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Hanukah in America: Its Meaning and Customs - 2001-12-09

At sundown on Sunday, Jews all over the world will begin to celebrate Hanukah, their eight day Festival of Light. They will light candles and recall their liberation from political and religious oppression well over 2,000 years ago.

VOA's Adam Phillips filed this report on Hanukah customs and their meaning, as well as some very American ways this ancient holiday is being celebrated today.

Rabbi Fred Dobb of the Adat Shalom Synagogue, just outside Washington DC, offers two views of Hanukah as heard through a pair of traditional Hanukah songs.

"And then there's..."

"That's one of the more religious takes on the whole history."

It is the historical dimension of the Hanukah festival that Rabbi Dobb examines first.

"It deals with a historical moment almost 2200 years ago when the Syrians who were under Greek influence had taken over the Land of Israel and the Jews who had been the independent kingdom there lost their rights to worship and the sacred temple in Jerusalem was in ruins, almost," he says. "They were killing pigs in there, there was a statue of Zeus in there [and] all kinds of [other] things that the Jews didn't like. And so a small ragtag band of them fought a guerrilla war to take it back, a series of retreats that ended up culminating in victory… Militarily speaking, it was a miracle."

According to tradition, even greater miracles would await the Jews once they had completed the ritual re-purification of their sacred temple in Jerusalem.

"… And they need to light the lamp, called 'the Menorah' - the seven branched candelabra, which sanctifies the interior space of the Temple," says Rabbi Dobb. "There is only one little jar or cruse of oil, and they need at least eight before they can get the supply of pure oil going again because the infrastructure of the whole society had been disrupted with the war. So in a great act of faith we're told, they light the one jar - which is supposed last only one day, and it lasts the full eight days [instead]."

That is why Hanukah is called a "Festival of Light" as well as a "Festival of Freedom."

"Light, as in so many traditions, is something that is sacred. It's holy in and of itself. And it's also something that makes us feel good and comforted," says Rabbi Dobb.

The peoples of the Northern hemisphere have traditionally wished for comfort near the time of the winter solstice, when the days get shorter and the nights get longer. And they mark their hope for the sun's return with ritual celebrations.

Rabbi Dobb notes that Hanukah, which always begins at the time of the new moon nearest the winter solstice, follows the classic pattern. "The first night, you light the 'helper' candle, called the 'shamash,' and then one of the eight candles. And then the second night you use the helper to light two and so on until the eighth night you have this whole thing ablaze," he says.

It has become an important tradition among most American Jews to lavish gifts on children during Hanukah, a practice that most Orthodox Jews, a small minority, ignore. Joy Singer, the principal of Kehila Chadasha Jewish Sunday School in Bethesda Maryland explains. "Hanukah, which started out as a minor Jewish festival and [even] a post-Biblical Jewish festival, is the 'big grab' for American Jewish kids," she says. "The kids look forward to it and they start talking about what they want for Hanukah… A lot of it is, of course, Christmas. Like Christmas, a lot of Hanukah has become secularized over the years. There are a lot of presents, which I imagine retailers love. Now there are holiday decorations, there are a lot more songs..."

Ms. Singer adds that symbolic foods made in, you guessed it!- oil, also play a special role at Hanukah parties and celebrations. "It's not a holiday for dieters. We fry the 'latkes' the potato pancakes, in oil. And with the onset of the modern state of Israel, we now have the 'soofgoniot, the jelly-filled donuts, perhaps from more of a Middle Eastern tradition," she says. "And the latkes are from an Eastern European tradition."

But Rabbi Dobb reminds us that, deep down, Hanukah is about more than gifts, music or even the tastiest food. "Spiritual meanings of Hanukah are also popular," he says. "So for example, the idea that there is one jar of oil which is pure remember this had to be pure to be used in temple service and we want to remember the inner purity of a person. And that's a challenge sometimes when we feel sullied and messed up by the world around us or by our own actions. And to remember that there is always that eternal light of pure oil burning within us that we can tap into."

Rabbi Fred Dobb is the leader of the Adat Shalom Synagogue outside of Washington DC. This year the Jewish festival of Hanukah runs from December 9 through December 17 of the Christian calendar.