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Pound Ridge Jews Set to Mark Eight Days of Chanukah

POUND RIDGE, N.Y. – Starting at sunset Tuesday night, Pound Ridge Jews will begin the eight-day-long celebration of Hanukkah, sometimes referred to as the Festival of Lights.

While probably the most widely-known of the Jewish holidays to those outside the faith, thanks mostly to its close approximation to Christmas, it’s not considered the most reverent.

“It’s considered a minor holiday,” said Ruth Mendes, one of the founding members of the Pound Ridge Jewish Community. “It’s in no way, shape or form the ‘Jewish Christmas.’”

Hanukkah actually celebrates the Maccabee tribe’s revolt over the Seleucid Greeks in 167 BCE.

“The Maccabean revolt was the first time people rebelled in order to worship how they wanted,” Mendes said. “That’s the major thing.”

Mendes said that when Alexander the Great’s empire was divided up, the Seleucid took over Judea and desecrated the temple by putting a statue of their general there.

“That is what inspired the rebellion. They made it against the law to study Torah or to teach and worship according to Judaism,” she said. “When the revolt succeeded, the first thing they did was to cleanse the temple and rededicate it. This is where the story of the oil for the menorah, which is a candelabra, comes in.”

In fact, Hanukkah means “dedication.”

Mendes said that part of Jewish tradition is the eternal light – one is found in every synagogue. However, when they were cleansing and dedicating the temple after the Seleucids were removed, they discovered just one small jar of olive oil, which they thought would only keep the flame lit for a day. Instead, it lasted eight days, giving them enough time to find more oil and keep the light burning.

“There had been just a war and it took eight days to find more oil to keep it burning,” Mendes said. “It was considered a miracle.”

Today, Jews celebrate Hanukkah by lighting a candle on the menorah each night for eight straight nights to symbolize the miracle.

The dradle – the four-side spinning top – is also closely associated with the holiday.

“Before the rebellion, there were laws against teaching Judaism,” Mendes said. “Someone would act as a lookout and they would pretend to play a game while they were learning. Today, playing dradle is a remembrance of that. Each side of the dradle has four letters and they stand for ‘A Miracle Happened There.’”

Mendes said Hanukkah was a holiday not normally associated with gift-giving until relatively recently.

“Gift giving is a recent thing from the Victorian Era,” she said. “When I was a kid, every night we would get a handful of nuts and raisins and pennies to play dradle. Sometimes we got a special treat and would get an orange. Back then, when the first oranges appeared in the markets each season it was a very big deal. But it wasn’t until late 1940s that actual presents started showing up. There is no question that a lot of customs were adaptations [from other religions]. But Hanukkah is usually celebrated only by lighting a menorah and having latkes fried in oil or food with cheeses.”

Mendes said there are no real services associated with Hanukkah, though some congregations have created them.

“At a Sabbath service, there are a few extra things per se for Hanukkah; the theme is the dedication of the temple and right to worship as you please,” she said. “It doesn’t have its own liturgy. It’s generally celebrated more in the home.”

To mark the holiday, the Pound Ridge Jewish Community held a Hanukkah party on Sunday.

“It was lovely,” Mendes said. “We sang songs and had latkes. We asked everyone to bring a menorah.”

She said there are countless types of menorahs and some people even collect them. The congregation’s Rabbi Nancy Weiner has a “moose menorah,” where the antlers serve as the candleholder. Another congregant is a model train enthusiast and has a menorah where each train car holds a candle.

“I also have a friend who was in the Israeli army and they used spent gun shells glued to a branch for their menorah,” Mendes said.

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