Residents of Kaunas and exchange students curiously glanced at a crowd, standing outside despite the cold around an imposing metal menorah next to the colourfully lit Musical Theater. Holding Bengal lights, members of the small Jewish community in Kaunas, their ethnic Lithuanian friends, and Israeli students gathered on Tuesday to celebrate the third day of Hanukkah – the festival of lights. Chassidic techno-pop music in Hebrew was blasting from loudspeakers.
© DELFI (A.Didžgalvio nuotr.)

Organized by the Chassidie Chabad Lubavitch community, the annual public celebration was immersed in lights. Greeting his community, US-born rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky said that the best way of countering all evil is doing good and spreading the light. He wished his followers “A likhtikn Khanike” (a Hanukkah full of light) in Yiddish, juggling the European Jewish vernacular with Russian, Lithuanian and other languages. Next to him stood the head of Kaunas Jewish Community, Gercas Žakas, and one of the deputy mayors of Kaunas municipality, social-democrat Vasilijus Popovas.

The deputy mayor was later invited to light the third Hanukkah candle together with the rabbi. “We are happy that the deputy mayor visits us often, and we wish him many happy years,” said Žakas, referring to the fact that Popovas survived the recent change in municipal government. Although the Jewish community in Lithuania is small and divided, it is witnessing a surge of interest among public sector institutions, schools and media in the heritage that shaped Lithuanian history and culture throughout centuries.

Hanukkah in Kaunas. Photo Daiva Repečkaitė
Hanukkah in Kaunas. Photo Daiva Repečkaitė

The celebration took place on Laisvės alėja, the main pedestrian street in Kaunas. Chatting among themselves cheerfully, some older members of the community shared memories of what the street looked like in pre-war years. Although the Jewish community continues to dwindle, the annual celebration of Hanukkah has become an occasion that brings together its old and new members – Lithuanians and expats. Young Israelis, who mostly come to Kaunas to study medicine or dentistry, have given the local Jewish community a boost and brought Jewish traditions which are new to Lithuania.

Their presence was very visible at the Hanukkah event – they occupied the front rows, taking selfies with the rabbi and a giant dreydl (traditional Hanukkah spin-top) mascot. Two Israeli students were earlier tasked with lighting the first Hanukkah candle.

A firework show followed after lighting the candle, and soon guests were invited to a tent, where traditional potato pancakes (called latkes in Yiddish), salads and doughnuts were served. Potato pancakes are popular throughout the region, and many ethnic Lithuanians are surprised to hear that it is also a traditional Jewish dish. Doughnuts have become the "hippest" dessert among Kaunas youngsters, but local bakeries make them American style, distant from the traditional ball-shaped ponchkes – another Yiddish word that many Lithuanians know well.

Hanukkah in Kaunas. Photo Daiva Repečkaitė
Hanukkah in Kaunas. Photo Daiva Repečkaitė

In a jolly mood, community members discussed the holiday season and exchanged updates on mutual acquaintances. Yiddish, Lithuanian, English, Russian and Hebrew were all audible in a colourful mix. Not many children were present in the outdoor event, but they will have a chance to enjoy traditional children’s activities – games and gifts – later this week.

The nearby synagogue was not involved in these celebrations, however. “Litvaks don’t have a tradition of celebrating Hanukkah in public,” says Mauša Bairakas of Kaunas Jewish Religious Community, which runs the only functioning Choral Synagogue in Kaunas. “Hanukkah is not even a Torah holiday. We do congregate on the first day to light candles, but it is observed mostly within families and communities.” In Lithuania and around the world, Litvaks are associated with the Misnagdic tradition, which resisted the spread of Chassidic ideas.

Hanukkah in Kaunas. Photo Daiva Repečkaitė
Hanukkah in Kaunas. Photo Daiva Repečkaitė

The Chassidic movement, which started in the territory of Ukraine, emphasizes passionate worship and a close connection between God and believers. Chassidic communities centre more around their spiritual leaders. In nowadays Belarus, a distinct stream of Chassidism developed in the 19th century – the Chabad Lubavitch movement, which also spread to Lithuania. Some 200 Chabad communities are estimated to have existed before WW2, but most Lithuanian Jews remained faithful to the traditional, Talmud-centred orthodoxy, promoted by the Gaon of Vilna.

In 2004, a bitter conflict in Vilnius between the two communities led to a temporary closure of the only functioning Choral Synagogue in the Lithuanian capital. Traditional synagogues in both major cities are no longer shared with the Chabad Lubavitch community. Many believe that the main disagreement lies in the Jewish religious property restitution issues rather than differences in religious rites.

Both in Vilnius and Kaunas, Chabad Lubavitch celebrations are becoming the most publicly recognizable face of Hanukkah.

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