Jewish and of anyone learning about us being Jewish. I though Chanuka was nice, we actually had something for ourselves in my family. I felt I was following the tradition of my old family and our ancestors.”

Menorah lighting ceremony, photo: author
I also asked Sam Fleishman, an American residing in Prague, whether the attention to Christmas makes him uncomfortable.

“Quite the opposite – it enriches my Jewish identity. I grew up in New York City where we have a very large Jewish population, and I also lived in Israel for a year. I must say that coming to the Czech Republic has given me a stronger sense of Jewish identity in that for once in my life I can live as a minority which brings forth the passion and the identity.”

Photo: CTK
Things were very different for the generation that experienced the Holocaust. Having returned from the hell of the Nazi extermination camps, they wished to assimilate so they could never be labelled as Jews again. Celebrations of Chanukah, and of any other Jewish holiday for that matter, were off for the time being. Jana Frankova again.

“It was more difficult because of the older generation, the generation of my parents. They were terrified that lo let the neighbours know who their were, certainly because of their war experience. After the change of the regime in 1989, we suddenly felt free; we could go to the Jewish community to celebrate all the Jewish holidays, Chanukah, Passover, everything. And people suddenly, the majority society, became interested in what we were actually doing there, and why we were doing it. It was kind of a satisfaction.”