Home Community and Culture Preserving Light: Jewish Angelenos celebrate Hanukkah amid the pandemic

Preserving Light: Jewish Angelenos celebrate Hanukkah amid the pandemic

Hanukkah begins the evening of December 10 and lasts through the 18th.

This year, Hanukkah begins the evening of December 10 and ends the evening of December 18. Despite it being a rather minor holiday in the Hebrew calendar (especially among the likes of the High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement), the holiday will bring much needed consistency to the year.

It’s been almost nine months since the coronavirus was declared a national emergency and the country went on lockdown. Throughout this time, the reaction to and rate of COVID-19  cases in each state has been fluctuating. The news is fraught with constant warnings of the virus and stories about various vaccine trials and their respective efficacies. 

Everyone has had to adapt in the ways they connect to others, especially during the holidays. However, in spite of all the changes and confusion this year, Hanukkah will be one of the few traditions that won’t look much different during this pandemic, as it doesn’t usually entail a huge family gathering or party. 

Meet the Wassermans

Ben and Fern Wasserman are a Jewish couple that have been married for over 60 years. Fern Wasserman was born and raised in El Monte. Ben Wasserman came to Los Angeles to attend a trade school after he left his hometown of Detroit to serve in the U.S. army for two years. They married after just 11 days of knowing each other and have resided in Los Angeles County ever since. 

For Fern, who was raised in a “very religious” family, Hanukkah brings up memories of togetherness. Growing up in El Monte, she didn’t have a strong Jewish community to hold on to, so she looked forward to spending the holidays with her family.

“In El Monte, there weren’t many Jewish people and so the few Jewish kids stuck together a little bit, but I came from a large family,” Fern said. “When it came to the holidays, it was very important for [my family] to be together and celebrate the more important ones like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.”

The Wassermans have a big family themselves with three sons and nine grandkids. They  usually try to have some of them over during the holidays, but this year, they’ll have to celebrate Hanukkah a bit differently. They can’t have as many people over and won’t be eating the traditional food, like latkes (potato pancakes served with applesauce and sour cream) and sufganiyot (jelly-filled donuts), as they don’t want anyone to take their masks off.

Latkes, yum!

However, despite a modified, socially-distant celebration, the Wassermans will celebrate and honor the traditions they grew up with, including lighting the menorah and reciting prayers with their three youngest grandchildren.

“If you don’t continue with traditions, you lose something,” Fern  said. “You lose a certain closeness to your culture and then—especially with the younger kids—the culture isn’t meaningful anymore unless they know about the holidays and hear the prayers and poems.”

Honoring tradition through food

Food is another aspect of Jewish culture that manifests its traditions and beliefs. For example, during Hanukkah, Jewish people celebrate the miracle of oil. 

According to the story of Hanukkah, the Maccabees (Jewish rebel soldiers) used oil when they were rededicating the temple after reclaiming Jerusalem. They had to light the menorah during this rededication and while there was only enough oil to keep the candles burning for one day, the flames continued to burn for eight nights, leaving the soldiers with enough time to replenish the supply. It’s because of this story that there’s a tradition to eat fried foods during Hanukkah, the two most popular ones being the aforementioned latkes and sufganiyot.

Several bakeries in the city are getting ready for Hanukkah with menorah and dreidel-shaped cookies, dusted in multicolored sprinkles, and a variety of delicately designed sufganiyot.

Tasty confections: Sufganiyot.

Among them are Bibi’s Bakery and Café, which specializes in Jewish and Middle Eastern foods, and Fred’s Bakery & Deli, which specializes in Jewish and Eastern European foods. Both are creating a variety of confections for Hanukkah, as they do for every Jewish holiday.

Avi Kadmon, the owner of Fred’s Bakery & Deli, emphasizes the ways in which Jewish people are modifying their celebrations at this time. 

“We’re trying to hold on to the happiness of the holiday even though we’re restricted to our homes or to a small group of people,” Kadmon said. “We’re holding on to the traditions and celebrating as much as we can right now.”

Dan Messinger, the owner of Bibi’s Bakery and Café, speaks proudly of the ways he and the bakery’s workers are able to maintain a sense of normalcy and keep some parts of Hanukkah celebrations alive with their food.

“It’s a pleasure to be part of a community and family traditions” Messinger said. “If your holiday tradition is normally involving a big party, and a part of that party is having those sufganiyot doughnuts, even if the party isn’t happening, you still have the doughnuts and can still feel that connection.”

Preserving heritage

Similarly, Glendale resident Laurie Aronovsky’s Hanukkah celebration won’t be thrown off by COVID-19 

Aronovsky and her husband came to discover that their two kids were half of the Jewish population at their school and that everything about the curriculum was centralized around Christmas and Christianity. The realization prompted their decision to join a temple, educate their kids and do more to emphasize the holidays at home instead. 

“It’s important to understand your own traditions just to feel a sense of connection,” Aronovsky said.  

Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel.

As their kids grew up and left for college, the minor holiday became less and less important in the Aronovsky family, as did traditions aimed toward younger kids like singing songs and playing dreidel. Still, they continue to do certain rituals like lighting the menorah and eating latkes, but not much else.

Regardless, Aronovsky still finds comfort in Hanukkah traditions, as they drive one to reflect on the past, connect with it and think about the ways that traditions and values have been passed down.

“I think it’s healthy to look back [into the past] and see what value there is in the traditions that have survived,” Aronovsky said. “What does it mean to light the candles together, what does it mean to say the same prayer my great grandfather probably said? If nothing else, [Hanukkah] is an excuse to think back on my ancestors and find a commonality and connection.”

Both Bibi’s Bakery and Café and Fred’s Bakery & Deli are open for takeout and delivery.

Aarohi Sheth
Aarohi Sheth
Aarohi Sheth is a writer + artist originally from Houston, TX, currently pursuing a degree in journalism at the University of Southern California. She hopes to keep creating interdisciplinary work that pushes boundaries, empowers underrepresented communities and generates empathy in others.
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