First Hanukkah light shines |

First Hanukkah light shines

Sarah Gonser

Each family interprets and celebrates the holiday season in its own fashion. For Allen and Charna Silver, who have lived in South Lake Tahoe 26 years, and their daughters Erin and Sasha, December is a time to celebrate the ancient rites of Hanukkah.

“We get prepared the week before,” Allen said. “The kids and my wife decorate the family room with dreidels, menorahs and the star of David. These are made of wood or clay, or out of paper so we can hang them in the windows. The idea is to let the Hanukkah celebration go from the inside of the house to the outside. We put menorahs in the windows facing outward so the celebration of freedom and light shines into the street.”

A dreidel, Allen explained, is a spinning top and the menorah is the nine-branched Hanukkah candelabrum which is lit, one candle per day, until the holiday is over.

“We put the presents around the menorah and give one each night. It’s primarily for the kids, the adults are pretty much the givers and the children the receivers,” he said.

An important part of the holiday is the preparation and enjoyment of special meals. Rich foods cooked in lots of oil are popular fare, although a none too healthy tradition, deeply rooted in Jewish history.

“At some point during the eight days of Hanukkah, at least one night, possibly more, we have a traditional meal,” said Al Goldberg, president of Temple Bat Yam and a five-year resident of Stateline. “The big thing is potato latkes which are nothing more than potato pancakes. We eat this with brisket roast beef, it goes really well with the pancakes.”

The latke, Yiddish for pancake, originally came from Eastern Europe before it was popularized in the United States and made into holiday tradition along with jelly donuts, another food prepared in oil.

“In the Jewish tradition there must always be an eternal light, or lamp, burning in the temple,” Goldberg said. “The foods that are celebrated in this holiday involve lots of oil because the basis of the holiday comes from the miracle of oil.”

Jewish lore holds that around 165 B.C. when the Jews fought the Greeks to preserve their right to worship one deity versus the Greek tradition of multiple gods and goddesses, a group of Jews were caught in a temple with barely enough oil to keep the eternal light burning another day.

“They were surrounded by Greeks and they only had a small vial of oil left,” Goldberg said. “Miraculously, the oil lasted eight days until they were able to get out and find more.”

Thus, the Hanukkah tradition has evolved to symbolize many things for the thousands of families that celebrate each year, but central to it all is the precious meaning of oil and those eight days, now the eight days of Hanukkah, when the eternal light kept burning.

“We chant blessings in Hebrew over the menorah as we light it and thank God for allowing us to be here,” Allen said. “For us Hanukkah is a symbol of freedom over tyranny. We praise God that we’re still here and that we can still light the lights every year without someone killing us.”

While Hanukkah is mainly celebrated in the United States, a fact which Goldberg attributes to the “December dilemma” where Jews began celebrating Hanukkah because their Christian neighbors were celebrating Christmas, it remains a minor holiday in the Jewish tradition.

“What people have done in some families is replace Christmas with Hanukkah,” Goldberg said. “If you were in Israel you wouldn’t decorate at all. They do light candles but they don’t exchange gifts. I think the gift-giving came about because it’s December and Jews assimilated to Christmas traditions.”

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