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Cultural illumination: Eight-day Festival of Lights opens a ‘window into Judaism’

The spinning top called a dreidel is used to play traditional games during the Hanukkah holiday. Gold coins, called gelt, are often given out as presents during the holiday. (Courtesy of Jewish Community Center)

The spinning top called a dreidel is used to play traditional games during the Hanukkah holiday. Gold coins, called gelt, are often given out as presents during the holiday. (Courtesy of Jewish Community Center)

FOR THE RECORD: This story said incorrectly that the Hanukkah Fest at the Jewish Community Center on Dec. 6 is from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. The JCC Hanukkah Fest on Dec. 6 is from noon to 4 p.m.

Dec. 6 ushers in the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah also known as the Festival of Lights.

Families will celebrate by lighting candles in the Menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum that is placed in a window; eating traditional latkes or potato pancakes; holding social gatherings; and playing traditional games with a spinning top called a dreidel.

Hanukkah holds a relatively minor place compared to the major Jewish holidays of Passover and Rosh Hashanah, but it has become more prominent in the U.S. in recent decades with Hanukkah cards, wrapping paper, commemorative stamps, gifts and special decorations. Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld of Congregation Albert in Albuquerque attributes the transformation to the forces of commercialization that have similarly taken over Christmas.

“It’s true with all our holidays in America. We have chosen to commercialize so much,” Rosenfeld said.

Members of the Albuquerque Jewish community say that the public attention to Hanukkah has helped raised awareness about Jewish culture.

“It’s nice that Jews are part of the popular psyche so that our holidays are valued as part of the wider society,” said Sara Koplik, director of community outreach for the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, which provides an array of services to the state’s estimated 24,000 Jews.

“It’s not as hard to be a minority, in a way, when your experiences are validated,” Koplik said, “It makes the minority experience easier.”

The nine-branched candelabrum used during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. The central candle, called a shammash or shammus, is used to light the other candles, one each night during the eight-day festival. (Courtesy of Jewish Community Center)

The nine-branched candelabrum used during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. The central candle, called a shammash or shammus, is used to light the other candles, one each night during the eight-day festival. (Courtesy of Jewish Community Center)

Historical event

David Simon, executive director of the Jewish Community Center in Albuquerque, said the higher profile now accorded to Hanukkah has been a positive thing for Jewish children, giving them something to talk about when their classmates at school are talking about Christmas. He believes that helps build intercultural understanding.

“It’s a window into Judaism for America,” said Simon.

The holiday is based on a historical event in the second century B.C.E. when the Maccabees, a group of Jewish freedom fighters, rebelled against the Greco-Syrian rulers of Israel and recaptured the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Hanukkah means “rededication,” referring to the rededication of the Temple, Rosenfeld said.

Legend has it that they found one flask of oil in the Temple that miraculously kept their candles burning bright for eight days.

The Menorah has eight candles plus an additional candle called a shamash that is used to light the other candles. One candle is lit each evening during the holiday accompanied by three blessings on the first night and two on each of the following nights, Rosenfeld said.

The traditional foods, latkes and jelly-filled doughnuts, called sufganiot, are deep-fried in oil in honor of the oil in the lights at the Temple.

Eating, socializing

Koplik says Hanukkah is a season for socializing. “It’s just a fun holiday for the kids,” she said.

Her family invites friends over for dinner and usually exchanges presents on the last night. Koplik said she usually buys latkes but many people have special family recipes.

“The thing about latkes is everyone has a slightly different take on how to make them,” said Phyllis Wolf, director of arts, culture and education at the Jewish Community Center. She said discussions revolve around what kind of potatoes to use, whether to grate the potatoes or use a food processor.

“And then there are as many variations you can dream up, from sweet potato latkes to green chile latkes, zucchini latkes, ginger latkes,” Wolf said.

Community members dancing at the Hanukkah festivities held at the Jewish Community Center in Albuquerque. (Courtesy of Jewish Community Center)

Community members dancing at the Hanukkah festivities held at the Jewish Community Center in Albuquerque. (Courtesy of Jewish Community Center)

Celebrations

The JCC, which opened at 5520 Wyoming in 2000, typically organizes Hanukkah celebrations each year. On Saturday, Dec. 5 at 7 p.m. there will be a “Kindling the Light” concert with klezmer and other Jewish music from around the world. Tickets are $15 for JCC members and $18 for the public in advance and $22 at the door. Student pricing is available.

On Sunday, Dec. 6, there will be a festival from noon-4 p.m. at the center.

There will be fun, food and vendors selling jewelry, housewares, bead embroidery, Judaica and much more, Wolf said.

The JCC’s Rhubarb & Elliott café will be providing the traditional foods and there will also be a latke cook-off competition.

Child care will be available for toddlers and infants while older children will be able to enjoy latke-themed games.

The “Latkathlon” will include an archery competition with latkes as targets and latkes in an adaptation of shuffleboard.

“We’ll use latkes in every shape possible,” Simon said.

The afternoon festivities are free and open to everyone. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to open our doors to the whole community,” Wolf said.

A special celebration also will be held at Congregation Albert, 3800 Louisiana NE, on Thursday, Dec. 10, the fifth night of Hanukkah. The Fifth Night, held in partnership with Big Tent Judaism, an independent trans-denominational organization, enables children to participate in tzedekah (Hebrew for charitable giving) by giving one night of their Hanukkah gifts to a child in need.

This year Fifth Night will benefit the homeless shelter Joy Junction. Parents are encouraged to help their children select a gift for a recipient of similar age. Joy Junction will accept unwrapped gifts for children up to 17 years old and new or gently used coats for adults and children.

Space at this free event is limited, register at 5thnightatcongregationalbert.eventbrite.com.


Potato latkes, a dish made of grated potatoes fried in oil are traditionally served during the Hanukkah holiday. Festivities at the Jewish Community Center in Albuquerque will include a latke cook-off. (Courtesy of Jewish Community Center)

Potato latkes, a dish made of grated potatoes fried in oil are traditionally served during the Hanukkah holiday. Festivities at the Jewish Community Center in Albuquerque will include a latke cook-off. (Courtesy of Jewish Community Center)

CLASSIC LATKES

Start to finish: 45 minutes

Makes 12 latkes

2 pounds russet potatoes

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon potato starch

½ cup matzo meal

Peanut or grapeseed oil, for frying

2 eggs, beaten

Applesauce or sour cream, to serve

Using a food processor fitted with the shredding disc, grate the potatoes. Alternatively, you can use the large holes of a box grater, but the food processor makes for a better textured, more even shred.

Working in batches, spread some of the grated potatoes and chopped onion evenly over a clean kitchen towel. Roll the towel up like a jelly roll and, holding it over a sink or bowl, twist to squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Unroll the towel and transfer to a medium bowl. Repeat with remaining potatoes and onion. Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the salt, potato starch and matzo meal. Whisk or stir to ensure there are no lumps of potato starch. Set aside.

In a large, deep skillet, heat 1/3 inch of oil to 350 degrees.

While the oil is heating, set a cooling rack over a rimmed baking sheet. This is where your latkes will drain, so have it near your pan. Though latkes are best eaten right away, you can hold your latkes in a 200-degree oven for up to 1 hour. If that is necessary, turn your oven on at this point.

When the oil is hot, combine the potato-onion mixture with the matzo-potato starch mixture and the eggs. Form into 12 3-inch patties, and fry in batches of 3 to 4, for 3 to 4 minutes per side, or until deep golden brown and crispy. Transfer to the cooling rack and repeat with the remaining potato mixture. Serve immediately with applesauce or sour cream.

– Alison Ladman, The Associated Press



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