Hanukkah celebrates centuries of religious liberty
The ancient Jewish holiday of Hanukkah predates Christianity and commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenistic Syrians in 165 B.C. It remains relevant today as a celebration of religious freedom.
Jews observe Hanukkah by lighting candles for eight days to mark the number of days that oil burned after the Maccabees lit a menorah in the temple, despite the fact that their flask only contained enough oil to burn one day.
The eight days of Hanukkah start at sunset Dec. 11 this year.
"A big part of Jewish tradition is remembering the past," Rabbi Billy Berkowitz of Temple B'rith Shalom in Prescott said. "This is the commemoration of the Maccabees' victory - the first recorded struggle of religious freedom."
Agreeing, Adele Plotkin of the Beit Torah Jewish Congregation in Prescott Valley said, "It is a symbol for us that we have the right to worship as we please, to not be imposed upon by people who are not Jewish to do anything other than our own practices.
"We do things in a Jewish fashion, and we have the right not to be forced to do it any other way," Plotkin added. "And that is the story of Hanukkah - the overthrowing of the invaders who were trying to force us to worship their gods in their way. They had desecrated our temple."
Hanukkah also celebrates community, said Plotkin, a native of Tallahassee, Fla., who lives in Chino Valley.
Berkowitz said, "It's a time of joy. It's a time for families to gather, and the synagogue hosts some Hanukkah celebrations as well."
He said Jews traditionally cook food in oils during Hanukkah. They include latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts, which Berkowitz said are popular among Sephardic Jews from the Middle East.
Jewish children celebrate Hanukkah by spinning a four-sided top called a dreidel, Plotkin said. She described spinning the dreidel as a game, with children playing for token prizes such as nuts.
"One side (of the dreidel) says you win all," Plotkin said. "One side says you lose all. One side says you only get half the pot."
Plotkin says singing songs and lighting the candles on the menorah are important as well.
However, she said the giving of presents during Hanukkah in America began as a "knee-jerk response" to Christmas.
"It has become much bigger because the children, especially the little ones, are very attracted by the glitz they still see at Christmas," Plotkin said.
She said her congregation plans to conduct a Hanukkah party Dec. 11 at a member's home in Prescott "with a focus on children."