Rabbi Moshe Goldman’s eyes fill with tears as the onion he is grating releases its irritating fumes.
He wipes them away and carries on. “The Jews have survived greater challenges than that,” he says with a laugh.
Besides, the inconvenience is worth it. He and his young sons, Mendel and Berel, are helping make latkes, tasty fried potato pancakes that are a traditional treat during Hanukkah, which begins Wednesday at sundown and runs for eight days.
At 18 months, the family’s youngest member, Israel, is too little to help with the cooking, but he’s happy to help with the eating.
Jews across Waterloo Region and Canada will be enjoying the tasty treats, as well as doughnuts fried in oil, as they celebrate Hanukkah. Goldman is inviting the broader public to take part in a Hanukkah celebration this Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at Waterloo Public Square.
There’ll be latkes and doughnuts to enjoy, the lighting of a giant, five-metre menorah, music and dancing, capped off with a fireworks display. People can take home, for a small donation, a menorah, candles and a dreidel, the four-sided spinning top children play with during Hanukkah.
It’s the fifth year the Rohr Chabad Centre for Jewish Life, which Goldman directs, is holding the celebration in the square. The celebration attracts people from the local Jewish community, which numbers about 1,000 people and includes two synagogues, Temple Shalom in Waterloo and Beth Jacob in Kitchener.
The event also attracts Jews who live in smaller communities such as the region’s townships, Brantford or Stratford, that do not have synagogues. “Some of them will come out. It’s great: they get to feel part of something larger.”
But the event, Goldman said, is “open to everyone. We get people from churches, people from mosques, total atheists who like to eat latkes. We wanted to open it up to the community.”
Hanukkah commemorates two miracles: the victory by Judah the Maccabee and his outnumbered Jewish forces, who fought the Syrian Greeks who were repressing their religion; and the second, when Jews retook the temple in Jerusalem and found only one jug of uncontaminated oil — enough to burn the temple lamps for one day — and the oil miraculously lasted for eight days, until new supplies arrived.
The lighting of an additional candle on the menorah for each of the eight days of Hanukkah marks that miracle, as does the cooking and enjoying of foods cooked in oil, such as latkes.
The oil has rich symbolic meaning, too, said Goldman. “Oil is the only edible liquid that will not mix easily with other liquids. Like it, the holiness, the innate goodness and spirituality that people have will always float to the top.”
Hanukkah isn’t the most important Jewish holiday, but it is one the centre likes to mark with a public event, “because the message of Hanukkah is so universal and relevant today, in terms of identity, religious freedom, the struggle between light and darkness. All of those things are relevant to everyone.”
In the face of modern pressures to conform, “Hanukkah teaches, ‘Don’t be afraid to be who you are. You’re not an accident. Your character and your personality are not a mistake, you have them for a reason,” Goldman said.
“The world will respect people who respect themselves. It’s a super-relevant message.”