These ain’t your bubbie’s latkes.
On Monday, a virtual reality club and arcade in Brooklyn will celebrate the Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah, on another dimension: a virtual one.
A Jewish group called Tech Tribe is throwing the event at a VR club called Yokey Pokey. The event’s invitation describes the evening as a “IRL VR Chanukah party”.
Guests will schmooze, eat latkes (fried potato pancakes), and light the ceremonial Menorah (a nine-pronged ritual candelabra) like they would at any other Hanukkah party. But they’ll also strap on Oculus Go headsets to play original Hanukkah-themed VR games and learn about the holiday in the virtual world.
“We want to let our community members explore the messages and experiences of Hanukkah in a new plane” Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone, the co-founder of Tech Tribe, told Mashable.
Hanukkah is the eight-day long Jewish holiday that commemorates the victory of the Jewish Maccabee fighters over would-be Greek conquerors. The tradition of lighting the Menorah — one new candle each night — comes from the legend of a small can of oil that miraculously lasted eight days to keep the “eternal light” aflame while the ancient Jews rebuilt their destroyed temple.
This year, Monday is the second night of Hanukkah, and the tech-forward Jews of Brooklyn will clearly get to celebrate the ancient festival in modern style. For example, guests will take in a retelling of the Hanukkah legend in a 360-degree immersive virtual environment.
“Virtual reality is a really interesting way to learn things because you’re transported to the place you’re learning about,” Ben Yokey, Yokey Pokey’s founder and one of the creators of the VR Hanukkah experience, said. “The 360 video that we created has all those pieces of the temple being destroyed, the Maccabees fighting. You look around, you see the battle. The immersive aspect allows you to learn much more.”
The party’s VR experience lasts about 6-7 minutes. After putting on a headset, the program begins with the story of Hanukkah. Next, attendees play a VR game of dreidl.
Then they’re transported to a virtual kitchen where they have to take latkes off the stove and put them on a plate, all before they blacken and burn (oy vey!).
Then players go to the desert ruins of the destroyed temple, where they’ll unearth gold coins and other artifacts, and search for the storied can of oil. Finally, they’ll stand before a glittering menorah which they’ll light with the help of their VR handsets.
“Technology can help us explore the message of Hanukkah,” Lightstone said. The oil search game, for example, can show how “finding the jar of oil within yourself can bring light into the world around you.”
Yokey conceived of the experiment while speaking with his Rabbi, Benjy Silverman, who wrote and voices the Hanukkah story. The Yokey Pokey team created the whole experience internally, and have shared it with Chabad centers (Chabad is an international Jewish community organization) across the country.
The VR Hanukkah party isn’t Tech Tribe’s first foray into digital Judaism mashups, either. Rabbi Mordechai and wife Chana Lightstone co-founded Tech Tribe in 2010 specifically as an events and digital forum to explore the intersection of Jewish traditions, thought, and technology. It is an affiliate of the Chabad Young Professionals society, and has a base community of about 100 regulars, but has events that have touched around 5,000 people.
Other events include weekly Friday night discussions around topics like, “Is lab grown meat kosher?” or “Can robots be Jewish?” They also host an unplugged dinner at SXSW in Austin and put on an interactive exhibit called Jews In Space last year with the Brooklyn Children’s Museum to envision what Jewish life could look like on Mars.
For the last five years, they have thrown tech-themed Hanukkah parties. The first iteration involved a 3D-printed menorah, and in 2017, they created an AR Menorah lighting experience. This year, the VR party came into being when a mutual friend connected them with the owner of Yokey Pokey, Ben. Lightstone’s annual parties and Yokey’s VR arcade were a perfect fit.
To Lightstone, Hanukkah is all about being proud of Jewish history and identity; traditionally, Jews place the Menorah in the window, for everyone to see.
“I hope attendees will be able to leave with a stronger sense of dedication to exploring Jewish identity and bringing light,” Lightstone said. “Each of us can be a lamplighter to bring light to the world.”
That sentiment apparently stands whether the world is physical, or virtual.
Tech Tribe’s VR Hanukkah party is open to the public. It begins at 6pm on Monday, December 23, at Yokey Pokey in Brooklyn, NY. You can learn more and RSVP here.