Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the New Paltz Jewish Community Center, a group of three girls spun a dreidel to win a pile of fake plastic coins. As the four-sided top twirled ever nearer to toppling over, they leaned in closer. One of the girl’s eyes lit up as it landed on the Hebrew character for gimmel, which looks like a two-pronged fork bent at the handle.
She’d just won the whole kit and caboodle — every coin in the pot.
Nearby, a group of boys rolled a ball at 2-liter soda bottles decorated to look like a brigade of advancing soldiers. Get a strike and knock over the small army, and there’d be a prize in store. Adin Wistreich-Tannenbaum, 12, stood amidst a cluster of other boys — all competing to knock over the pins.
The 12-year-old looked gleeful as he described the game. “If you win, you get candy,” he said.
Last weekend, on a chilly Sunday evening, the faithful packed the community center to sing, pray and eat good food. Sufganiyot jelly donuts, hummus, apple sauce and other traditional Hanukkah foods greeted those who had come to celebrate the Festival of Lights with their families. The hardworking chefs left the kitchen carrying big trays to the banquet table. They had a special announcement — the holiday favorite had arrived.
“Ladies and gentlemen — latkes!” the chef said, laying down the first piping-hot tray of potato pancakes.
In Hebrew, the word “Hanukkah” means “dedication” and the holiday itself remembers a time in the second century B.C. when Jews, led by rebel Judah Maccabee, fought to practice their religious traditions in freedom. In that ancient conflict, they reclaimed and rededicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem after its occupation by the Seleucid Syrians.
“It’s about a time when the Jewish culture was threatened with extinction and the Jews managed to preserve it in the face of long odds. So ‘dedication’ means that Jews rededicate themselves to being Jews,” Rabbi Bill Strongin said.
When the Maccabean rebels reclaimed their culture’s most sacred building, they had only enough oil to keep the temple’s menorah burning for one day. The flames kept burning for eight days, which the Jews believe was a miracle.
The message of the holiday is also one of endurance and hope — light that shines through seemingly unending shadow. Hanukkah is held on the 25th day of Kislev, by the Hebrew calendar, and takes place in November or December. According to Rabbi Strongin, there’s a special significance in that the holiday occurs during the least sunny days of the year.
“It’s the winter. It’s incredibly dark, especially right now. We’re near the longest nights and lunar-wise we’re near the point with the least moonlight. The moon is going away quickly. And it will be gone — it will come back over the eight days of Hanukkah,” he said. “So Hanukkah always comes at the darkest possible time of the year — and we bring light into the world when that happens. That’s both literal and symbolic.”
Led by the rabbi, the Jewish Congregation of New Paltz sang, prayed and lit menorahs during a ceremony at the community center. Hanukkah will draw to a close this Sunday evening.
For more information about the Jewish Congregation at New Paltz, visit www.newpaltzjews.org.