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Message of hope in the darkness ‘punctuating Hanukkah in a very special way’

Governor Charlie Baker, left, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh at the annual Boston Common menorah lighting on the first night of Hanukkah Thursday.
Governor Charlie Baker, left, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh at the annual Boston Common menorah lighting on the first night of Hanukkah Thursday.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

In the spring, many Boston-area Jewish people celebrated Purim together cautiously, then Passover the next month apart. Fall brought the High Holidays and more remote services on Judaism’s most sacred days.

Now, with coronavirus cases steadily climbing, Hanukkah, a celebration of shining light into darkness, bringing warmth into the cold, and hope to the hopeless, will be celebrated apart.

Hanukkah is typically observed at home, said Gretchen Marks Brandt, interim director of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts. Unlike other holidays, like Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, or Simchat Torah, the annual completion of rereading the Torah, people do not always have to come to their congregations.

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Celebrating in large groups usually “isn’t as necessary,” she said in a phone interview. But, she said, “I think it feels more necessary this year, because we’re all looking for some hope and some love and some connection to each other that we haven’t had in the past eight months because of the pandemic.”

On Thursday afternoon, Marks Brandt said she logged into Zoom and joined her daughter’s family in Israel as they lit the first candle at sundown.

“There are no geographic restrictions this year,” she said.

And with the first coronavirus vaccines less than a week away from distribution to a select few health care workers and nursing home residents in Massachusetts, the message of hope in the darkness “feels like it’s punctuating Hanukkah in a very special way.”

Some traditions, of course, remain.

The 37th annual menorah lighting on the Boston Common went on Thursday evening, with masked participants and a Facebook livestream for those who preferred watching from home. Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh stood masked atop a wide scissor-lift platform, lighting the shamash ― the central candle ― and the first candle on a 22-foot-tall menorah.

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“We are at a time when we are unable to predict how things will play out,” Rabbi Yosef Zaklos of Chabad of Downtown Boston, Back Bay, and Beacon Hill said during the ceremony. “But what we must learn from the Hanukkah warriors, the Maccabis, who lit the first lamp on the first night, having no idea what will transpire, [is that] miracles happen. Our job is to do our utmost to be beacons of light and positivity.”

The Hanukkah edict is to shine a light where others can see it, said Laura Conrad Mandel, executive director of The Jewish Arts Collaborative in Newton. That inspired a collection of eight art installations in storefront windows across the region ― two in Dorchester, with more in Jamaica Plain, Brookline, Newton, Woburn, Chelsea, and projected onto the exterior walls of the Museum of Fine Arts.

As soon as pandemic-related closures and lockdowns began in March, Mandel said in a phone interview, the staff came to terms with the possibility that their usual celebration of hundreds of people inside the Museum of Fine Arts likely wouldn’t be feasible this year. Mandel’s husband got to work building an augmented reality app that allows users, without leaving their homes, to join three menorah lightings across time and space.

Then they borrowed the idea of art in storefront windows from an installation they had put on a few years before, inspired by generations of Jewish people encouraged to place their menorahs in their windows, where friends and neighbors could see them.

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“That’s not so far off base from Christmas, where we see the lights of the holiday around town,” Mandel said. “It’s not that different from Diwali, or Kwanzaa. ... There’s always a need for a holiday of light, and community and connection in this season.”


Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.