For Rabbi Zalman Bluming, Sunday’s festival of lights Hanukkah celebration was the chance to breathe new meaning into a minor and often misunderstood Jewish holiday.
“When the world gets darker, you look for the glow of light,” said Bluming, leader of the Chabad of Durham-Chapel Hill, noting how divided America is after a contentious election season. “It takes a lot of courage to light a candle for your faith.”
Hundreds of families gathered at the Levin Jewish Community Center in Durham on Sunday to celebrate Hanukkah, often called the festival of lights. Because of the timing of the holiday – often near Christmas – Hanukkah often competes with one of the most significant holidays for Christians. Sunday’s event was designed to help families share the traditions and meaning of Hanukkah.
On Sunday, toddlers decorated dreidels, while parents feasted on latkes and sufganiyot. Children eyed plastic menorahs and gold-wrapped chocolate coins, begging parents to stock up on goodies doled out over the eight-day festival. A band strummed tunes in Yiddish.
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Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of a day’s supply of oil lasting for eight days. But the story behind the scarce oil and the significance of the miracle is what parents like Lacie Scofield of Durham try to emphasize to their children.
“The oil is an easy message, but it’s really about our fight for religious freedom. It’s about a dedication to practicing your faith,” Scofield said.
The story of Hanukkah dates back to 160 B.C., when the king of Syria tried to force his belief in the Greek gods over all who lived in his kingdom. His army ransacked the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and outlawed the practice of Judaism. A group of devout Jews retreated from the city, slowly building an army that could rival the king’s men.
Finally, the Jews prevailed and reclaimed their temple, finding enough oil to light their house of worship for just one day. The oil lasted for eight days, a miracle now marked by the holiday of Hanukkah. Believers light candles one by one over eight days and place their menorah candle holder in the window sills of their home, a symbol of their faith to the world.
On Sunday, Debbie Rubin Williams ushered children through a gymnasium filled with crafts. The children decorated cookies shaped as dreidels and menorahs and read stories about the traditions of the holiday.
She hoped the children would leave with a far deeper message.
“Hanukkah is about light and hope... the idea that the good guys can win if they persist,” Williams said.
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Menorah: For Hanukkah, a candelabrum holds nine candles, and believers light a candle each day for eight days. The tradition signifies the length of time that a day’s supply of oil actually lasted.
Latkes and sufganiyot: Hashbrowns and jelly-filled doughnuts are associated with the holiday because they are cooked in oil.
Dreidel: This game – a four-sided spinning top – was used as quick excuse for anyone studying the Torah in violation of the law. They would tell inquirers they were playing a game.
Dates: The Jewish faith relies on a lunar calendar, which means that the dates for Hanukkah change year to year. This year, Hanukkah begins at sundown Dec. 24, coinciding with the Christmas holiday.