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Open Spaces

Hanukkah Takes On Special Meaning As COVID-19 Vaccines Begin To Distribute

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Cooper McKim
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Cooper's menorah lighting on the first night of Hanukkah.

The holiday season is upon us and with it comes the Festival of Lights, better known as Hanukkah. Folks around the country are lighting their menorahs, including here in Wyoming. Cooper McKim spoke with Seth Ward, University of Wyoming professor of religious studies, about the holiday's special meaning this year.

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Credit University of Wyoming
Seth Ward

Seth Ward: Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days. According to the Jewish calendar, it usually occurs in very late November or in mid-December. The holiday celebrates the rededication of the temple in the times of the Maccabean revolt in approximately 167-264 BCE, and is largely celebrated by lighting the Hanukkah lights. And in fact, as time went on, the rabbi said that the main thing that was celebrated was a miracle associated with the oil. Oil that was supposed to last for only one day provided life for eight days. In addition, the festival celebrates, you might say, the independence of the Jewish state, back in those days. And here in America, we very often talk about this as a victory for religious freedom and religious liberty, and a revolt against oppression by the Hellenistic Greeks, based in Syria by the Seleucid Empire.

Cooper McKim: So how have you seen Wyoming celebrate the holiday this year, and has it been different than past years that you've seen?

SW: This year, almost everybody is doing Zoom. So normally, one would expect to have a number of Hanukkah parties. There are organized congregations in Laramie and Casper, in Cheyenne, and in Jackson Hole. Most of these organizations would have had Hanukkah parties of some sort, or get togethers. There was a Hanukkah lighting in Laramie on Sunday night and the Chabad of Wyoming had took part in lighting of candles at the Governor's office, with the governor as they almost always do and I think it was live.

CM: What messages of Hanukkah are particularly relevant in this unique year?

SW: This year is very much unique. And I think every year, the message of a famous saying, which I have seen attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, a Jewish leader and the traditional founder of the Hasidic movement. The message of the Baal Shem Tov about Hanukkah was "a little light dispels a lot of darkness." And I think the idea of light dispelling darkness is good every year, but this year, I think, is especially relevant. We have a little bit of light that came during Hanukkah, the beginning of inoculations against the coronavirus, against the COVID-19. And in the historic Hanukkah, there were miles and miles to go and things didn't really work out as well historically for the Maccabees as the story seems to tell, but on the whole, there was a little light, and it did dispel an awful lot of darkness at that time. I think the idea of standing up for principles and going forward is always relevant and I think it's particularly inspirational at this time.

CM: Anything else relevant to add in this conversation before we sign off?

SW: Well, that's a good question. One of the things that I've seen an awful lot of people doing for Hanukkah is Zoom cooking, and Zoom singing. In terms of other things this year, the COVID virus, I think has made us aware of the importance of community and Hanukkah typically is one of these holidays that is a family and a community affair. Many communities have parties or they have opportunities to get together. And I think that the presence of Zoom activities during this time of darkness is a beacon of light that tells us how important it is to keep up our ties with our communities.

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