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Hanukkah's enduring story celebrated with several events

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 17, 2008 - St. Louis Jews, as well as Jews around the world, will soon celebrate Hanukkah, (sometimes spelled Chanukah), also known as the Festival of Lights.

Hanukkah -- the word means "dedication" in Hebrew -- is an eight-day Jewish holiday that begins on Monday, Dec. 22 this year. Jews observe the holiday starting on the 25th day of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which can occur anytime from late November to late December. According to Jewish tradition, holidays begin at sunset the previous day, so Jews will begin the celebration this year on the evening of Sunday, Dec. 21.

The St. Louis commemoration of the holiday includes the lighting of a giant, one-of-a-kind outdoor Menorah created by famous Israeli artist Yaacov Agam, said Rabbi Brad Horwitz, director of the Helene Mirowitz Department of Jewish Community Life at the St. Louis Jewish Community Center.

"It sits in our parking lot all year round but it's used on Hanukkah. It's like a big sculpture. It's a larger-than-life kind of thing,'' he said.

The event will be on the second night of Hanukkah so a couple of branches will be lit, he added. Traditionally, an additional candle is lit on the Menorah each night of the holiday.

Hanukkah commemorates an event that happened centuries ago, Rabbi Horwitz said.

"At that time in the land of Israel, there were a lot of Hellenistic influences and the powers-that-be were basically persecuting Jews, not allowing them to follow Jewish traditions," he said. "They even got to the point where they desecrated the holy temple in Jerusalem and made Jews follow pagan ways."

In response, a small group of Jews known as the Maccabees formed a guerilla army to defend their faith and have the right to practice their religion, the rabbi said.

"Ultimately, they won. It was a miracle in a sense that this really small group defeated this large super army," he said. But when the Jews went into the temple, they found there was not enough pure oil to keep the holy lamp there lit permanently.

"So they had to create new pure olive oil to do that," Rabbi Horwitz said. It took eight days to create the oil but the lamp stayed lit while they did so.

"It was sort of a double miracle -- the miracle of the victory and the miracle of the oil," he said. "Ultimately the lessons of the holiday are a combination of having faith in G-d but also not feeling like your destiny is totally out of your control. There's a human element to our lives but there's also a spiritual element, and the holiday combines both."

On Hanukkah, Jews light the Menorah candles to commemorate the fact that the oil lasted for eight days, he said. The holiday foods follow the "oil" theme and include potato pancakes fried in oil and jelly donuts, which, like all donuts, are fried.

Families, especially those with children, enjoy spinning the dreidel, a top with four sides, each with a Hebrew letter representing a sentence about Hanukkah. Winners of each round get peanuts, chocolate candies or coins.

Hanukkah "gelt" in the form of chocolate candy or even real money is handed out on the holiday as a tradition in some communities, Rabbi Horwitz said.

Some families exchange Hanukkah gifts but the giving of gifts on the holiday is not in Jewish tradition, he said. "It's something that's come to the Jewish community via the rest of society in terms of the season. In Israel, for example, there would not be the exchange of gifts."

Jews and non-Jews alike can celebrate Hanukkah at several events in St. Louis:

Chanukah: Festival of Lights

  • When: Noon-4 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 21
  • Where: Ridgway Visitor Center, Missouri Botanical Garden, 4344 Shaw Blvd.
  • Cost: Included with Garden admission ($8, adults; $4, St. Louis City/County residents; free, children age 12 and under
  • Info: 314-577-510, www.mobot.org
  • Note: While I-64/Highway 40 is under construction, go to www.thenewi64.org for updates or visit www.GetAroundStL.com for other helpful information.

Following the lighting, students from the Reform Jewish Academy School and Solomon Schechter Day School will present a musical program as will the Epstein Hebrew Academy chorus. The St. Louis Jewish Women's Choir and the Circle of Jewish Music Group will also perform.
The female quartet Shir Ami (Song of My People) will perform traditional Jewish and Chanukah festival music at 2 p.m. At 3 p.m., the group HaShemesh (The Sun) will sing and play contemporary Israeli folk music.

Visitors can browse a traditional "shuk" (marketplace), with merchandise from B'rith Sholom Keneset Israel, The Silver Lady, and B'nai El Congregation Gift Shop. The Garden Gate Shop will offer Hanukkah-themed merchandise.

Family Hanukkah concert and party

  • When: 2 p.m., Dec. 21
  • Where: Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library at the Jewish Federation Building, 12 Millstone Campus Drive, Creve Coeur
  • Cost: No charge but reservations required
  • Info: Brodsky Library, 314-442-3720

Musician Sheldon Low will perform at this concert hosted by the PJ Library at the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library and co-sponsored by the JCC Helene Mirowitz Department of Jewish Life, JCC Shalom Baby and the CAJE's Early Childhood Educators Council. The PJ Library program is funded by Leslie and Michael Litwack in partnership with the Jewish Federation and the Brodsky Library.
Hanukkah treats and a craft project will follow the concert.

Shalom Neighbor Hanukkah Candle Lighting & Celebration

  • When: 4:30-6:30 p.m., Monday, Dec. 22
  • Where: Jewish Community Center Marilyn Fox Building, 16801 Baxter Road, Chesterfield
  • Cost: $9 member family; $12, non-member family
  • Info: 314-442-3227, www.jccstl.com

Come watch as the Agam Menorah is lit at the Chesterfield JCC, play in the gym and children's activity center and enjoy Hanukkah snacks at this community-wide celebration.
Hanukkah Festival at the JCC

  • When: 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 25
  • Where: Jewish Community Center Marilyn Fox Building, 16801 Baxter Road, Chesterfield
  • Cost: $8 per child, members; $10 per child, non-member; free, children under 2
  • Info: 314-442-3271, www.jccstl.com

This celebration is open to the entire community for families with children 10 and under.
Activities include menorah making, inflatables, candle making, Hanukkah sports, indoor pool games, driedel spinning contest, storytelling, movie, music, Chabad's olive press and crafts. Latkes, sufganiyot (jelly donuts), bagels and other food will be available for purchase.

Kathie Sutin is a freelance journalist. 

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