December is the time to celebrate. For the Jewish people, that is right now because this week is Chanukah, which started last Sunday and goes through this coming Sunday. For the first time, 26 local Jewish organizations decided to get together and have a public celebration, which will happen this Sunday in front of City Hall in Schenectady. They’re calling it “Chanukah on Jay.”
“Chabads had been doing public menorah lightings for many years with different styles,” said Rabbi Zalman Simon, co-director of the Bethlehem Chabad in Delmar. “This is taking it to the next level as a joint event to spread the word. It’s on a grander scale.”
Schenectady was chosen not only because the site was a good outdoor venue but also because Jay Street had a lot of charm, he said.
A menorah is a candlelabrum with eight branches. On every day of Chanukah, one of the “candles” is lit. By Sunday, all eight will be lit. For this festival, a 12-foot high menorah will be built but be taken down at the end of the event.
“We have a vision to have a larger menorah in the future,” Simon said.
The reason for having eight days for this holiday, which is also called the Festival of Lights, goes back more than 2,000 years. In 139 B.C.E., the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids, who were Syrian Greeks. They demanded that the Jews accept the Greek culture and worship their gods. The Jews refused and despite being poorly armed, they were led by Judas Maccabaeus and drove the Seleucids from the land.
When they reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, they discovered there was only enough olive oil to light the temple’s menorah for one day. Miraculously, the menorah stayed lit for eight days. Chanukah celebrates that long ago victory. (As a side note, George Frideric Handel wrote an oratorio, “Judas Maccabaeus,” that Saratoga Voices recently performed and which details that struggle.)
But having this festival, which also carries the message that a little light can rid the world of a large amount of darkness, was inspired by a similar festival in Detroit, called “Menorah in the D.” Now celebrating its eleventh season, the festival has a massive brass menorah set up at one of Detroit’s downtown parks. Rabbi Zalman said he’d heard of the festival but Rob Kovach, the president of the Jewish Federation of New York, had not. He learned about it from one of the local community leaders who was visiting Detroit last year and went to the festival. Kovach said he thought it a great idea and called Rabbi Zalman, who also sits on the Federation’s board, who told him, “Let’s do it.”
“The Jewish community is very active, so getting twenty-six organizations (temples, schools and senior centers) involved is pretty good,” Kovach said.
Besides the menorah, there will also be trivia games, candle or card making, photo booths and charity box decorating, hot popcorn, potato pancakes called latkes, hot apple cider, nine flavors of donuts, and a band that will play Chanukah tunes as well as favorite hip numbers from the Maccbeats, an all-male a cappella group.
But most of all will be the illusionist Ilan Smith, who is on a U.S. tour from his home in South Africa. Smith creates breathtaking sleight of hand card tricks, among other magical moments. (Check out YouTube to be blown away.)
Smith discovered the illusionary arts at 8 and then “got serious” at 13 and found a teacher. Inspiration came from two of South Africa’s greatest magicians: George Moss and Graham Kirk. By16, Smith was selling his shows and entertaining adults. However, being practical, Smith took a college degree in economics and marketing. That’s when he got the idea of putting the two together.
“Using my business ideas and my passionate mindset for the illusory arts, I’ve created business talks and master classes to help corporates,” Smith said in an email.
He covers such topics as how to make sure businesses are trying to solve the right problems in a creative way by thinking like an illusionist; how to take a true look at motivation; and protecting against social engineering or the science behind human hacking.
Although this event is outdoors, Smith said he won’t feel the cold.
“I’ll be involved in the show with my adrenaline pumping, blood flowing and having a great time,” he said. “From a magical perspective, the illusions are just as jaw dropping.”
Among the many visits he makes to this country, several are to chabads, which are community-based groups that serve all Jews. It was through some of his Zoom sessions that Rabbi Zalman and others discovered him.
“We figured if he could look good on Zoom, he’d be better in person,” Rabbi Zalman said.
Although the festival will only be two hours long and go on rain, shine or snow, it will be fully packed with things to see, hear and do and parking is free and ample.
“We’re excited to be there,” Rabbi Zalman said.
Chanukah on Jay
WHEN: 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5
WHERE: In front of City Hall, Schenectady
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: www.chanukahonjay.com