Hanukkah brings families together

Jewish community gathers to celebrate Festival of Lights

Posted: Monday, December 18, 2006

A small pile of foil-wrapped chocolate coins sit on a table between a group of boys. One of the boys, a 15-year-old, picks up a wooden top called a dradle and sends it spinning across the table.

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"Com'on," the boy says loudly. "I need a brand-new pair of socks."

The dradle slows, wobbles and then falls on one side.

"Hey," the boy says. He smiles as he reads the Hebrew letter on the side of the dradle. Rafel Soto, 15, reaches across the table and grabs half of the coins. Soto laughs, happy at his newfound fortune.

This week marks Hanukkah, or "The Festival of Lights." Originally meant to celebrate the rededication of the Jewish Temple after the defeat of a powerful Syrian king, Antiochus IV by of a group Jewish rebels, the festival means much more to Juneau's Jewish community.

On Sunday, a group of about 50 members of Sukkat Shalom gathered to play games, eat traditional Jewish food and light the Menorah. It was a chance to celebrate family tradition and rekindle bonds with other members of a small community.

"Hanukkah reminds me of my family," said congregation member Debbie Lowenthal. "It was the only time when my dad sang in Hebrew. We all grew up in similar ways with similar traditions."

More so than Christmas, much of what happens in a Hanukkah celebration is wrapped in history. Spinning the dradle comes from the time before the Maccabee rebellion. Apparently under Antiochus IV, praying to God and learning Hebrew were punishable by death. But gambling - completely legal.

"It was a way to hide meetings and prayer," said member Mandy Chramn, "It was a way to camouflage it."

Lighting the Menorah is meant to celebrate a miracle. According to Jewish tradition, when the Temple was rededicated, there wasn't enough oil for a menorah needed for consecration. There was only enough for a day. The priests lit the menorah, and it stayed lit long enough to get more oil, eight days later.

Sunday was the first time Hanukkah has been celebrated at Sukkat Shalom since its construction was complete.

As visible of a holiday Hanukkah is, members of Sukkat Shalom say it isn't as important as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the "high holy days" of the Jewish calendar. Even so, Hanukkah is the most widely celebrated Jewish Holiday, said Chramn.

"Hanukkah is the most visible holiday we have. Even Jews who don't celebrate other holidays celebrate Hanukkah," she said. It's a central point we can all meet at. It's a real way for us to connect to all those who fought to keep it alive, and to each other."

Randall Schramn, 10, said his favorite part of Hanukkah is getting presents, but he likes spinning the dradle too.

"I kind of like it because I get candy," he said. "And it's fun with other kids."

•Will Morris can be contacted at william.morris@juneauempire.com

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