Their songs filled the room against the backdrop of Broadway traffic. A handful of kids from the Lauren Wendroff Early Childhood Education Center children had come to add their voices to the annual Menorah lighting celebration at Networking Café on Dec. 10. Their hopeful faces grinned with the holiday spirit at the few dozen people who had gathered to keep up a tradition that has long been held in Bayonne Jewish Community Center, long before Town Center Management decided to pick up on it years ago.
Although Hanukkah isn’t seen as one of the most holy of Jewish holidays, the Festival of Lights reflects one of the great traditions of endurance that has long marked the history of the Jewish people. Each year, the memory of a time when Jews struggled to maintain their identity in the Maccabean Revolt of the second century BCE (Before Common Era) seems to serve as a metaphor for ongoing struggles inside and outside the United States.
“Hands down, chins up, all right, now sing,” they were instructed, and sing they did. The children did their part to help celebrate the Festival of Lights.
“Do you have one song?” Rabbi Clifford Miller of Temple Emanu-El asked.
“Noooo,” came their laughing reply.
“Do you have two songs?”
“Yessss,” they replied again, stirring in line, anxious to perform before the crowd of people behind them. Beyond then still was the to-be-lighted Menorah and beyond the large picture window, Broadway traffic continued on, the everyday world bustling to shop for Christmas or other business. Outsiders were almost unaware of the significance of this moment and the intensity of meaning that stood behind this simple ceremony.
After singing their Dreidel song, someone asked, “Do you know what a Dreidel is?”
“Yes,” they said.
“What does a Dreidel do?”
And singing the song, several children began to twirl around like tops, laughing, almost falling down with their joy, leaving a short time later after the official ceremonies took place.
Lighting ceremony full of history
The first light was lit and then a second, because officially, this ceremony was being conducted on the third day of Hanukkah and by tradition, Jewish people light one candle for each day, celebrating the miracle of oil.
“Some people say even more than the presents are the foods fried in oil,” Rabbi Miller said. “That’s what makes Hanukkah such an extra special treat. Others say foods fried in oil? What’s most important is the miracle of the oil, which for some is a good and sufficient reason to celebrate Hanukkah.”
Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt – a terrible yet glorious testimony to the Jewish faith.
“On July 4, Americans celebrate a success that was really two victories. American colonists successfully drove out the superior forces of Great Britain while at the same time American colonists who wanted to be independent were victorious over American colonists loyal to England. It was a civil struggle no less than an international war.” Rabbi Miller said. “We like to picture ragtag American heroes defeating regular British soldiers and Hessians, but we do not like to picture colonist against colonist, neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother.”
Miller said like that July 4 celebration, Jews celebrate a success in Hanukkah that was actually two victories: Jewish guerilla fighters known as Maccabees successfully beating back the Hellenistic army of Syria, but at the same time Maccabees, willing to die to remaining loyal to the Torah and the commandments, were victorious against other Jews who were only too happy to violate Jewish customs and dietary laws, desecrate the Sabbath and worship idols. It was a civil strife as well as an international war.
“We like to picture loyalist Jews disposing of idols, cleansing the one and only temple we had in the world,” Miller said. “We do not like to picture how ugly and violent must have been the confrontation between Hellenize and assimilated Jews and the uncompromising, old fashioned Maccabees. Our prayers celebrate the first war for our freedom of religion. Our prayers celebrate the triumph of few over the many, of the weak over the mighty. But our prayers are silent about the majority of the Jews who just wanted to fit in, be like, to look like, act like and eat like everybody else in the majority. So, Hanukkah is a mixture of good feeling that we like to talk about and uncomfortable feelings that we don’t like to talk about.”
“One of the things that makes is so special is its unique cultural and religious diversity.” – Mayor Mark Smith
The songs the children sang, however, deal with the happier side of the holiday, while the prayers talk a little bit more about the struggle.
There are several songs associated with the festival of Hanukkah. The most well known in English-speaking countries include “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” and “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah.” In Israel, Hanukkah has become something of a national holiday.
Although Hanukkah is often closely associated with the non-Jewish holiday of Christmas, it is not a “Sabbath-like” holiday. There is no obligation to refrain from activities that are forbidden on the Sabbath.
During Hanukkah, people go to work and schools remain open, although many gather just before sunset on each of the eight nights to light the menorah to recite blessings and sing.
In many cases, the candles – when candles are used – are made to last at least 30 minutes. Traditionally, the candles are lit just after sundown.
From the second night on, people often gather to exchange gifts and eat foods baked with oil – tasty dishes Miller claimed his doctor said might also be bad for his health. The festival is observed by the kindling of the lights of a unique candelabrum, the nine-branched Menorah or Hanukah. One additional candle is lit on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night.
Terrace Malloy, director the city’s Urban Enterprise Zone, said it is always a nice to see people gathered for all the right reasons. Although sponsored by Town Center Management, this is the first celebration since the Urban Enterprise Zone took it over last spring.
Mayor Mark Smith said events like this make Bayonne very special place.
“One of the things that makes is so special is its unique cultural and religious diversity,” Smith said. “It’s kind of bittersweet because Rabbi Miller, who is so proactive in the City of Bayonne, will retiring in a few months.”