With a thunderous blow, ‘Judah the Hammer’ sent the slow and cumbersome armies of the Seleucid empire into retreat. The year was 165 BC and the Maccabean Revolt had broken through the defences of Jerusalem to finally topple the tyrannical reign of their Hellenistic overlords. The holy city and the temple inside of it had been liberated and ritually cleansed, re-establishing traditional Jewish worship. Ancient texts reveal that the victorious Maccabees found only a small jug of oil that had remained uncontaminated by virtue of a seal. It contained just enough oil to sustain the flame on the Menorah (a nine-branched candleholder used for religious ceremony) for one day, but it miraculously lasted for eight days, by which time further oil could be procured.
It is within this story that the Festival of Lights, or Hanukkah as it is more commonly known, was born. Jewish belief celebrates the festival as a triumph of good over evil and this comes with a whole host of different traditions commemorating the various acts during this period.
In Gibraltar, more traditionalist views are held by its closely-knit Jewish community that has its foundations in Sephardism (Jews from the Iberian Peninsula). However, with the influx of people from other Jewish backgrounds who now call Gibraltar their home, some families are bucking the traditional trend and mixing some of their own spices into the cultural pot.
Malka Attias, a mother of six whose children range from a one-year-old to eighteen-years-of-age, is an Ashkenazi Jew (originally from Central and Eastern Europe – in Malka’s case from Lithuania, but she grew up in Manchester) who has married into a Sephardic family and is adamant that her own traditions must not be forgotten, especially during Hanukkah, “We celebrate it differently to most Jewish families in Gibraltar, but it is changing and more people are embracing these sorts of traditions to make it more fun and engaging for children,” said the preschool teacher currently on maternity leave and turning briefly to check on her extremely energetic fifteen-month-old, Tzofiya, who was rather occupied in feeding the pigeons in the area. “It was a bit boring for me when I came over twenty years ago, but younger families are taking it in a new direction, even though Sephardic religious tradition in Gibraltar is very strong and set in its ways.” Malka describes Gibraltar’s Jewish community as ‘solid’ and said that the community rallied together when the Dictator Franco closed the border between the Rock and Spain. They agreed at the time that their traditions shouldn’t change, “The Jewish community in Gibraltar is made up from people from many different places and I think that the older generation don’t want the traditions of the past to be forgotten. My in-laws tend to laugh at me when I get up to my own things. Sometimes change is good, but I also respect the traditionalist mentality in Gibraltar.”
But in Malka’s opinion it cannot be ‘bog-standard’ for kids as they could find themselves disconnected from the celebration. Although it is not traditional to hand out gifts to children on Hanukkah, it has always been the case in Malka’s household to do so and she claims that it is a good way to compete with the internet, computer games and television as a way to engage with youngsters, “Just lighting candles can be boring for kids, so I think what we do allows them to enjoy the blessings also. The whole family sings special songs together and it makes the kids very excited, probably because they know that they will receive presents,” she said while also explaining that her eldest child has managed to negotiate himself a new motorbike in the process. “My kids get one big present at the end of Hanukkah, but I am very good at bargaining with them. It’s the only way. My eldest has been waiting two years for a motorcycle, but he paid for it himself. I paid for the insurance and that’s all I was willing to do. I am very strict.” Having said that, Malka gives more modest presents to each of her children on every night of the festival, such as bouncy balls that she would hide around the house, “My kids are happy with things like that, but maybe others might not be. My mother gives £1 for every night of Hanukkah for each child. She has 27 grandchildren so it can tally up quite a bit. She lives in Israel and sends the money over to me to distribute on her behalf. At the end of it, they have eight pounds each and are well happy – even the older ones.”
Inviting different guests to her home every evening is another way that she ‘keeps things fresh’, almost as fresh as her delicious deep fried oily treats that are completely homemade. One of the main themes surrounding Hanukkah is the miracle of ‘the oil’, so everything is fried. Latkes potato pancakes, jelly doughnuts sufganiyot, churros and Sephardic bunuelos are some of the typical dishes served on the dinner table, “Personally, I get migraine from so much oil, so ironically, I don’t really like the food that I cook, but the kids love it so I have no choice. I think that they appreciate the work that I do and they have very high standards in their eating habits.” The kids will also take part in the cooking and each one has their own designated station. Some, she says, are good in the kitchen, some are good with their younger siblings, and others with decorations. Either way, it is mandatory that they take part in everything during the festivities, “When someone comes over and the house is beautifully decorated, and the food is great, it makes us all very proud.”
As a teacher in the Jewish school, Malka gets her enthusiastic students to make candle crowns out of paper and occasionally with glitter. The children use toilet paper holders to make the candles and paint them before taking them home to their parents, “Sometimes we write the blessings on a card and laminate them. I still have hundreds from my kids and then we put them on the wall so that daddy can read them. It is very cute.” At home, Malka’s children, like many other Jews in Gibraltar and the world over, play a traditional game called ‘Dreidel’ that uses a four-sided spinning top and is played during Hanukkah. In the past, when Jews were reading the Torah during Hanukkah, they used to have the game close by and would close the book when soldiers came, pretending that they were playing instead of praying. It became tradition and children play it as an act of remembrance, “They are all taught from a very young age what it’s all about and there is even a song that goes with it: ‘spin little dreidel, spin, spin, spin’- reads one of the lines in Hebrew.”
Malka considers her family as one of the only Jewish household in the whole of Gibraltar to have a Christmas tree right outside her front door as well as Hanukkah decorations. She feels that it is important to share with one another, regardless of religious beliefs, and encourages her children to follow the same philosophy, “All my non-Jewish neighbours give my children Hanukkah presents on Christmas and that is very nice. They also leave it under the tree for them, so my children receive both Hanukkah and Christmas gifts. They are very privileged and we are very respectable about Christmas. I also send donuts to our neighbours. We all get on very well with one another and I am very proud of that. We have to live together harmoniously.”