By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When the sun goes down tonight, the worshippers of Bluefield’s Congregation Ahavath Shalom and many others across the region will light the first of eight candles to begin this year’s Hanukkah celebrations.
Dr. Phyllis Horwitz, the co-president of the Congregation Ahavath Shalom, said it is based on an event that happened circa 200 B.C.
“During the time of the second temple, there was a Greek king named Antiochus who came in to the area,” Horwtiz said. “He and his armies defiled the temple and tried to destroy it. A small group called the Maccabees conquered the Greek invaders. It was an amazing defeat since the Maccabees were such a small band that defeated this large army who was invading the temple. When the battle was over, the temple had to be purified. They only had one cruse of oil left to light the temple, and that cruse could only light it for one day, but it lasted for eight days and nights. Hanukkah is more about the cleansing and rededication of the temple than the battle.”
Though Hanukkah is only celebrated for eight days each year, all Jewish temples have a small reminder of the event burning on or above their altars.
“All temples have what is known as the ‘eternal light’ or ‘eternal flame’ at the altar,” Horwitz said. “The eternal light was the light the Maccabees were trying to keep lit during those eight days, which was the miracle. The light is always lit in every temple as a reminder of that miracle. The traditional candelabra — like the ones we have in the temple here — have seven branches on them, but the menorah has eight.”
Horwitz said there are certain rules that must be followed when lighting the menorah for Hanukkah.
“You light the candles at sunset,” she said. “Most people will display the menorah on the dining room table or the mantel. It is meant to be displayed somewhere. In Israel, they often put the menorahs outside the house. Before you light the candles, you say a prayer and sometimes people eat beforehand. The middle candle is called the ‘shamash’ or servant candle. You always light the other candles with the shamash. Each candle commemorates the eight nights of the miracle. Hanukkah candles are supposed to last for a certain number of minutes. After you light each candle, you let it burn and then replace it with a new candle when they burn down.”
Though many larger cities have stores that sell Hanukkah items, there are not many stores within the local area that sell Hanukkah candles and other items needed to celebrate the holiday.
“Many larger cities have stores where you can buy then or you can go to a Hallmark store and get Hanukkah candles,” Horwitz said. “Around here, you really have to shop online to buy them. There aren’t really any stores in this area that sell Hanukkah candles or materials.”
Horwitz said there are a wide variety of menorahs available for Hanukkah celebrations now, including some lit through electricity instead of by candlelight.
“People have gotten very novel with menorahs,” she said. “Menorahs now come in all shapes and sizes. A lot of sports teams have menorahs with their logos on them now. This one has shoes as the candle holders. Others are more traditional. The one I had as a child I will probably give to my own children someday.”
Food is another important part of the celebration.
“There is plenty of fried food,” Horwtiz said. “They have jelly donuts known as ‘sufganiyot,’ potato latkes, brisket, and cabbage soul. They have a lot of bakeries in Israel that make sufganiyot. Latkes are not exactly potato pancakes but more ground potatoes mixed with salt, pepper, matzo meal, fry them and serve them. They are very good with apple sauce and sour cream.”
During the holiday, Horwitz said children often play a game involving a dreidel, which is similar to a spinning top but with four flat sides instead of being rounded.
“The dreidel is a game children often play,” Horwtiz They will play with pennies, raisins, cookies, and candies like Hershey’s kisses. You spin the dreidel and it falls on a different letter. Each letter means something different. One means you take some, another you take the whole pot, none or put one back into the pot. The letters on the dreidel say ‘a great miracle happened there,’ unless the dreidel is from Israel. In Israel, the dreidels say ‘a great miracle happened here.’”
Horwtiz said how Hanukkah is celebrated has changed since she was a girl.
“When I was a kid, it was different,” she said. “Most children only received one present and there were no such things as electric menorahs. Now, many children receive many gifts every night or one big gift followed by little gifts.”
According to Horwitz, Hanukkah has gained more attention in the U.S. as a side effect of the commercialization of the Christmas season.
“Hanukkah is a happy holiday, but it has become bigger in American due to the time of year it falls,” Horwitz said. “Bigger holy days are Rosh Hashanah or the Jewish new year, Yom Kippur or the day of atonement, and Passover. Of course, the Sabbath is more important than anything. Hanukkah is the gift-giving time of year. It is really a holiday for children. The children are usually the ones who light the menorah. Parents often give them one gift on each night of Hanukkah. Marketing has really grabbed a hold of Hanukkah.”
This year, Hanukkah will last from tonight until Sunday, Dec. 16. Unlike Christmas which always falls on Dec. 25, Horwitz said the dates of Hanukkah change from year to year based on the lunar cycle.
“In the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah always begins on the 25th day of the month of Kislev,” she said. “We go by the lunar calendar. Our calendar starts on Rosh Hashanah, which usually begins in September or sometimes early October. Hanukkah usually falls in December and often times it falls during Christmas. However, next year Hanukkah will actually fall around the same time as Thanksgiving.”
Though the Jewish community in southern West Virginia is smaller than in some areas, Horwitz said Hanukkah provides an important opportunity for the entire Congregation Ahavath Shalom to come together and celebrate.
“Having the children together is always the best part for me,” Horwitz said. “It’s very exciting to watch the kids, to see their faces light up. Our temple was founded in the late 1940s, around 1947 or 1948. We as a community love it here. When we come into the temple, we feel at home. Next Saturday, we will get our congregation together on the last night of Hanukkah and celebrate. We will sing Hanukkah songs and eat. It is just a celebration of family and being together.”
— Contact Kate Coil at firstname.lastname@example.org