A time of light and latkes

Bennington, Manchester synagogues hold Hanukkah events

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For local members of the Jewish community, this year's Hanukkah celebrations are a mix of old and new.

At Israel Congregation of Manchester, Cantor Scott Buckner is bringing back a new tradition — the Great Food Debate, this Friday at 5:30 p.m.

Two congregants, Gary Fishkin and Jon Prial, will debate the merits of latkes versus hamantaschen, two traditional foods for the Jewish holidays of Hanukkah and Purim, respectively. The debate is also called the "Epic Jewish Food Fight," according to the congregation's website.

The tongue-in-cheek debate originated at the University of Chicago in 1946, Buckner said.

The congregation had the debate at Purim last year, and they're bringing it back for Hanukkah.

"Lots of fun was had by all," Buckner said. "Humor is a very important thing. People had so much fun with it, they're reprising and updating the debate." Latkes are fried potato pancakes; hamantaschen are triangle-shaped, fruit-filled cookies.

After the debate, there will be a communal Shabbat dinner, with things like children's favorites, dreidel games and a raffle. Every year, families also bring their personal menorahs to the synagogue Friday evening for a communal lighting before the service, Buckner said.

There will also be Hanukkah songs, some of which will be led by the children of the Israel Congregation of Manchester Hebrew School.

The synagogue is also lighting a chanukiah, a type of menorah, every afternoon of Hanukkah, from Dec. 2 to Dec. 9.

Hanukkah, which began Sunday night, is essentially a holiday about religious freedom, Buckner said. It commemorates the second century B.C.E. victory of a group of small, greatly unnumbered Jews known as the Maccabees over the mighty army that occupied the Holy Land. The rebellion was in response to the Greek attempt to force a Hellenistic lifestyle on the Jewish inhabitants of Israel.

The holiday also celebrates a miracle relating to the oil lamp in the Holy Temple. When the Maccabees liberated the temple from the invaders, they found only a small amount of oil fit for lighting.

There was only enough oil to keep the lamp lit for one day, and it would take eight days to produce new oil. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days and nights.

"The light of the menorah really is a symbol of bringing light," Buckner said. "It's symbolic in terms of bringing more light into the world, in terms of religious freedom, caring for others, making the world a better place."

Each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, Jews light one more candle on the menorah.

Congregation Beth El, in Bennington, is also hosting a Hanukkah celebration, on Saturday.

It will feature lighting of Hanukkah menorahs, traditional Hanukkah fried foods like latkes and doughnuts, music and games like the traditional dreidel game.

A dreidel is a pointed, four-sided top, normally made of plastic or wood.

"The deepest part of the game itself is the lettering," said Rabbi Micah Becker-Klein, who serves Beth El. "The [dreidel's] four sides are a teaching about the holiday."

Each side of the dreidel is labeled with one Hebrew letter, which together stand for the phrase "a great miracle happened there," in reference to Hanukkah.

"That's what I like about it," he said. "It's a teaching tool. You're learning as well. It teaches us to have that conversation — what's the miracle?"

It's been traditional for thousands of years to have Hanukkah parties, which are fun, festive ways to celebrate the holiday, Becker-Klein said. The congregation has one of these parties every year, with latkes, doughnuts, dreidel games and music.

But this year, the congregation is continuing its effort from last year to include soup and bread at the Hanukkah dinner — not just fried foods.

"Our bread and soup dinner is just a nice way of providing some healthy fare beyond fried latkes — to keep a balance of our own," he said. "We need a balance of all. Whether it's light and dark, or fried and not-fried food."

Because of the central role that oil played in the miracle of Hanukkah, it is customary to serve foods fried in oil at the holiday.

Becker-Klein said the idea that the oil lasting eight days was a miracle intrigued him — "Why did they need eight days?" he said.

He found out years ago, when in Israel. The type of oil that would be considered high-quality enough to light the temple — extra-virgin olive oil — would have taken about eight days to manufacture, start to finish, at the time.

"They need extra-virgin olive oil ... the highest-quality, brightest-burning," he said.

This year, Becker-Klein has also begun privately dedicating each night of Hanukkah to a cause — "from refugees to diseases."

On Saturday, Becker-Klein said he will speak about this as candles are lit. "It's not just about increasing your spiritual light," he said of the holiday.

Hanukkah celebrations both strengthen community and the sense of spirituality, Becker-Klein said.

"And those are two things I do believe are very important, and are lacking in many ways in our society," he said. "So having these times and opportunities that are positive, that are open, and send those messages of light and love and healing and promise ... they speak to a deep need."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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