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    ‘Women’s Celebration of Chanukah’ Moves to Oakland LGBTQ Center for 20th Anniversary

    By Rachel Ginsburg, J.D.–

    In 1994, I was at a lesbian and gay Christmas party in Marin County, and there was the usual hubbub of drinking, talking, and a football game on the TV, until I took a moment to light a Hanukkah menorah in the corner. Suddenly, everyone began to gather around us as we said the prayers and lit the candles. I then realized that there was a need for a sacred Jewish space among us at the holidays.

    The following year, I went to the Montclair women’s potluck, which was a monthly gathering for lesbians, and I found some interested Jewish lesbians. We took it from there and created the Women’s Celebration of Chanukah. (Editor’s note: For more information about the different spellings of the word for the festival, see:

    The formula was to have multiple hostesses and they all invited their friends, so that was what made the party work. This was all about growing community, one segment at a time. We discovered that, for Jewish lesbians during the Christmas season, it filled a purpose. The party brought together those who were Temple-affiliated and had no way to express their lesbianism, and those who were non-religious but had no way to express their Jewishness.

    At first, we thought that we should rotate the party among several houses, but that didn’t work so well. I decided just to do the party at my house. Then lesbian musicians started coming—and they weren’t even Jewish!

    A jam began where anyone could play and sing along. Some women were better than others, but it wasn’t like an open mic. This was a musical free-for-all, and it was wonderful.

    So, we just kept doing the party, year after year, and different women would take turns being co-hostesses. Women got together, and couples met here who later married each other. Mary Watkins would play the piano if we asked, and once she started playing it was … wow! Other people met each other playing at the party, and formed bands as a result.

    Food was always a big piece, too. Latkes are critical, and they’re good when they’re hot, so we had three teams of latke makers frying them in the kitchen. People would line up for them coming off the stove, and devour them slathered with applesauce and sour cream. There was a bountiful potluck as well.

    After we’d done the Hanukkah party for a while, we started to notice that some women of color would show up, but it was still a predominantly white event. Around the same time, I co-produced an event called Mega Mixx that brought together women from the African-American, Latina, disabled, Asian and deaf communities. After that, Hanukkah became much less white as the musical component grew. Black, Asian and Latina women started showing up at the party and making music. The musicians came and brought their non-white friends, and that has continued to this day.

    The party has always been open to anyone who wanted to come. We held the first one in 1995, and fifty women showed up. By the time I stopped throwing it at my house in 2015, we still had around 100 women attending. This year, we’re celebrating the party’s Twentieth Anniversary by having it at the new Oakland LGBTQ Center. We chose the Center because it celebrates age, race and gender diversity with real joy and energy—and it’s time more women discovered what a gem it is.

    At each party, there is a moment of magic that happens when we quiet everyone down and say, “Let’s make this a sacred space,” and we say the traditional Hebrew prayers. Then we say a goddess prayer that I wrote years ago, for women who don’t get into the Jewish thing:

    For the Lighting of the Candles

    Blessed are festivals and seasons for joy.

    Blessed is this festival of winter, which brings us together as Jewish women and as Lesbians

         to celebrate traditions of our own.

    Blessed is the winter, a season of rest and renewal, a time for restoring and replenishing the earth.

    Blessed is the power of light to dispel darkness.

    Blessed be.

    We have been in a world that’s either all Jewish or all lesbian, but this goddess prayer bridges the gap and gives us our own space. This year we will be sharing the magic at the new Oakland LGBT Center on Sunday, December 17, from 4 to 7 pm. Latkes will be served and music will be made.

    We’re hoping every woman reading this, Jewish or not, will come for a celebration that’s as unique as it is traditional. Bring your musical instruments if you want, and pre-made food and non-alcoholic drinks to share. Kosher is not required, and you can bring your own menorah and candles, too.

    The Oakland LGBTQ Community Center is at 3207 Lakeshore Avenue, Oakland (entrance and elevator on Rand Avenue). Parking is available in nearby lots and on the street. Donations of money to fund the Center will be gratefully accepted.

    Rachel Ginsburg, J.D., is a Bay Area-based attorney specializing in family law.