Cincinnati area synagogues and Jewish institutions celebrated Chanukah 5781, which ran from nightfall on Thursday, Dec. 8 through sundown on Friday, Dec. 18, with a variety of events for every age and interest, adapted for the current pandemic. The staff of The American Israelite spread out across town to cover as many of those events as possible.
Public menorah lightings and events
On Tuesday morning, Dec. 8, Mayor John Cranley hosted his annual pre-Chanukah party in his office at city hall. Rabbi Gershon Avtzon demonstrated the lighting of the menorah and shared lessons about the holiday. This year’s event was smaller than in the past in order to observe Covid-19 restrictions on indoor gatherings.
The five senses of Chanukah — taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing — provided the theme of “Ride into Chanukah, an event held in the Adath Israelite Congregation parking lot on the first evening of Chanukah, Thursday Dec. 10. For taste, there was a Mixology class for those 21 and older; this included not only adult drinks but latkes, sugfaniyot and edible dreidels. There was Menorah making for the sense of touch. Smell was candle making and cookie baking. The sense of sight included making cards, lights and joining the Chanukah candle lighting either in person in the parking lot or on zoom. Finally the sense of hearing was the MattyRoxx concert for children scheduled four days later, a Chanukah song Mad Libs and a suggested Spotyify Playlist.
The weather was perfect and the synagogue was decorated with festive lights, a giant blow-up bear named The Rabbi, and an electric Chanukah menorah. Every drive-thru participant received a gift bag of special Chanukah treats and gifts. The line reached far around the parking lot of Adath Israel with a crowd excited to participate in this creative Chanukah program.
Northern Hills Synagogue hosted two public menorah lightings, the first on Thursday, Dec. 10 at Newport on the Levee, led by congregants Julie and Steve Pentelnik and the second on Sunday, Dec. 13 at the Zoo, led by Rabbi Noah Ferro. Singing, lighting the menorah and a bit of learning about the holiday were featured at each event: at Newport, the story of the Maccabees was retold with excerpts read from the Book of Maccabees, and at the Zoo the phrases “Nes gadol haya sham/po” (A great miracle happened there/here) and the letters on a dreidel were discussed. At the Zoo, the songs included not only English and Hebrew, but also the Yiddish verses of “O Chanukah, o Chanukah”. Rabbi Ferro lit a small menorah with the blessings since the Zoo’s large menorah in the Garden of Peace already had four candles.
To spread the joy of Chanukah, Temple Sholom sent a large Menorah mounted on the bed of a pickup truck out into the community last week. The hand-crafted Chanukiah, with its electric lights glowing atop candles made of metal tubes pointing skyward, was created by the temple Brotherhood.
On Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, the Mobile Menorah stopped at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Clifton, MadCap Educational Center on Harrison Avenue, the Carnegie Theatre on Scott Boulevard in Covington and the Skytop Pavilion on Beechmont Avenue. On Tuesday Dec. 15, 2020, the nine branch candelabrum made its way to The Seasons Retirement Community in Kenwood, Cedar Village Retirement Community in Mason and then a final stop back home at Temple Sholom in Blue Ash.
Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp, spiritual leader of Temple Sholom, and the temple’s Associate Rabbi, Simon Stratford accompanied the Mobile Menorah, along with members of the congregation, including individuals and several families. On Tuesday evening, the rabbis and congregants sang traditional Chanukah songs at each stop, as they bundled themselves against the cold and wore masks to guard against Covid-19.
For children and the young at heart
Rabbi Simon Stratford at Temple Sholom hosted a virtual Havdalah and Magic Show on Saturday night, Dec. 12, featuring magician and mentalist (and rabbinic student) Danny Dubin. Dubin interspersed a retelling of the story of Chanukah among his magic tricks, several of which had been adapted for the Chanukah theme — a paper that was torn up and reassembled had a picture of a menorah on it, for example, and the magic word for the evening was “Happy Chanukah.” The young audience were eager participants in the interactive parts of the show, despite the virtual format, and the final sequence snuck in a bit more learning with a review of the history of the Maccabees on an unfolding story book that (“Happy Chanukah”!) produced a three dimensional lit electric menorah.
With an upbeat attitude and energy, Matty Roxx brought Chanukah music fun to Adath Israel youngsters on Sunday evening, Dec. 13. With an array of songs, whether food-related, Chanukah versions of popular songs, and more, Matty Roxx entertained children despite the experience mediated on video chat.
With an introduction and conclusion by Adath Israel’s director of engagement and programming, Meg Wells, Matty Roxx’ roughly half-hour set was energetic and engaging, despite the participants being muted. Matty Roxx, the stage name for Cincinnati native Matt Krass, engaged with the participants, including Chanukah-related questions while in gallery view periodically throughout his performance.
