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נס גדול היה שם (“A great miracle happened there”)

The dark end of the year is illuminated by holidays where hope and light play an important role. While Christians prepare for Christmas, Jews around the world commemorate the victorious uprising against Greek-Syrian rule and the rededication of the Second Temple, as recorded in the Talmud and Flavius Josephus. Beginning on the 25th of Kislev, the third month of the Jewish year, Hanukkah or Festival of Lights lasts for eight days and also commemorates the Miracle of Oil that is said to have occurred in the year 3597 (164 BC).

When the Temple in Jerusalem had to be cleansed of all paganism after the victory, only a little remnant of consecrated oil was found. The production of new oil took eight days, but the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum in the inner area of the sanctuary, was never allowed to go out. Miraculously, the small remnant burned for the entire eight days, and so every night at Hanukkah, another candle is lit on a special candelabrum that has eight arms. Sometimes a ninth holds a candle called a “servant”, which is used to light the others.

Hanukkah is a family celebration, with services, visits, games and gifts, and of course special foods prepared with oil like latkes, a kind of potato pancake, or doughnuts called sufganiot. In Magdeburg, a public Hanukkah candelabrum was set up for the first time in 2017. The picture here shows a window in the mourning hall at the Israelite cemetery in Sudenburg.

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The Mighty Maiden

A castle with two pointed towers, an open gate and a raised portcullis; between the towers a Magd (maiden) holding a wreath in her raised right hand.”

You can read this in heraldry books and obviously the Magd, Middle High German for maiden or virgin, is reflected in the name of the city. But does she really?

Legend tells us of a border castle Julius Caesar had built on the river Elbe. And of a nearby village where the commander donated a temple to the virgin goddess Diana. The town was named Parthenopolis after this place of worship, which means “maiden town”. Unfortunately for the story, Caesar never got beyond the Rhine.

Linguists suspect that the older name Magadoburg, common at the time of Charlemagne, could mean “mighty castle”. What we do know is that as early as 1244, the first town seal we have shows a virgin on a rampart between two towers. The wreath as a sign of her virginity was soon added, as were the raised portcullis and the wide-open gates. Their welcoming gesture has brought the city great wealth and great suffering. Today it has become a friendly sign of a new, open urbanity.