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Hanukkah celebrates families, freedom

11:37 AM, Dec 8, 2012   |    comments
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For Nashville's Jewish community, the festival of Hanukkah is a time for prayers and candles or for celebrating with friends and family.

It's a time to give thanks for religious freedom.

And for some, it's time to enjoy a few fried Oreos and margaritas.

The eight-day festival begins at sunset today and ends on Dec. 16.

Though a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah has become the best known Jewish festival among those outside the faith. It's become a staple of Jewish life, especially in America.

"Even Jews who don't do anything else celebrate Hanukkah," said Rabbi Saul Strossberg of Congregation Sherith Israel in Nashvllle, an Orthodox synagogue.

Like many religious festivals, Hanukkah begins with a great story. It dates back to sometime after 175 BC, after the Greek rulers known as the Hasmoneans conquered Israel.

One of the leaders, known as Antiochus Epiphanes, banned Jews from reading the Torah, honoring the Sabbath, and defiled the Temple in Jerusalem. That led to a revolt by the Maccabbees, who defeated the Greeks and set up worship in the temple. But they had just one small vessel of oil to light their menorah, which was only enough for one day.

Instead, according to the Talmud, that oil lasted for eight days, keeping the menorah lit until new oil could be made.

That miracle is a reminder of God's presence in the world, said Rabbi Yitzchok Tiechtel of Congregation Beit Tefilah, and director of Chabad of Nashville.

"When you do your part, God will do his part," Tiechtel said.

To remember the miracle of the oil, Jews light candles and say a prayer each day of Hanukkah. They also display menorahsin the window or outside their homes.

There also will be a menorah at the state capitol and one at Riverfront Park in Nashville. The menorah at the capitol will be lit at 4:15 p.m. on Tuesday, while the menorah by the river will be lit at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday.

That act of lighting brings the community together, said Rabbi Laurie Rice of Congregation Micah, a Reform synagogue in Brentwood.

That's important in a time when people are networked by technology but often isolated from human contact.

"You would think in our digital age that we would be ultra connected," Rice said. "But the fact is that we are not spiritually connected. To know that I am lighting the menorah and that my neighbors across the street are lighting the menorah connects us to a larger community."

Jews also celebrate the miracle of the oil by eating fried foods such as doughnuts, fried potato pancakes, fried chicken or even fried Oreos.

"Who knew you could fry cookies?" Rice said.

Hanukkah also is a reminder of the importance of religious liberty for everyone, especially those in minority faiths.

Rabbi Mark Schiftan of the The Temple-Congregation Ohabai Sholom in Nashville said that the Jews were under a great deal of pressure to drop their religious identity and conform to Greek beliefs.

"It is a reminder of the courage it takes today to stand up for religious freedom," he said. "The strength in this country lies in how we protect religious minorities."

Schiftan said that when he was growing up, few non-Jews had heard of Hanukkah, and few stores carried Hanukkah cards or decorations. Today you can buy them at Wal-Mart.

"What a great time to be a Jew in America," he said.

Along with its spiritual lesson, Hanukkah also is a time for gathering with friends and families.

Bob and Martha Nemer of Nashville expect between 40 and 60 people at their annual holiday party on Dec. 24.

They call it "Feliz Hanukkah," in honor of the menu of magaritas and fajitas, along with latkes and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Martha Nemer said the party gives their Jewish friends and family a chance to have a good time when their Christian neighbors are celebrating Christmas.

"We all get together and create our own magic," she said.

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