Evidently targeting younger children, The American Israelite’s reporter, Rabbi Drew Kaplan, reports that his four-and-a-half year old and seven-year old children were greatly entertained and dancing along with the music. With Chanukah-themed renditions of “Let It Go” from Frozen and a Taylor Swift song, along with a Maccabeats song, Matty Roxx also sang a slew of Hanukah-food related songs, touching on latkes, donuts (sufganiyot), and chocolate gelt, and other songs.
With roughly thirty virtual participants, the event was an entertaining and fun way to celebrate Chanukah on a Sunday evening for families with young children.
On Wednesday evening, Dec.16, 2020, for the 7th night of Chanukah Rockwern Academy hosted Rockwern Chanukah Palooza. The event, geared toward families with children eight and younger, featured the famed Canadian Jewish singers and performers, Judy and David. Rockwern offered the event in partnership with seven Cincinnati congregations from all denominations: Adath Israel Congregation, Northern Hills Synagogue, Rockdale Temple, Sha’arei Torah, Temple Sholom, Valley Temple and Wise Temple. There were special guest visits from local rabbis, teachers and staff from both Rockwern and the partnership congregations. Fun was had by all with families zooming with relatives near and far celebrating the holiday of redemption and light.
All of the programs included some learning — about the story of the Maccabees, the blessings, traditional (and newer) songs, or other customs of the holiday, but some programs were focused on the learning.
Rabbi Lewis Kamrass presented the sources for the story of the Maccabees in a program organized by the Women of Wise Sisterhood on Monday, Dec. 14, demonstrating how the emphasis and meanings derived from this story changed over time. After eliciting a “standard” version of the story from the participants, Rabbi Kamrass began by reading excerpts from the First Book of Maccabees (late second century BCE), pointing out both what that version of the story includes — such as a rededication of the Temple that lasted eight days — and what it does not — the oil, for example. He then traced the first mentions of familiar aspects of the holiday or the Maccabee story, analyzing the interests and emphases of the authors of each text: the word “Chanukah” (“dedicate” — the Megillat Taanit introduces); the title “Festival of Lights” (Flavius Josephus, in the “Jewish Antiquities”); the miracle of the holy oil (Talmud Shabbat in the Gemara, around 500 CE). Rabbi Kamrass concluded by discussing the most recent reframing of the holiday, in the Diaspora in America, under the influences of the retail industry and of the holiday practices of the majority culture; the dilemmas of assimilation vs. rejection of assimilation have remained central to Chanukah.
Golf Manor Synagogue held a series of classes over Chanukah in partnership with Machon Meir, a Zionist Yeshiva in Jerusalem that was founded shortly after the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
The class on Monday, Dec. 14, was with Rabbi Menachem Weinberg who has previously taught at a number of yeshivot including Yeshivat Har Etzion and Pardes. He was a director of the Beit Midrash program at Hebrew University for overseas student and was a community rabbi for 10 years in Alon.
Rabbi Menachem Weinberg talked about achieving joy (an internal state) and happiness (the external manifestation). Rav Kook, a founder of religious Zionism and first Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, described a number of methods, including staring sadness in face and especially contemplating how one views oneself. He focused on the dictum from Ethics of our fathers “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).”
Rabbi Weinberg quoted Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks that there are 600,000 letters in Torah and 600,000 leaving Egypt, so that each Jew has a letter in the Torah. All letters are needed for a kosher Torah and all are important. The lesson drawn from this is to see ourselves as part of a greater team and to become whole as part of the whole.
On Wednesday night, Dec. 16, Rabbi Boruch Leff spoke. He was formerly the Assistant Principal at RITTS Girls High School in Cincinnati and is now the Menahel (Principal) at Yeshiva Toras Halev in Baltimore. He spoke about the notion in kabbalah that extols staring at the lights of the candles on Chanukah; this was his starting point for discussing the hidden light that is in this world. It existed for all to see for the thirty-six hours after Adam and Eve were created until the end of the first Shabbat in the Garden of Eden and those hours correspond to the thirty-six candles that we light on Chanukah.
His main point was that living with the hidden light is living with mindfulness. Staring at the lights can help us achieve an awareness of the moment. It exists as well with the weekly lighting of Shabbat candles. Man is the only being that keeps time. The thought of eternity in the next world is frightening, one should see the Garden of Eden as being beyond time.
Chanukah is eight days. The first seven days correspond to our days of the week. It is that last day, the eighth day, that is beyond time; it is the real Chanukah.
The Cincinnati Jewish community celebrated Chanukah 5781 joyfully, inventively and safely, with programming for all ages in a variety of venues, public and virtual. The staff of The American Israelite thank all the institutions that welcomed us to their celebrations. If we were not able to include your synagogue’s events in our rounds, please send us photographs at https://www.americanisraelite.com/site/forms/submit_photos/; we would love to include them in a photo spread. Next year in person!