Jewish families in Spokane gathered Sunday as sundown brought in the first night of Hanukkah, a chance for many Jews to pay tribute to religious freedom and celebrate a cultural tradition.
“It’s a party; it’s always been a celebration,” said Debra Schultz before a dinner of latkes and prime rib with other members of Congregation Beth Haverim at her South Hill home.
Her children lighted the first candle on the menorah while adults said the three blessings for the first night of Hanukkah that praise God for the commandments, for the miracle the tradition celebrates and also for sustaining them in life.
“It’s a home thing,” said Schultz, unlike some of the more significant Jewish holidays that are celebrated at a temple.
The story behind Hanukkah dates back to the rule of the ancient Greeks.
Under a successor to Alexander the Great, the Hellenist Syrians began oppressing the Jews, outlawing their religion and dedicating their temple to the worship of the Greek god Zeus.
The Jews revolted, and although they were outnumbered, their army expelled the outside forces after three years of fighting.
While preparing to rededicate the temple for Jewish worship, they found there was only enough oil to keep the temple’s menorah lit for one day. It is supposed to burn through each night.
Hanukkah, which means rededication, celebrates the miracle Jews believe occurred when that oil lasted for eight days, long enough for the supply to be replenished.
“Hanukkah itself is a minor festival,” Adie Goldberg said in a phone interview. She is the youth and education director at the conservative Temple Beth Shalom.
Honoring religious freedom, though, is the holiday’s central tenet for many.
“It’s the equivalent of the Fourth of July for the Jews,” Goldberg said.
It’s also a chance for Jewish people, both religious and secular, to embrace their culture.
“As with any small group in a larger culture, it’s difficult to hold on to who you are,” Goldberg said, and holidays can help Jews reconnect to their heritage.
The first night of Hanukkah fell on Christmas this year, something that has happened only four times in the past 100 years.
Although giving gifts to young children is part of the tradition for many American Jews, Hanukkah isn’t the equivalent of the Christmas celebration that seems omnipresent for most of December.
Schultz and her husband, Penn Fix, helped form the Union for Reform Judaism-affiliated Congregation Beth Haverim 10 years ago, partly to create a network for Jewish observances and to connect to other Jews.
“A big part of what we do is for the cultural reasons,” Schultz said.
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