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Today and for the coming week, Jews around the world celebrate faith, bravery and the miracle of a day's supply of lamp oil that lasted eight days.
The occasion is Hanukkah. Ceremonies associated with it include eating latkes (potato cakes fried in oil); exchanging presents (such as Hanukkah gelt, or money, which may be chocolate coins); and lighting candles.
As she was growing up in a large Jewish community in New York, said adult educator Carin Smolin, the holiday meant just those things, plus getting together with family.
"But, in Juneau, the holiday is so much more important," Smolin said. "My children (Lia Heifetz, 10, and Marc Heifetz, 6) are definitely in a minority growing up here."
To bridge the gap, Smolin went to Gastineau Elementary School on Tuesday to tell the story behind the holiday and make latkes for her children's schoolmates.
"Because we are such a minority, I need to help them build their identity" by making such appearances, she said.
"The word 'Hanukkah' means 'dedication,' so by celebrating it yearly, by performing these rituals, you rededicate your faith," said Natalee Rothaus, like Smolin and her husband, John Heifetz, a member of the Juneau Jewish Community.
"If you go into a synagogue anywhere in the world, there will be a light that is always lit to commemorate people's faith," Rothaus said.
There are seven major holidays in the Jewish calendar, including Rosh Hashanah or the New Year, a fall festival; Passover, a spring festival; and Hanukkah. This year Hanukkah is celebrated Friday. All Jewish holidays actually begin at sundown the day before they appear on the calendar.
Hanukkah, sometimes spelled "Chanukah," recalls the victory of Judas Maccabeus and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Maccabees, led by Maccabeus, fought the better-armed and much larger Syrian army for three years. Finally they defeated the Syrians and ejected them from the holy city of Jerusalem.
When the Maccabees went into the great temple of Jerusalem to give thanks for their victory, they found that the sacred light was out, and that there was only enough oil to fuel it for one day. It would take a week to get more of the proper oil from another source.
Because it commemorates this event of 165 B.C., Hanukkah is not a religious celebration, Rothaus said. "It is historic and it is a family celebration. It is not celebrated in a sanctuary like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur," she noted.
Hanukkah is called the "Festival of Lights" because it is marked by the daily lighting of candles in an eight-branched candelabra, or menorah. This commemorates the miracle of a small vial of oil that was expected to burn for one day but continued to burn for eight until new supplies of oil arrived. Each day another candle is lit, until all of them glow.
"It's a time for Jewish families to bring attention to their faith rather than the Christian focus that this country has," Rothaus said. "It's a time for gathering family and friends with beautiful, bright lights."
The Jewish Community has 40 to 50 active members plus their families, Rothaus said. For all of the 20 years she has lived in Juneau, she said, the Jewish Community has held a Hanukkah celebration. This year, the celebration will be held Dec. 28 at McPhetres Hall. Call her at 586-6925 for details.
Rabbi Joseph Greenberg of the Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska in Anchorage estimated Wednesday there are 3,000 Jews in Anchorage and a total of 6,000 in the state.
The Lubavitch Center is sponsoring an interactive Hanukkah Art Festival in Anchorage. The event includes a giant menorah ice sculpture, a Hanukkah tableau, game stations and dinner, plus an Israeli city market. For details, call (907) 279-1200.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneau empire.com.