Hanukkah celebrates hope and light

Hanukkah celebrates hope and light

Recently the first night of Hanukkah was celebrated at both the College of Wooster and Knesseth Israel Temple in Wooster.

The college held a public, outdoor menorah lighting, followed by a celebration that included games and one of the traditional Hanukkah foods: potato pancakes or latkes.

“We’ve seen such truly sad darkness in the world this year, directed not just about our people, but against so many others. It’s wonderful to see students come together and have this spirit of togetherness and of bringing the light of peace to the world,” said Rabbi Dario Hunter, coordinator for Jewish life and intersectional programming at the College of Wooster.

According to Knesseth Israel Temple’s cantor, Beth Friedman-Romell, Hanukkah is about light, and it’s about religious freedom. She explained the eight-night festival celebrates two miracles believed to have happened around 165 B.C.E. (Some faith traditions use B.C.E., before common era, rather than B.C., before Christ.)

“The first was a great military victory,” Friedman-Romell said.

The Maccabees were a small force fighting against those who were trying to make everyone assimilate and give up their faith. “So the first miracle,” Friedman-Romell said, “is that this small fighting force defeated a much superior army.”

The second miracle is all about light. “It’s a tale that the rabbis tell that when the Maccabees entered the temple that had been defiled, there was only enough oil for one night. The miracle is that the oil lasted for eight days and eight nights, which gave them enough time to press and preserve more oil so that the lamp could be eternally lit.”

Every night of Hanukkah those who are observing the holiday light special candles in their hanukiah until on the last night it is all aglow. A hanukiah is a special candelabra with nine total candle holders. One of the nine is set apart from the others. This is the “Shamash,” the candle that lights all the others. Each night the Shamash and one more candle is lit and allowed to burn all the way down.

Both at the college and at Knesseth Israel Temple the celebrations included latkes, fried potato pancakes. Latkes play a special role in the tradition. “Because the oil lasted for eight days, we commemorate the miracle by eating things fried in oil,” Friedman-Romell said.

At the local temple it is the tradition that a group of men who call themselves “the latke mavens” make the latkes for everyone. According to Steve Shapiro, Morris “Moishe” Cohen started the group around 60 years ago. “Morris never did the cooking,” Shapiro said. “He organized and bought food.”

Shapiro has been the head latke maven for 15 years and has been making latkes for a lot longer. “I’ve been doing latkes here for probably 45-50 years,” Shapiro said. “Today I passed the baton to Sam Linnick.”

Shapiro said although he is passing latke leadership along, he will still participate.

“What’s interesting,” Shapiro said, “is that every year someone comes up to us and says, ‘These are the best latkes I’ve ever had.’ Same recipe it’s always been, but for some reason every year they are a little better.”

Brenda Linnick used to take latkes to school when her children were little. “I used to tell the kids it was a story of religious freedom about everyone’s right to go to whatever church they want and to believe whatever they want.”

Friedman-Romell said, “It’s been a difficult season for Jewish people in light of the tragic shootings that happened in Pittsburgh last month. We mourn that loss, and we are aware that anti-Semitism is still present and is still a threat. Holidays like Hanukkah remind us that we can survive. We can thrive.”

It seems the universal theme of Hanukkah may be the wish that in the darkness of December, for people of all faiths, backgrounds and traditions, may there be safety, hope and light.

“Hanukkah is really a representation of people’s belief in religious freedom and religious diversity,” Friedman-Romell said. “And it’s about having faith.”

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