Budapest’s Hanukkah Ice-skating Tradition

The event is part of a broader 'coming out' of Jewish communities in the former communist bloc, where after years of practicing their religion underground Jews are celebrating Hanukkah very publicly

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Credit: EMIH

The outdoor rink, central Europe’s largest, in the city center has been part of Hungary’s Christmas tradition for nearly 150 years. Taking up 3.5 acres, Budapest’s City Park Ice Rink draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every winter, who come for the Christmas market, the winter festival and the promise of smooth ice and affordable skate rentals.

The rink is busy nearly every day with Christmas revelers. Except, however, on the first night of Hanukkah, when hundreds of Jews gather to sing Hanukkah songs and to watch rabbis on skates light the giant Hanukkah menorah, or hanukkiah, built by the local branch of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement, EMIH. They rent the rink and distribute Hanukkah doughnuts, or sufganiyot, and tea to ticket-holders.

The tradition began a little over a decade ago, one of just a few places in Europe where the North American “Hanukkah on ice” tradition has taken root, together with Moscow and London. In the U.S., Chabad rabbis organize dozens of events each year featuring the ceremonial candle lighting, feasting on deep-fried Hanukkah delicacies and skating, with games for children and training for the inexperienced.

Credit: EMIH

In Budapest, the event is part of a broader “coming out” of Jewish communities in the former communist bloc, where after years of practicing their religion underground Jews are celebrating Hanukkah very publicly.

“Hanukkah used to be low key in Budapest, as was everything else connected to Judaism during socialism,” said Rabbi Boruch Oberlander, an early organizer of the new tradition. Back then, Jews feared that practicing any religion, especially Judaism, invited persecution.

“But it’s not good for Judaism when things are low key,” he added, because it made people leave the tradition. Throughout the Soviet sphere of influence, decades of religious persecution compounded the Nazi-caused devastation. Unaware or ashamed of their Jewish identity, countless Jews in the region assimilated, and their children often did not identify as Jewish.

Against this background, Hanukkah has a special significance in the postcommunist world, said Oberlander, a Brooklyn-born rabbi who settled in Budapest 28 years ago as an emissary of Chabad.

He isn’t isn’t just referring to public events at skating rinks: There’s also the commandment to place hanukkiot where they can be seen by all. “Meaning, don’t be low key!” he told JTA.

Oberlander, 53, does not skate himself, he said, explaining he’s “not very good at it.” But in his community, the event is one of the most popular because of how it combines seasonal amenities, sports and religious ceremony in a fun, family-friendly setting.

His interpretation of how Jews should celebrate Hanukkah is shared by many rabbis, especially Chabad rabbis, who stage, public menorah lightings in the central squares of major cities. New York, for example, boasts two such massive events: The Grand Army Plazas in both Manhattan and Brooklyn have competed for the title of World’s Largest Menorah.

Such displays inspired Jews to think big in Western Europe, ending decades in which communities traumatized by the Holocaust had shunned initiatives that advertise Judaism.

Since 2013 in the Netherlands, for example, the chief rabbi has been lifted in a crane (along with the Israeli ambassador) to light the firs candle of a 36-foot hanukkiah built for the Jewish community by Christian Zionists who say it’s Europe’s largest. In Berlin, a giant menorah is lit at the Brandenburg Gate monument.

Hanukkah on ice

Hanukkah skating events will be held across the United States this month, from Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park, to Houston and in San Mateo, California.

In Moscow, the popular Hanukkah on ice event, which began in 2012, is eclipsed by what may be the largest celebration of Hanukkah in Europe: the annual gathering of 6,000 Jews at the State Kremlin Palace for an evening of dance and performances, as well as the bestowing of awards to communal VIPs. Organizers say the venue is important to them for symbolic reasons because it produced some of the world’s worst anti-Semitic policies after the fall of Nazi Germany.

In Budapest, the city’s summer Jewish cultural festival is also an example of Jews reclaiming their place in society. Judafest, which was held for the 10th consecutive year, draws thousands of Jews and non-Jews to the historically Jewish 7th district for sessions, activities and exhibitions on connected to Jewish cooking, dancing and Yiddish.

But there’s something special about the Hanukkah on ice event, which is held at an iconic location with strong ties to the holiday period for all Hungarians.

“I think it indicates a generational difference in which young people our age don’t think twice about participating in an event that celebrates, publicly, our Jewish identity,” Eszter Fabriczki, 30, a regular at the event, told JTA. “Holocaust survivors passed the fear element to their children, but not to their grandchildren.”

Against this background, Fabriczki said her father “is freaking out over my wanting to give my son a circumcision, if I have a son, because then he could be identified as Jewish.” She has no children, adding: “I have no thoughts of this kind, living a pretty comfortable Jewish life.”

Despite the generational gap it exposes, Fabriczki said she and her mother have bonded over the City Park Ice Rink Hanukkah event.

“I’m quite religious but my mother is not, so the Hanukkah on ice event is something we can share because she likes to ice skate and it’s important for me to observe all the Jewish holidays,” Fabriczki said.

But for Sara Szalai, 16, Hanukkah on ice means quality time with her dad, Kalman, the managing director of the Jewish community’s Action and Protection Foundation, which monitors anti-Semitic incidents. Neither is particularly concerned, she said, about identifying as Jews at the event.

“Maybe there are people who think this way, but for us it’s not a big issue,” said Szalai, who added that she’s a “pretty good” skater.

“It’s usually pretty crowded there, so it’s a rare opportunity to really skate properly on Hanukkah without worrying about bumping into people,” she said.

Rabbis on skates

The event typically unites Jews across the religious-secular divide. Hanukkah has fewer restrictions than other Jewish observances such as Shabbat or Yom Kippur, when observant Jews are not allowed to operate machines, travel or perform any action classified as work.

In Hungary’s fractious Jewish community —where interdenominational tensions are rising amid polarizing policies undertaken by the nationalist government — Hanukkah on ice offers a rare armistice in which secular and observant, local and Israeli Jews set aside their differences for a night of fun.

It’s also, Fabriczki noted, “a chance to see rabbis on skates.”

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