NEW DELHI: With the lighting of oil lamps and chanting of Hebrew prayers Delhi’s Jewish community inaugurated the eight-day long festival of Hanukkah. Indian Jews in the city, who number around 50, gathered at dusk at the Judah Hyam Synagogue to witness Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar light the first Hanukkah lamp.

“Every night for the next eight days, one additional lamp will be lit in the menorah (a nine-branched ceremonial lamp),” explained Rabbi Malekar. “This is to celebrate a miracle that happened in 162 BC.”

According to legend, the temple of Jerusalem was desecrated by the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes and worship was forbidden. Jewish Hasmoneans waged a valiant battle and won the temple back.

When they entered it, they found oil enough to light ritual lamps only for a day. Miraculously, that oil lasted until fresh oil could be prepared, which took eight days.

“This is the spirit if Hanukkah,” says college student Shulamith Malekar. “It is the triumph of good against persecution and intolerance. In this sense, Hanukkah is a bit like Diwali.”

Hanukkah is also a time for gift-giving and charity, and of eating delicacies prepared with oil, again, to honour the miracle of the oil. Says Nissim Moses, an Indian Jew who has lived in Israel for the past 40 years “European Jews prepare special foods like potato pancakes called latke and suvganioth , sweet buns.”

In India, however, burfi has replaced latke and in the menorah, wicks dipped in coconut oil are lit, instead of candles.

After praying in the synagogue, families returned home to light individual menorahs and play dreidel, Hanukkah being the only time in the Jewish year when games of chance are permitted.

The dreidel is a top inscribed with the Hebrew characters nun, gimel, hei, and shin that mean “a great miracle happened there”. The game proceeds by spinning the dreidel. The winner receives Hanukkah gelt, gold-wrapped chocolate coins.

Over the past few years, Hanukkah has become extremely popular in the West. According to Nissim Moses, this is because it comes around the same time as Christmas and so gives Jews an opportunity to participate in the end of the year ‘festive season’.

“This is especially so for families with school-going children. Thus they avoid feeling left out,” he said.

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