DURHAM — The volunteer kitchen crew at the Levin Jewish Community Center couldn’t make latkes fast enough on Sunday at the center’s annual Hanukkah festival.
Amid the crowds of family and friends joyously greeting one another, a gift market, an oil-pressing demonstration and musical performances, the line for the piping hot, fried potato cakes was constant throughout the day.
“Every time we take them out there, they’re gone,” said Leigh Zaleon, who kept the latkes coming with help from her husband, Phil, and their friend, Jay Levy.
Hundreds of people – Jews along with those of other faiths – gathered at the festival to celebrate Hanukkah, an eight-day holiday that begins Wednesday at sundown. Hanukkah commemorates a successful revolt by the Jewish Maccabees in 165 B.C. and the rededication of the holy temple in Jerusalem.
Like many of those in attendance, Zaleon said she comes to events at the Levin center throughout the year for the sense of community.
“It’s a great place,” she said. “It just brings people together.”
The latke recipe came from a cookbook Phil gave Leigh when they were married nearly 30 years ago, though she’s tweaked it a bit over the years in search of the perfect latke.
The Zaleons and Levy started cooking early Sunday morning and expected to go through nearly 100 pounds of potatoes by day’s end.
The day was laced with traditions – whether it was the perfect latke or the sound of a favorite prayer.
Darren Cubell of Chapel Hill came with his family to the festival to “enjoy the sights, flavors and sounds of Hanukkah,” and his children found their own favorite parts of the day.
For Megan, 12, it was a market selling gifts and treats; Caitlin, 8, loved the live musicians. And Brandon, 6, declared dreidel, a game played with a spinning top, the highlight of his day.
Children also eagerly gathered throughout the day to watch an oil-pressing demonstration by Rabbi Zalman Bluming, co-director of the Jewish organization Chabad at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke. With help from his audience, Bluming filled a mesh bag with olives, pressed them and separated the olive oil from the juice.
The children then eagerly rolled cotton balls into wicks for a menorah. Bluming soaked the wicks in the oil and lit them one by one, all while talking to the children about their faith and the way they can shine their own lights in the world.
He said that involving children in the demonstration is a way to make their faith real to them and helps them find their own connections to it.
“They should be interested in Judaism in a very personal way,” Bluming said.
At the end of one demonstration, he asked the children where they should display their menorahs. When they replied “in the window,” Bluming smiled and nodded in return.
“Everybody has a special light, and you have to share that light with the whole world,” Bluming said.