“Hanukkah is about shining a little light into the darkness,” says Rabbi Krinsky.
With little less than an hour to spare before the Menorah lighting, people are still putting a finishing touch to the preparations on Kudirkos Square. Food is being set out on silver trays in a big white tent that lines Gedimino Avenue. A big crane that would lift the Rabbi into the air is driven to the centre of the square. There the Menorah had already been propped up high above the square for days, waiting to be lit. People were slowly crowding the square. In its centre, Vilnius Rabbi Sholom B. Krinsky was eyeing the proceedings: “There is always a wide array of people from different backgrounds attending. It’s something I look forward to every year.”
This Thursday, the Menorah was lit in Vilnius for the 22nd consecutive year in a row. Something that 25 years ago was unimaginable in Vilnius, according to Rabbi Krinsky. The lighting of the Menorah is an important event during the eight days of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. Now attended by more than a thousand people, the Menorah lighting has significantly grown in size since the first time it was celebrated in the Lithuanian capital. “And it is through the Menorah lighting that you can see how Vilnius has changed so much,” said Rabbi Krinsky as he recalled the first lighting, that he also administered, now more than two decades ago. “Back then, the mentality of the people was still quite Soviet orientated. Lithuanians were not used to public events of this magnitude.
Dancing in the cold
A large group of young men come parading onto the square, singing a loud song in Yiddish. Two women are handing out Hanukkah balloons, and an older couple dances in the centre of the square, the Rabbi is smiling. He looks back on that first lighting and an encounter that has stayed with him ever since. “I remember very well how a frail elderly woman from a small village came up to me. She was crying. She had not seen anything like this for as long as she could remember. She had lived through both the holocaust and Soviet times in Lithuania.”
As the clock strikes 6 PM, the music softens and the Rabbi, Mayor Remigijus Šimašius, Lithuanian-Jewish parliamentarian Emanuelis Zingeris and Chairwoman Faina Kukliansky of the Lithuanian Jewish Community take to the stage. The crowd listens in silence as the Rabbi and his guests say a few words before proceeding to light the Menorah. As Rabbi Krinsky and Mayor Šimašius are hoisted into the air on the crane, the crowd huddles together. It is cold and people step from one foot to the other to stay warm.
After the first six of nine candles are lit, Rabbi Krinsky falls into a loud song that is quickly picked up by members of the audience. When the two people lightinf the candles are safely down on the ground an array of fireworks is set off and the music starts up again.
The Menorah lighting might be about shining a light, to the younger people in the audience it is just as much about being with your friends. “This is the third year I’ve come here. I come here for all the fun,” says 18-year old Eitan Senkov, as he and his friends light sparklers. Other people crowd in, lighting their sparklers off those of others. Eitan and his friends are already occupied taking a mandatory Hanukkah selfie.
The Menorah lighting in Vilnius holds a special place in the Rabbi’s heart. For him, it is not only a spiritual celebration, but also a way to celebrate Lithuania’s changing spirit since its reclaimed independence. “Lithuania played such a big part in breaking down the Soviet Union.” With the Paris attacks and terrorism on everyone’s mind, Hanukkah spirit is important as ever, says Rabbi Krinsky: “And that is the real message: lighting little lights against the darkness of the world.”