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Hanukkah celebrations ‘difficult’ for Calgary Jewish couple worried about loved ones in Israel

Hanukkah is one of the most joyous of Jewish holidays but some people in the Calgary Jewish community are feeling conflicted about celebrating this year.

Ortal Luzon and Yossi Gruner are high school sweethearts who met and were married in Israel and moved to Calgary four years ago. Luzon was born in Edmonton and moved to Israel at the age of 12.

“My fondest memories of Hanukkah, for me, are togetherness and just stepping into the house and having that smell of all those deep fried meals and having the friends and family together. The sense of happiness and togetherness,” Luzon said.

She recalls traditional foods like jelly donuts, called sufganiyot, and potato pancakes, called latkes, which are both are fried, representing the long-lasting oil from the Hanukkah story.

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But celebrating this year is different for the Calgary couple.

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“This year is tough. It’s a big contrast coming from a dark place that we have been in over the past two months, since Oct. 7,” said Luzon, who graduated from the University of Tel Aviv, studying engineering and computer science and served in the IDF.

“We’re not giving up on our hope for better days so we do insist on coming together and celebrating and bringing the light into our homes and into our community. But I can’t say that it’s easy. It’s been difficult.”

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On Friday morning, moments after Gruner was speaking to his elderly parents who live south of Tel Aviv in Rishon LeZion, sirens were triggered by Hamas rockets.

He says it has been a daily occurrence for his parents to run to a bomb shelter since Oct. 7.

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“I checked in with my dad this morning and I showed him all the snow we have and he was very happy. After we hung up the call, in two seconds, there was an alert to go to the shelter,” Gruner said.

“Every time, they say everything is OK but still, my mom and dad are older so it’s a tough time for me to know that they are there during this time,” Gruner said.

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Luzon said many in Calgary’s Jewish community are worried about displaying Hanukkah symbols this year.

“Some will display, although they are worried because they don’t want to give into their fear, and some won’t. I think everyone has that fear of displaying Jewish symbols and now with Hanukkah – displaying Hanukkah symbols. It’s sad to know that, but that’s the truth of it,” Luzon said.

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Like all young Israelis, Luzon and Gruner served in the military. Both have friends stationed in Gaza. Luzon’s cousin is there now.

“Everyone is scared. It’s not easy. Some days you’re just waiting to get that call that maybe something bad has happened but they don’t give up on the holiday spirit.

“My aunt’s son is out there and they’re worried, and they have sleepless nights, but they won’t give up on bringing in the light and praying and hoping for better,” Luzon said.

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While they celebrate the holidays in Calgary, their joyous time is tempered by the worry for family in Israel, those who have died and those they say are still held hostage.

Luzon says it’s necessary to keep the candles burning and to find joy in the dark times.

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“We need it. We need to feel that sense of we are not losing hope. There is light in the darkness and I think that’s the story of Hanukkah overall.”

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The CEO of the Calgary Jewish Federation said in a message to the community that there are members who might feel unsafe and choose to keep their candles away from the window, instead of displaying them with pride and that there are many who will feel conflicted in doing any kind of celebrating while brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world are in so much pain.

“This Chanukah, I would like to encourage our community to gather with family and friends, to light candles, to display them proudly, and to defy the hate that has become all too common. I would also like to encourage all of us to invite friends and allies from outside the Jewish community to share Chanukah with them,” said Adam Silver, CEO of the Calgary Jewish Federation.

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Hanukkah celebrations last for eight nights and days and recall the story of how the Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, rebelled to become an independent religion.

When the Jews defeated the king who didn’t allow them to practice their religion, they returned and found their temple ransacked with just one jar of oil. But, according to the Talmud, that oil miraculously burned for eight days, which is why Jews light eight candles on the Menorah.

This year Hanukkah started on the evening of Dec. 7 and ends on Dec. 15.

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