"Mama Menorah" turns 32 this year — and as the first public menorah to be lit outside of Israel, she’s got a lot of which to be proud.
The 22-foot-tall mahogany menorah was first brought to Union Square in 1975 by Holocaust survivor and concert promoter Bill Graham to promote Jewish awareness. It has been dubbed "Mama" because it has inspired other public menorahs from Moscow to Bangkok.
The Union Square menorah lighting has drawn crowds of up to 10,000 and is the staple of the first night of Hanukkah, which is today at sundown, in The City.
"The light of the [Union Square] menorah truly brings miraculous blessing for all that want to tap into that energy," Rabbi Yosef Langer of the Chabad Organization of San Francisco said. "[The menorah] is a symbol that lets us know that miracles are in reach. The lights are usually lit to remind us that a little light, especially in the current situation of the world, can push away the darkness."
Originating around 164 B.C., Hanukkah, also known as "the festival of lights," is an eight-day celebration that commemorates the rededication of a temple desecrated by Assyrian and Greek armies. With the oil used to light candles in the temple destroyed, it was considered a miracle among Jews that the little oil left, enough to last only one day, allowed the candles to burn for eight.
"It’s a very traditional holiday, for half-Jews as well," said Moishe Langer, the son of Yosef Langer who is also with Chabad of San Francisco. "It’s to commemorate the oil."
The oil used to light the Hanukkah menorah also carries over its symbolism to the traditional dinner plate, where foods fried and cooked in oil — such as potato latkes and doughnuts — take center stage.
Other traditions include the spinning of dreidels, traditional tops laden with the characters of the Hebrew alphabet that were once used to aid in learning the alphabet in order to eventually read the Torah.
"It’s a special holiday," said Gail Green, a volunteer coordinator for the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco who provides information on Jewish events throughout the Bay Area. "It’s a family holiday."
Chocolate gold coins are also usually handed out at Hanukkah celebrations to "remind us that God in the world enables us to have plenty," Yosef Langer said. He estimated that The City has a Jewish population of 85,000.