Sunday, December 17, 2017

In Budapest, Hanukkah comes out of the shadows and onto the ice rink 

The outdoor ice skating rink — the largest in Central Europe — in Budapest’s city center has been part and parcel of Hungary’s Christmas tradition for nearly 150 years.

Stretching across 3.5 acres between Heroes’ Square and Vajdahunyad Castle, the Budapest City Park Ice Rink draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the country each winter. They come for the Christmas market, the winter festival, and the promise of smooth ice and affordable skate rentals.

It’s an enormous and enormously popular attraction, so City Park Ice Rink is busy nearly every day with the Christmas revelers. Except, however, on the first night of Hanukkah.

On that evening, the rink is populated with hundreds of Jews. They gather to sing Hanukkah songs as they watch rabbis on skates light a large menorah built by EMIH, the local branch of the Chabad Hasidic movement. With help from a donor in Budapest, they rent the rink for $12,000, and distribute sufganiyot and tea to holiday revelers who have pre-purchased tickets.

The City Park Hanukkah celebration started just over a decade ago, and it is unusual in that it’s one of just a few places in Europe where the North American “Hanukkah on ice” tradition has taken root. In the US, Chabad rabbis organize dozens of Hanukkah on ice events each year featuring the ceremonial candle lighting, munching on the deep-fried Hanukkah delicacies and ice skating, with games for children and training for the inexperienced.

But in Budapest, the event is part of a broader “coming out” of Jewish communities in the former communist bloc, where after years of practicing their religion underground, Jews are now celebrating Hanukkah in very public ways.

“Hanukkah used to be low key in Budapest, as was everything else connected to Judaism during socialism,” said Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, one of the early organizers of Budapest’s Hanukkah on ice tradition. Back then, Jews feared that practicing any religion — and Judaism especially — invited persecution.

“But it’s not good for Judaism when things are low key,” he added, because it made people leave the tradition. Throughout the Soviet sphere of influence, decades of religious persecution compounded the Nazi-caused devastation. Unaware or ashamed of their Jewish identity, countless Jews in that part of the world assimilated, distanced themselves from Judaism and produced children that no longer regarded themselves as Jewish.

Against this background, Hanukkah has a special significance in the post-communist world, said Oberlander, a Brooklyn-born rabbi who settled in Budapest 28 years ago as an emissary of Chabad.

Oberlander isn’t just referring to public events at ice skating rinks — there’s also the longstanding practice of placing Hanukkah menorahs on the windowsill, specifically for all to see.

“Meaning, don’t be low key!” he told JTA.

Oberlander, 53, does not skate himself, he said, explaining he’s “not very good at it.” But in his community, the event is one of the most popular because of how it combines seasonal amenities, sports and religious ceremony in a fun, family-friendly setting.

His interpretation of how Jews should celebrate Hanukkah is shared by many rabbis all over the world — Chabad rabbis, in particular — who stage large, public menorah lightings in central squares of major cities. New York, for example, boasts two such massive events: The Grand Army Plazas in both Manhattan and Brooklyn have been in competition over which holds the title of World’s Largest Menorah.

Such displays inspired Jews to think big in western Europe, ending decades in which communities traumatized by the Holocaust had shunned initiatives that advertise Judaism.

Since 2013 in the Netherlands, for example, the chief rabbi has been lifted in a crane (along with the Israeli ambassador) to light the first candle of a 36-foot menorah built for the Jewish community by Christian Zionists who say it is Europe’s largest. In Berlin, a giant menorah is lit at the Brandenburg Gate monument.

Like the massive menorah lightings, Europe’s growing Hanukkah on ice trend — which this year can be observed in Budapest, Moscow and London — also started in the United States, where it is occurring this year in locations from Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park, to Houston to San Mateo, California.

In Moscow, the popular Hanukkah on ice event, which began in 2012, is eclipsed by what may well be the largest celebration of Hanukkah in Europe: the annual gathering of 6,000 Jews at the State Kremlin Palace for an evening of dance and performances, as well as the bestowing of awards to communal VIPs. Organizers say the venue is important to them for symbolic reasons because it produced some of the world’s worst anti-Semitic policies after the fall of Nazi Germany.

In Budapest, the city’s summertime Jewish cultural festival is also an example of Jews reclaiming their place in society. Judafest, which was held for the 10th consecutive year, draws thousands of Jews and non-Jews to the historically Jewish 7th district for sessions, activities and exhibitions connected to Jewish cooking, dancing and Yiddish.


Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Chaptzem! Blog