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Chanukah, festival of Lights*

Festival of Lights Encourages a Celebration of Cultural Identity

As Paula Marcus took an evening stroll last winter with her husband and son during their holiday visit to Jerusalem, they were stunned by the beauty they witnessed before them. In the front of virtually every home, people had built a glass case in order to display their menorahs during the Festival of Lights. "What was so incredible was the quality of the light that the menorahs gave off because in Israel, there’s a strong tradition associated with oil, so they use oil rather than candles over there, and the glow of the oil-lit flames was just beautiful," she said.

When asked to describe the spiritual aspects of this winter celebration for those of the Jewish faith, she said, "Chanukah is called the Festival of Lights because it gives us a chance to celebrate our heritage, our cultural identity, who we are. It can be compared with using lights to decorate trees for Christmas and the lighting candles for Kwanzaa--it’s all about looking at light at times of darkness." Marcus, who is the cantor for the Temple Bethel, will be performing the Chanukah ceremony at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center [in Santa Cruz] on Dec. 5 from 3:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

What is Chanukah?

Chanukah commemorates the physical and spiritual victory of the Jews against the Greeks almost 2,000 years ago. Chanukah means rededication and the symbols and rituals of the holiday demonstrate an annual renewal of Jewish faith and practices. The story can be found in the Second Book of Maccabees, the last historical book of the Old Testament.

The Temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish observance, had been taken over by the Greeks for the worship of their gods almost 2,000 years ago, and since Israel was under Greek rule, many Jewish practices had been outlawed. The Greeks destroyed sacred scrolls, books and the inside of the Temple.

The Jews were first led to revolt against their oppressors by Mattathias and his five sons. Eventually, Mattathias was succeeded by his son, Judah Maccabee, and Judah’s army was known as the Maccabees, which means "strong as a hammer". Judah was a natural, fierce leader, and two years later, after many battles with the enormous army of the Greek king, on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, the Jews reclaimed the Temple from the Greeks, and rededicated it as their place of worship. There, they rekindled the eternal flame, which was meant to be kept burning constantly within the Temple. According to legend, they had only one day's worth of oil for the flame, yet the flame lasted for eight days and nights until more oil could be procured. In honor of this miracle, the menorah with its eight candles, became a symbol of the historic event.

When is Chanukah?

Chanukah is celebrated in the late fall or early winter, but varies from late November to late December in the secular calendar. This year, the holiday will begin on Friday evening, December 3rd and will end on December 10th. The Jewish calendar is based on both the solar and lunar calendars, and the dates of the holidays do not change in the Jewish calendar, but vary in the secular calendar.

How is Chanukah celebrated?

During the festival of Chanukah, menorahs are lit for eight days to commemorate the miracle. There are nine candles on the menorah, one for each night, and one for the shamash, or servant, the candle used to light the others.

Families gather at nightfall to rekindle menorah flames, rededicate themselves to their faith, and to share in festive meals. Blessings are sung or recited as the candles are lit. First, a special blessing for the Chanukah lights, then a blessing for the miracles that happened long ago, and then the blessing that is said on the first night of every Jewish holiday. It is called Shehehayanu.

During dinner, there are special potato pancakes called latkes fried in oil as a reminder of the miraculous oil. In the Middle East, jelly doughnuts are fried in oil rather than latkes according to Marcus.

Each night the celebration continues with songs or readings, games, and small gifts. Children play the dreidel game with spinning tops; on each of the four sides of the dreidel, there is one of the four Hebrew letters that stand for a "Great Miracle Happened There."

Chanukah is celebrated in the synagogue

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