The giant menorah in Union Square in San Francisco on the first night of Hanukkah, Dec. 10, 2020. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
The giant menorah in Union Square in San Francisco on the first night of Hanukkah, Dec. 10, 2020. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

The pandemic can’t stop Union Square menorah lighting in San Francisco

It wouldn’t have been a first-night Hanukkah celebration in this year of tumult without at least something unexpected happening.

Sure enough, as Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad of San Francisco prepared to light the shamash on the enormous menorah in Union Square, the glass bulb protecting the candle from wind fell off and smashed to the ground.

“It’s like a wedding,” Langer, a big S.F. Giants fan known as the “Rally Rabbi,” said with a chuckle after things had settled down. After a quick swapping of the wind guards, Langer was able to light the shamash — the helper candle — marking the start of the eight-night holiday on Thursday evening.

The rabbi then sang “I Have a Little Dreidel” and encouraged the small, socially distanced crowd to join in.

Throughout the ceremony — being held for a 45th straight year, with lightings to take place daily through Dec. 17— Langer attempted to bring a lighthearted energy to the proceedings  — a bulwark of hope and light while the city and country is hammered continuously with gloomy news about rising coronavirus cases and more mandated restrictions.

“The Jewish people have always been innovators in finding the light in the midst of darkness,” Langer told J. “If you go into a dark room, and you light a match, the whole room lights up. When it comes to celebrating Hanukkah, we had to figure out how to bring the light to the people.”

In a normal year, hundreds of onlookers would have been on hand for the annual Chabad event — one of the very first public menorah lightings outside of Israel.

But this year, Langer asked the public to stay home and watch a livestream of the ceremony. Only about 30 people (masked and socially distanced) were there in person to gaze up at the 22-foot-tall mahogany “Mama” menorah. After Langer did his thing, he lit the first candle using a blowtorch. District 6 San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney accompanied him to light the first candle.

“This year, the darkness is greater than ever,” said Rabbi Moshe Langer, Yosef’s son.

Rabbi Yosef Langer deploys some serious menorah lighting equipment atop the Union Square menorah in San Francisco, Dec. 10, 2020. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
Rabbi Yosef Langer deploys some serious menorah lighting equipment atop the Union Square menorah, Dec. 10, 2020. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

Moshe said that getting authorization from the city to have the lighting this year was tricky, since most gatherings currently are prohibited. But the lighting was able to take place after Moshe and others from Chabad of San Francisco took certain steps, such as hanging signs encouraging social distancing.

The first menorah lighting at Union Square was organized in 1975 by Bill Graham, the late concert promoter who covered a majority of the ceremony’s costs every year, Moshe said. In the 29 years since Graham died, Chabad of S.F. has raised roughly $50,000 every year for the lighting.

The Chabad movement organizes similar events around the world, including in Moscow, Paris and Ho Chi Minh City. In an interview with a KTVU reporter right before the menorah lighting, Moshe Langer noted that there’s even a yearly celebration at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, where the Nazis used to conduct marches.

“For generations, the Jewish people never lost hope,” Moshe told J. “And they always stood up to discrimination and antisemitism. In times like this, we don’t have a physical enemy trying to destroy us. There’s Covid. It’s killing people and making people sick. It’s definitely important now to have spirituality in our lives and continue practicing.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at gabriel@jweekly.com and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.