Manitoba

Hanukkah 'brings a lot of hope' as Jews celebrate another holiday during pandemic, Winnipeg rabbi says

This year’s Hanukkah celebrations still may not be quite as big as they were before the pandemic, but COVID-19 won’t take away what matters most about the Jewish holiday, one rabbi says.

Sunday is the beginning of the 8-day celebration, marked with candles, dreidels and jelly donuts

Matt Leibl, the former rabbi of Winnipeg's Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, says while Hanukkah falls a little earlier in this year's calendar than usual, it also comes at the perfect time. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

This year's Hanukkah celebrations still may not be quite as big as they were before the pandemic, but COVID-19 won't take away what matters most about the Jewish holiday, one rabbi says.

"Hanukkah has always been one of these holidays that is really at the core kind of an immediate family sort of thing," said Matt Leibl, who retired as the rabbi of Winnipeg's Shaarey Zedek Synagogue earlier this year.

"That's something that can continue, pandemic or no pandemic."

Sunday marks the first day of the eight-day celebration. While the holiday falls a little earlier in this year's calendar than usual, he said, it also comes at the perfect time.

"It's one of those holidays that brings a lot of hope, which is never a bad thing any time of year, but certainly [not] with the pandemic still going on," Leibl told CBC's Weekend Morning Show host Stephanie Cram.

"Even when Hanukkah is early and sneaks up on you like this at the end of November, not even December yet, it's never too early to be celebrating a time of hope, a time of miracles, a time of light during the darkness and a time to be together with family."

This year's holiday will be extra special for Leibl and his wife, who now have two young sons — ages one and three — to share their traditions with.

"I'm really looking forward to lighting candles, playing dreidel while eating some latkes [with] our boys," he said.

"What we're doing with our kids now is exactly what my sister and I used to do with our parents growing up. You pull out the menorah every night, you light the candles.

"There's a lot of excitement around Hanukkah, which is exactly what you want to see as a parent."

Those traditions also include eating jelly donuts — called sufganiyot in Hebrew. It's a tasty dessert that also helps honour the story that Hanukkah is all about, Leibl said.

"It celebrates this little tiny bit of oil that was only going to last for one day, but burned for eight days when the Maccabees rededicated their temple," he said.

"The whole idea is that they're fried in oil because … Hanukkah is all about this miracle of oil."

A tray of sufganiyot — jelly donuts eaten during Hanukkah — is pictured. The dessert, cooked in oil, helps commemorate the story that Hanukkah celebrates, Leibl says. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

And with most people in Manitoba now vaccinated against COVID-19, Leibl said he expects this year's celebrations to look a little more typical than last year's.

"There's still the concern. You still can't quite have the massive Hanukkah parties, probably, that we've seen in the past," he said.

"But I think we're trending in the right direction."

And while Leibl said he still had a bit of work to do to prepare before sunset — which marks the official start of Hanukkah — he's not worried.

"The good thing about Hanukkah is it's spread out over a week-plus, right? So I've always got a little bit of room," he said.

"I could always say that I'm building to a bigger celebration by the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth night, and I don't want to get everything out of the way right now.

"So we'll make sure that we're ready for tonight and then we'll keep it building as the week goes on."

With files from Stephanie Cram

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