The December holidays have in common a symbolic bringing of light into darkness. The illumination of a Christmas tree symbolizes Christ as the light of the world, and Chanukah, the Jewish festival of rededication, is also known as the festival of lights. The story of Chanukah began when two groups of oppressed Jews joined forces to rise up against assimilation and oppression, and succeeded. After the revolution, in taking back their desecrated temple, there was only enough oil left to light its menorah candles in rededication for a single day. But miraculously, the oil burned for eight days — enough time to generate a fresh supply of oil — and the festival of Chanukah commemorates this miracle.
Chanukah began this year on Tuesday, December 12 at sundown and ends at sunset Wednesday, December 20.
A community lighting of menorahs is one of the highlights of the annual Chanukah celebration held each December by the Jewish Congregation of New Paltz. This year’s event will be on the sixth day of Chanukah, Sunday, December 17 from 4-6 p.m. at the New Paltz Jewish Community Center, 30 North Chestnut Street.
Attendees bring menorahs from home and light them at the same time, just after sundown. A large silver menorah is lit on behalf of the entire community. Menorahs come in as many shapes and types as people do, and at the moment of lighting, it’s a lovely moment to see the glow of candlelight reflected on so many faces, young and old.
The Chanukah celebration is a convivial affair, and not just for the congregation. “We’d love to have more people from any religion come,” says Jodi Friedman, co-chair of the organization’s Hebrew school. “And you don’t need to bring a menorah. Sometimes I have friends who aren’t Jewish who come; it’s just a great, fun party that brings a lot of different people together, of all ages. I’m always meeting someone new there, and what’s nice is we’re sharing the culture with everybody. It’s a great way to share the holiday together.”
Like any good celebration, good food is front and center. As Friedman notes, “It’s always a feast!” Several banquet tables are filled with vegetarian options to share potluck-style, brought from home by the families attending. Last year’s dinner included casseroles, pasta dishes, deviled eggs and baked goods. Because of the importance of oil to the holiday, fried foods are traditional, particularly donuts and latkes, delicious potato pancakes made with grated potatoes, eggs, garlic powder and matzo meal.
The latkes served up by the hundreds — literally — at the Jewish Congregation’s party are also made with love, by the “Latketeers,” congregation members who spend the entire afternoon prior to the party in the community center’s kosher kitchen frying up the treats. The latkes are offered amidst the potluck to devour with sour cream or applesauce on the side. Not a one will be left over.
It’s easy to identify the Latketeers at the party: they’re the ones wearing matching t-shirts depicting a flaming frying pan on the back of the shirt accompanied by the words, “Frying by the heat of our pans.”
The event is organized each year by a committee from the Hebrew school, led by Donna Greenfield and Lisa Cahn. The sixth and seventh grade students are in charge of games and activities for kids. “And they love doing it,” says Friedman. “They get to become leaders.”
Traditional games of the holiday, like spinning dreidels, are accompanied by craft activities and, new since last year, a “hands-free” donut-eating contest. But this isn’t about quantity; somewhat like bobbing for apples, contestants try to eat donuts tied to a string hanging from a stick, without using their hands.
The congregation’s choir, the Chai Notes (the “C” is silent) lead a sing-along, and spiritual leader Rabbi Bill Strongin gives the blessing at the lighting of the menorahs. A Judaica shop in the lobby, run by congregant Amie Adams, offers a variety of menorahs along with hard-to-find holiday items like Chanukah-themed board games and novelty gift ideas.
The party only lasts for two hours, “but we pack a lot into that short time!” notes Friedman.