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The Jewish reason for the season now underway

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By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Although it is home to a relatively small Jewish community, Greenville’s Temple Bayt Shalom (House of Peace, in English) and its congregants celebrate Hanukkah in a big way.

The holiday is celebrated close to Christmas, but the “reason for the season” is not a Jewish version of Christmas, Rabbi Harley Karz-Wagman said.

“Hanukkah is, rather, a celebration of religious freedom and pride; the triumph of right over might; the recognition of God’s presence in our lives, leading to our dedication (hanukkah) to God’s values, and a family response to the start of winter.”

The main story associated with Hanukkah is the festival of lights. The traditional story is that a small group of Jewish farmers, the Maccabees, led a multi-year war against Syrian-Greek forces. After driving out the larger army, the Maccabees wanted to dedicate the central temple in Jerusalem on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. The story is that they could only find enough oil for one day’s supply after they drove out the Greeks.

In what many see as a miracle, the tiny bit of oil lasted eight days.

As Karz-Wagman describes it, the nightly celebration over the course of eight days features games, especially spinning the dreidel, songs, story-telling, and food, especially latkes (traditional potato pancakes). Kids, and even adults, receive gifts, and everyone gives to charity; including family acts of community service. Hanukah candle lighting has become one of the most popular Jewish rituals, for American Jews.

Bayt Shalom’s holiday unofficially started Sunday with its Hanukkah festival, coordinated by the temple’s youth group, with songs, games and story-telling, the rabbi said. The larger temple community festivities will be held today, with a pot-luck dinner — featuring a latke cooking contest — and more songs; always plenty of singing at Jewish holiday times.

It it no surprise to Karz-Wagman that Hanukkah is celebrated large in this small Jewish community

“Historically, Hanukkah began as a minor holiday to Jews, but because it falls in December it has become a major part of Jewish identity,” the rabbi said. “The more isolated that Jews are, the more they cling to family traditions like Hanukkah.”

The holiday is primarily celebrated in the home, with families lighting candles in a menorah (candle holder) each night and exchanging gifts and stories (story-telling also is an important Jewish tradition).

“Undoubtedly, there will be some private Hanukkah parties going on around the community,” Karz-Wagman said. “In fact, Hanukkah ranks with Passover as the most celebrated Jewish holidays in America.”

As Rabbi Karz-Wagman would say: “Chag sameach,” or “A joyous holiday” to all.

Contact Michael Abramowitz at mabramowitz@reflector.com or 252-329-9507.