The annual Chanukah party at the New Paltz Jewish Community Center is a time when people come together in celebration of a miracle, but more importantly it’s a time when they come together in celebration of community.
Jewish community is steeped in tradition, but at least in New Paltz the community is neither insular nor exclusively religious in character. When asked about their personal associations with Chanukah, many of those present included “community” as one of their descriptors, waxing on about the importance of connecting with other families and individuals.
Rabbi Bill Strongin keeps a tremendous amount of Jewish history in his head. “Chanukah commemorates a victory for religious freedom, 2,179 years ago.” There’s some confusion about exactly who was oppressing the Maccabees in those days, and Strongin wanted the record corrected. “It was the Seleucid empire,” he said, rather than Greeks or Syrians. The confusion arises from the fact that it was a Hellenistic empire, spreading Greek ideals, with the capital at Antioch, in what was then Syria. While the Seleucids inherited their Hellenistic ideals from Alexander the Great, Antiochus IV did not carry on the religious tolerance of that great conqueror.
One way that Jews today celebrate the miracle of a day’s worth of oil lighting lamps for eight nights is by frying food in the stuff. In New Paltz, that’s first and foremost the bailiwick of the Latketeers, a group of men who come together year after year to create the classic potato pancakes, the aroma of which fills the community center for days afterward. Proper latkes are always made with grated, not shredded, potatoes; a grater often becomes a family heirloom passed down from one generation to the next.
Attendees at the event must first pass the Judaica shop, where Jewish holiday merchandise is available for purchase. Menorahs in many configurations — there’s no set way to design one — are joined by dreidels, gelt, and even Hanukkah gift wrap in the traditional blue and white. According to Strongin, the colors come from the first question posed in the Mishnah, the earliest work of rabbinic literature. The question is when the earliest hour for a Jewish religious service is permitted, and the answer is when it’s possible to distinguish blue from white, indicating the first glimmer of light. Blue and white have been connected to Judaism for over 2,000 years.
With a menorah at each table, the congregants first light the shamash, or attendant candle, then raise their voices in song to welcome their god. This being the sixth night, six more candles have been loaded into the candelabra from right to left, and at this point they are lit from left to right, starting from the sixth candle and going on from there. A another sacred song concludes the remembrance, then Strongin lifts his voice in what he terms “the worst Chanukah song ever,” a parody of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” that counts down eight candles burning, seven dreidels spinning, six latkes frying, five bags of gelt, four greeting cards, three menschy friends, two twisted wicks, and a menorah of marching Maccabees.
For all the sense of solidarity and joy that Chanukah brings, there was also a pall of tragedy which hung over this event. High school senior Rebecca Lynch, whose family is part of the temple, died earlier this week and was buried hours before the party. Members sought Rabbi Strongin’s guidance on whether the event should be cancelled, but he determined that partaking in life’s joys is as important as standing with one another during such times of sorrow. He himself had driven straight from the cemetery to the community center, and had to recite prayers for the dead shortly before he led songs of celebration. Strongin took his leave early, doubtless spiritually and physically exhausted from the multiple roles he’d been asked to play in short order.
In its own way, seeking moments of joy in times of sorrow is also a Jewish tradition. While the adults quietly acknowledged the difficulty of the juxtaposition, children ran about with glee, creating menorahs out of whipped cream and filling up on brownies and betting gelt at the dreidel table as their parents mentally monitored the sugar intake. A high point was the donut game, a relative of apple-bobbing with a nod to the fried-food theme. Miniature donuts are painstakingly tied to a one-by-one board, and then two adults hold them aloft while the kiddies circle underneath. Theoretically this game is supposed to be a race to finish one’s donut as quickly as possible without the use of hands, but in practice it’s more reminiscent of a piranha feeding frenzy.
The nights are long at this time of year, and the weather bitingly cold. Figuratively and literally, the flames of the menorah candles brighten and warm all who draw near, reminding them that what’s important in any faith-based or cultural community is the human connection.