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Feature 12 Dec 17

A Belgrade Hanukkah - Celebrating the Jewish Festival of Light

Every year a small but passionate community comes together in Belgrade for the eight-day holiday to rekindle their spirituality and foster Jewish heritage.

Alexis Traussi

Rabbi Yehoshua Kaminetzy and his wife Miri Kaminetzy enjoyed their Hanukkah celebration at Chabad Serbia last year.  

Photo: Courtesy of Chabad Serbia

“This is something unique we brought to Serbia: the light of Hanukkah to the street,” Rabbi Yehoshua Kaminetzy says proudly. And he means it literally too. Each year, to celebrate the holiday, the Kaminetzys put up a large traditional Jewish candelabrum in front of the Chabad Serbia building on Kneza Milosa street for everyone to see. “When people see the big menorah, they ask what it is,” he says, laughing.

That’s just one of the questions the international Jewish Emissary Chabad has to answer. Sitting next to his wife, Miri, at the local branch of an international orthodox Jewish movement called Chabad-Lubavitch, they discuss, over coffee with kosher milk, why the two moved to Belgrade.

“We came to Serbia to help the Serbian people. To bring them closer to their sources, their roots, their faith; to remember the Jewish people and where they belong and who they are,” the Rabbi explains.

In Belgrade, the Jewish community is quite small, but close-knit. In a city of around 2 million people, only 2,200 call themselves Jewish. There is only one synagogue in the city, in its centre, beside the Jewish municipality building, the Chabad and the Jewish museum.

“The Jewish community in Belgrade was never too big. Before the Holocaust there were about 12,000 Jews in the city. In the Second World War, the Jewish community disappeared because it was killed by the Nazis and the people who helped them. So, after they destroyed the community, about ten per cent of Jews survived the Holocaust in Serbia,” Yehoshua says.

Neta Milenkovic knows the story well. “It was just a very big shock here, and I think specifically for my family,” she says. Neta, a young Serb, has lived in both here and in Israel. Sitting in a café in Belgrade, she describes what happened to her family during the Holocaust.

“We used to live in Dorcol, and there was this huge building that was just for Jewish people. My mom’s ex-boyfriend, he is of Serbian Jewish heritage, but he was born and raised in Israel, and his family owned this huge building with stores and everything and it all belongs to the state now, the country. The Jews lost everything here,” she says.

By the time Belgrade was liberated in October 1944, “those who survived, most of them moved to America, Australia, and Israel,” Yehoshua says. Those who stayed in Belgrade began to lose touch with their Jewish heritage.

“The Holocaust not only destroyed the population, it also somehow ruined the identity of the people because they lost their community…people were afraid to say they were Jewish,” he says.

Slowly, as time went on, people began to learn about their Jewish ancestry. Grandparents would tell their grandchildren that they survived the Holocaust. “Then the children come to the community and they say ‘I am Jewish,’ but they didn’t know they were Jewish up until that point,” the Rabbi says.

“The situation in Serbia is much better than before,” he says with a smile.

And with each Hanukkah, their identity strengthens. The story behind the celebration reflects the struggle Jews have faced throughout history. “Someone once said, ‘the moral of each Jewish holiday is - They tried to kill us, they failed, let's eat!’ Hanukkah is one of those stories,” explains political scientist and Jewish community member Stefan Shparavalo.

Most of the Jews in Belgrade go to the local synagogue or celebrate at home. “On the first eve of Hanukkah I put a menorah in my home close to the window and light the first candle, saying blessings and singing Maoz Tzur,” writes Stefan.

While these rituals are fundamental to the festival, food is important as well. Families cook oily fare like doughnuts called sufganiyot and potato pancakes called latkes. Rabbi Yehoshua explains that the oiliness has a symbolic significance to Hanukkah. “We need to eat something that’s made with oil. It’s not so healthy, but it’s very tasty,” he jokes.

“Hanukkah is also symbolic of family time, education, big families meeting up and gathering. It’s a very nice period,” his wife adds.

The festivities are spread out over eight days in homes, throughout the community and sometimes in hotels. The Kaminetzys often spend time with Jews who are traveling during the holiday.

“It’s just candles, doughnuts, dancing, singing, fun, nothing difficult in Hanukkah,” he says.

A traditional game played during Hanukkah involves a four-sided spinning top called a dreidel. Parents typically give their children a bit of money, or gelt, which is used to bet on the game. Each side of the dreidel has a different letter, each determining how much the better wins. Rolling a nun (the letter n) lands the spinner the whole pot.

But it’s the miraculous story behind Hanukkah that gives the festival its significance. 

In 168 BCE, Israel was controlled by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV, who vandalised the Holy Temple and would not allow Jews to keep practicing their traditions. “He said, ‘I don’t have anything against you, I don’t want to kill you, I don’t want to destroy your life. Just forget about your faith, about your traditions, about your history,’” Rabbi Yehoshua says.

His wife Miri explains further, “the main goal was to kill the spirituality of the Jewish people and wipe out Judaism.”

But, with a small, devout militia, the Jews defeated Antiochus’s larger army. They took back the temple and Israel on the 25th of the Jewish month Kislev. This date marks the start of Hanukkah, which on the Gregorian calendar this year is December 12.  

Later, as the tradition developed, Rabbis focused on the story of relighting the temple’s menorah after defeating Antiochus’s army. In the tale, the Jews found only one remaining oil can after the temple was reclaimed. “There was enough oil for one day, but the candles stayed lit for eight days and eight nights. This is the big miracle and this is why we celebrate Hanukkah for eight days,” says the Rabbi.

Last year, 500 people joined the Rabbi and his family at the Chabad to light the first candle of Hanukkah. After inviting a band to play traditional Hanukkah music outside, the celebrations continued inside when it got too cold.

“We want Hanukkah to bring our light, a Jewish light to the world, and to share it with all the people in the world so that everyone can take something from it,” Rabbi Yehoshua says.

This symbolism also extends into the work the family does for the Belgrade Jewish community.

“What we are doing here is trying to do our best to keep this light shining so that it will be bigger and that it will last for eight days, eight years, and I don’t know, eight centuries,” Miri says.

For her and her husband, Hanukkah represents a key way of celebrating their Jewish heritage.

The Chabad is an important place to continue this work, including classes on religion, holding a Shabbat dinner every Friday and keeping extra rooms on the lower floor of the building for travellers.

“This is a religious place. Sometimes, you want to be politically correct, to hide, but here you don’t have to, it is a place of religion,” says Miri.

For many, Judaism is not only a religion but also a crucial element of their cultural heritage. For Stefan, it is a “strong part of my identity and who I am”. The Kaminetzys agree.

“It is a way of life,” says Miri, her husband adding, “Judaism is part of your life where, wherever you are, it’s all around you.”

Even though Neta isn’t a practicing Jew, she draws strength from cultural aspects of the religion. “As much as I don’t connect to the religion, if it wasn’t for the Jewish community, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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