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Public menorah lighting in downtown Modesto signals the start of Hanukkah

Rabbi Shalom Bochner sings Hannukah songs before the lighting of the menorah at the 2013 event at Tenth Street Plaza. This year’s public lighting ceremony will begin at 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Rabbi Shalom Bochner sings Hannukah songs before the lighting of the menorah at the 2013 event at Tenth Street Plaza. This year’s public lighting ceremony will begin at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Modesto Bee file

No matter the cards, gift wrap, ornaments and other Hanukkah trappings increasingly found this time of year in stores, the holiday isn’t a big gift-giving event for Jewish people.

In fact, Hanukkah, an eight-day celebration that begins Tuesday, actually is a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. According to Rabbi Shalom Bochner at Congregation Beth Shalom, it’s Hanukkah’s nearness to Christmas that has its raised profile.

“While (Hanukkah) is not traditionally a gift-giving holiday, it’s proximity to Christmas has greatly increased the popularity of (Hanukkah) in the past few decades,” Bochner said in an email.

The main observance is the lighting of the Chanukiah, or menorah, each of the eight nights of the holiday. Congregation Beth Shalom will mark that event with a community menorah lighting at 5 p.m. on Tuesday in downtown Modesto, followed by a party at CBS.

This will be the second annual public menorah lighting in Modesto. The Festival of Lights celebration at Tenth Street Plaza also will feature songs and treats.

Hanukkah marks a victory by the Maccabees in their struggle for religious and political freedom. According to www.chabad.org, a Jewish educational website, in 165 B.C., Israel was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian Greeks), who sought to forcefully Hellenize the people of Israel. Against all odds, a small band of faithful Jews – the Maccabees – defeated one of the mightiest armies on Earth and reclaimed the holy temple in Jerusalem. But the temple had been desecrated, and when the people wanted to light its menorah, they found only a one-day supply of holy olive oil left. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days until new, ritually pure oil could be prepared.

In addition to lighting the menorah, Bochner said games are played with a spinning top called a dreidel and gelt – chocolate coins. “The (Hebrew) letters on the sides of the dreidel stand for: ‘A Great Miracle Happened There.’”

Oil is celebrated in the holiday’s traditional food, such latkes (European potato pancakes) and sufganiot (Middle Eastern jelly doughnuts), Bochner said.

At its core, Hanukkah is a celebration of light over darkness. The eight days of Hanukkah always include the darkest night of the year.

“The point is clear: How do we respond to darkness?” Bochner wrote in an article he wrote and forwarded with his email. “We light a candle and we increase the light. By the time (Hanukkah) ends the moon is waxing in the sky and the light is increasing. As we see growing darkness around us, in our world, in our lives, in the nighttime sky, we have two basic choices of how to respond: despair or hope. The Jewish way is to choose hope, chose life, faith, and choose light.”

FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS

What: Public lighting of the Hanukkah menorah by Congregation Beth Shalom

When: 5 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Tenth Street Plaza, 10th and J streets, Modesto

Admission: Free

Call: (209) 571-6060

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