Turkish Jews Celebrate Hanukkah at Public Ceremony in Istanbul

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For the first time in Turkey’s history, the Jewish Community felt the happiness of lighting the Hanukkah candles at a public outdoor ceremony. I used to envy the pictures taken on the streets of different locations around the world where Hanukkah candles were lit and the mitzvah of publicizing the Hanukkah miracle was realized. The Istanbul Besiktas Municipality that runs the area where the synagogue I work at is located, is highly open-minded and the Mayor supported us by making this event possible in the Ortaköy Square.    


Hanuka’nin son gecesi olan Pazar günü Ortaköy Meydani’nda Hanuka Kutlamasi olacagini duyan cemaatimiz yogun bir ilgi ile orada hazir bulundu. Kutlamanin kamuya açik olmasi önemliydi. Yahudilerin inanç ve kimlik özgürlügüne katki sunmak amaciyla, Türkiye tarihinde önemli bir milat olan bu olaya tanik olmak için Ortaköy Meydani’nda toplandik. Belediye Baskani deniz kenarinda meydanda olusturdugu platformun üzerinde hag hanukat sameah sözleri görülmeye degerdi. 


On hearing of the street celebration of Hanukkah in Ortaköy on Sunday evening, our community was excited and showed their interest and appreciation by attending the event. The celebration was open to the public. We gathered at the Ortaköy Square to witness this event and to add to the Jews’ freedom of identity and freedom of religion. On a raised platform by the sea, the words “Hag Hanuka sameah” uttered by the Besiktas Mayor were breathtaking.  


A huge hanukiya was prepared by our synagogue. There were  more people in attendance than had been anticipated. In the ambiance, one could feel the mixture of happiness arising from the feeling of support and the uneasiness of the trauma that keeps taking place. The ceremony started with the usual Turkish procedural talks. The speeches all referred to freedom, positive attitude, and living without having to hide.   


Some Jewish people became courageous and let their kippas be revealed. Uneasiness and anxiety started to disappear; instead bewilderment, smiles and a sense of well-being filled the air. Some people shared these moments with their children living abroad and others tried to skype and share the sight with their elders who could not make it to Ortaköy. Tears of happiness were rolling down the cheeks.  


What made the celebration even more unforgettable was the fact that among the crowd one could see representatives of the state, religious functionaries, American, Spanish and Israeli ambassadors. The excitement resulted from a first time event and the self confidence of the Jewish people despite a little underlying anxiety. People of all ages participated in the celebration in a free manner and sang songs altogether. The Ortaköy Square became a landmark that gave hope for future celebrations of Hanukkah, hope that Hanukkah may be celebrated in many other squares of the city.  


It was an amazing feeling to see the photographs and the videos people shared on the internet.   


Words are not enough to describe how we all felt as a community while lighting the Hanukkah candles and singing the blessings.  


Before the candles were lit, Rav Ishak Haleva (my father) who is the Chief Rabbi of the Turkish Jewish Community shared his feelings by saying ;  


‘’Dear Friends,  


Tonight, the last night of Hanukkah, on which we light nine candles devoted to love, peace and friendship, I as the Chief Rabbi of Turkey will always remember the excitement and honor of being here at the most magnificent event of my life.  

I wish these nine candles we have just lit without any discrimination, which I believe will inspire us with a sense of love, peace and friendship, will enlighten all of our spirits.   


I hope these candles will bring happiness not only to our country but also to the whole world and humanity.   

Finally, I’d like to express my gratitude to Mr. Murat Hazinedar, mayor of Besiktas, who gave us a great opportunity to organize this glorious celebration.  


May God be with you,  

Thank you. ‘’  


Hanukkah is often described as the friction between light and darkness. It is true that Hanukkah is at a time when days are the shortest. Nights are long, and days are short. However, Hanukkah gives us the message that days will start to get longer and there will be light. This may sound overly optimistic; however, it describes this year’s festivity perfectly.  


People asked an elderly rabbi for his message. This is what he said: “Respect all people!” People objected to this and said, “Doesn’t respect for God come first?” The Rabbi responded, “If you respect all people, you will have respected God.”  


Hanukkah lights are small in quantity but symbolically they dazzle our eyes. They remind us to search the light within ourselves. Our generation needs this internal light. Awareness of such internal light will enlighten the dark souls. Only then will we agree on the following concept:  


Our world embraces light  

Through the shadow of the night  

And there is light everywhere!  


May the Hanukkah candles that the Jewish community lit in Ortaköy square, Turkey, bring peace and serenity to us all!