500 years ago, the city of Toledo did not have the current Christmas lights in its streets, but the Jewish quarter would be illuminated with the candles of the candelabra that were placed in the windows of the houses on the occasion of Hanukkah. The Sephardic community already celebrated this festivity that is older than Christmas and with which “it is not comparable” despite the relevance that gastronomy, music or the family atmosphere have in both.
“There is a temporal coincidence and both use light as a symbol, but there is no parallelism. Hanukkah originates from a date almost 200 years before the birth of Jesus, who surely celebrated it,” explains Esther Bendahan, director of Culture at the Centro Sefarad-Israel, an entity that currently collaborates with several cities in the country such as Madrid, Segovia or Toledo in carrying out activities linked to what is also known as the Festival of Lights.
Like many Jewish holidays, Hanukkah has both a historical and a religious aspect. Bendahan explains that, on the one hand, it recalls the victory of the Maccabees against King Antiochus IV, who “intended to eradicate the Jewish religion”, and therefore independence from Hellenic rule. And on the other hand, the reopening of the Second Temple of Jerusalem is celebrated – an act that also explains the meaning of the term Hanukkah, which translates as ‘inaugurate’ -, which was erected again as a Jewish religious pillar after having been destroyed.
“When the temple is going to be inaugurated, they see that there is not enough oil to light the chandelier, in which the seven candles always had to be lit. It only lasts one day and they go in search of oil but the candlestick stayed lit for eight days, which was the time it took to bring it. It is like a symbolic miracle that represents the victory of light, the presence of God”, describes Bendahan about the origin of the festivity.
dates and traditions
Hanukkah is celebrated in Kislev, which is the third month of the modern Hebrew calendar and parallels the Gregorian months of November and December, depending on the year. In this 2022 the celebration takes place from December 18 to 26. On the first day, two candles are lit, “the one that represents daily light and the one that is going to do the miracle”, which is placed in the middle of the chandelier, and each day after that, one more candle is lit.
During these eight days it is traditional to eat typical fried foods of Jewish gastronomy -due to the relationship of the festivity with oil- as latkes -potato pancakes-, churros kosher, dumplings, fritters, biscuits or skillet sweets. Special songs are also sung, such as Maoz Tzur, gifts are given to the children or a game of dreidela four-sided spinning top that some rabbis connect with four historical exiles from Israel.
For the director of Culture of the Centro Sefarad-Israel, it is “good news” that this festivity is promoted again in some of the most representative cities of the Sephardic community and can “become a tradition that already existed before in its own history ”. “Probably, the streets of Toledo would be illuminated in the windows, so the party was communicated to the rest of the world,” she points out.
“It is a gesture that speaks of open cities, in which everyone participates and communicates their own beliefs. Celebrating it together is a way of returning to that open Toledo in which everyone could fit”, highlights Bendahan, who recalls that “there are many traditions” that are currently maintained and that “have to do with the Jewish community”. “For example, the idea of marzipan, which is made without animal fat and with sugar, has its origin in that coexistence”, he points out.
Reunion with the Sephardic past
The celebration of Hanukkah in Toledo has the collaboration and support of the Sephardic Museum and the Toledo City Council, which has organized different activities together with other entities to celebrate Sephardic Week -whose celebration is the first year that coincides with Hanukkah-. The Councilor for Employment and European Funds, Francisco Rueda, highlights that the central act of Hanukkah in Toledo takes place in the Synagogue of El Tránsito, where this Sunday the 18th the first candle of the candelabra will be lit with a broad participation of the Jewish community resident in Spain.
“It was a common party in the houses, absolutely Toledo, of the Sephardic community. The idea is to recover it and reconnect with that past of ours,” Rueda told this outlet, who recalls that last year’s celebration was “very emotional” because they had a Sephardic singer who kept the memory that his family had lived in Toledo and “He had left after the riots in the Corral de Don Diego.” “It is probable that his ancestors would have done a similar act -and they would have been in the Synagogue of Samuel ha-Levi”, highlights the mayor.
This week Toledo has also hosted the Assembly of the ‘Network of Jewish Quarters of Spain. Caminos de Sepharad’ -of which 21 cities are part-. The city, Rueda points out, also works with “an objective of identity and tourism”, since Toledo is “the Jerusalem of the Jews in the West”. “We want to shine it up and put it in the window”, she underlines in reference to the activities they have organized such as concerts, an Israeli Film Series or guided visits to the synagogues and the Jewish quarter of the Castilian-La Mancha capital.
“The Sephardim are not a people from the past. They continue to generate music, dance, cinema… We want to consolidate this Sephardic Week in Toledo”, stressed the mayor about this celebration in which the Sephardic Museum plays an essential role, involved throughout the year in carrying out activities focused on culture Jewish and also aimed at children, such as the family storyteller ‘It’s not Christmas, it’s Hanukkah!’.
The director of the Sephardic Museum, Carmen Álvarez, highlights “the curiosity that this learning about Jewish culture arouses”, for which they hope that the celebration of Hanukkah and Sephardic Week “will become a stable appointment” and that “the Jewish quarter as a part of the essential cultural space” in the city. And it is that, in her opinion, “Toledo would not be Toledo without this heritage.”