After Fatal Fire in Brooklyn, a Somber and Cautious End to Hanukkah
Posted December 19, 2017 8:26 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — Light is typically interpreted as the emblem of everything good and positive in Jewish tradition. That symbolism is all the more important this time of year, as Hanukkah — known as the Festival of Lights — celebrates the ancient miracle of an oil lamp that burned for eight straight days.
But on Monday morning, light took on a grislier significance among Orthodox Jewish neighbors in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
Around 2 a.m., as the Azan family slept in their three-story home on East 14th Street, flames leapt from their oil-burning menorah and started a fire that killed a mother and three of her children, the Fire Department said. The children’s father, Yosi Azan, and four other family members managed to escape, officials said.
The fatal fire rattled a deeply religious community that mourned the dead Monday night in a procession of vehicles carrying the victims. On Tuesday, as neighbors grappled with the loss of life, they also focused on the safest way to celebrate the seventh and penultimate night of Hanukkah. Oil-burning menorahs, like the one officials said caused the fire, tend to burn longer than candle menorahs, and if they are left unattended can pose a risk.
“I feel like the community is going to be more cautious now with lighting the menorah,” Victor Levi, who described himself as a distant relative of the Azan family, said at the scene of the fire. “My mom makes sure she doesn’t go to sleep until it’s off.”
Levi, 27, said he believes that Jewish families in the neighborhood are attuned to the dangers posed by the lighting of the traditional Jewish lamp for Hanukkah and that steps are usually taken to prevent fires, like not letting them burn for too long.
On Tuesday morning, the streets surrounding the scorched home smelled of ash. Dangling from the roof was a fire-licked drainage pipe bent against the breeze.
Along the street, front windows were decorated with Lego menorahs, traditional candlestick menorahs, lightbulb menorahs and oil menorahs. On a nearby outdoor porch, an oil menorah was perched on a stool and encased in a glass box with golden trim, set at a distance from the house.
The menorah that started the fire in a front room of the Azan family’s home was about 2 feet wide and burned oil held in small glass cups. One of the surviving Azan children and a teenage cousin told investigators that the oil menorah had been left burning after they went to sleep and that they saw the fire start nearby.
Although candle menorahs are more common, oil-burning menorahs have long been used by Orthodox Jews and are considered by many the most authentic way to commemorate the original small flask of oil that burned inside the Holy Temple.
Oil menorahs, which are mostly manufactured and imported from Israel, became increasingly popular in the United States about seven years ago, said Sam Heilman, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York.
“It’s now the thing,” said Heilman, an expert on Orthodox and Hasidic communities. “If you go into any Judaica shop, they sell these sort of pre-made ones that come with little oil capsules. You just pop off the top and light them. They’re less messy.”
Oil-burning menorahs can burn for up to an hour and a half, while the candle ones tend to burn for about half an hour, Heilman said. Jewish law dictates that the menorah be lit around nightfall, he said. The fire at the Azan house began at 2 a.m. and fire marshals suspect that the glass may have cracked under extended heat exposure, spilling oil and spreading flames.
“Jewish families are generally very cognizant of the danger of open flames, as candles or oil lamps are used to usher in the Sabbath each week as well as on holidays, particularly Hanukkah,” said Avi Shafran, the director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America. “But, like any open flame, they should not be left unattended.”
Monday was not the first time that Jewish worship has led to deadly fires. Two years ago, seven children were killed not far from the Azan home when a hot plate warming food for the Sabbath started a fire in a family home. That fire led to a surge in Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn buying smoke detectors before the next Sabbath.
The Azans are Syrian Jews who came to the United States from Israel about 15 years ago, relatives said. A stretch of Brooklyn that runs to Avenue V from Avenue Iand extends eastward to Nostrand Avenue from West 6th Street is considered one of the largest Syrian Jewish communities in the United States.
On Tuesday, the garden in front of the Azan home was laden with bouquets of pink and white flowers.
“It’s like a house that was never there,” said Shlomo Sousson, 48, who stood outside praying and holding a bible. “A whole family perished in one night.”
He added, through tears: “Everything that God does is for good. It’s above our understanding.”