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Light the Night

by Colleen Patrice Clark
How South Jersey families celebrate the Festival of Lights.

The first lighting of the menorah that marks the start of Hanukkah is a moment the Levine family in Cherry Hill looks forward to each year. The weeklong celebration, which begins this year at sundown on Dec. 20, the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, serves as a reminder that there’s more to the holiday season than extravagant overindulgence.

For Julie and Scott Levine, along with thousands of other Jewish families in South Jersey, it’s the perfect time to teach children the importance of preserving their heritage. “It’s a celebratory and family-oriented holiday and a great opportunity to teach your children about Jewish tradition,” says Julie Levine, who fondly recalls looking forward to Hanukkah each year as a child, lighting the eight ceremonious candles alongside her parents and grandparents.

Latkes—potato pancakes sometimes served with applesauce or sour cream—along with sufganiyot (fried donuts) are the traditional foods due to their key ingredient—oil. The holiday commemorates a time in the 2nd century when the Jewish people, though severely outnumbered, rebelled against the Greeks and were able to take back their land and right to religious freedom. When they lit the menorah once again to rededicate their Temple in Jerusalem, there was only enough oil to burn for one day. Yet it burned for eight—the exact amount of time needed to make more.

“I always looked forward to those eight nights as a wonderful family celebration,” says Levine, noting how the holiday has taken on new significance now that she has a 4-year-old daughter, Gabby, and 2-year-old son, Jake.

The family has been reading stories leading up to the Festival of Lights, explain its meaning to the young ones, Levine says, and will involve the children in lighting the menorah, singing Hanukkah songs, making cookies and playing dreidel, where they give away chocolate gelt as prizes.

It’s mostly due to the integration of Jewish and Christian communities that gift-giving became popular, but as Cherry Hill resident Lisa Biren says, Hanukkah still remains a simple holiday that is very focused on passing down traditions.

“Judaism is a very quiet religion; all of the Jewish holidays are very family oriented, very traditional,” she says.

When her three children were young, they would make sure they were together each night for the menorah lighting, prayers, songs and dreidel games. The ritual begins with the candle on the far right and works its way over each night by using the shamash—the raised candle in the middle—to light each one. Many families use menorahs that have been passed down through the generations.

“I think the traditions are so beautiful and so special,” Biren says. “The subtlety of Judaism is what I hold sacred.”

To help reinforce the values behind Hanukkah and remind children of what really matters, many families, including the Levines, pick one night during the eight days to give to others rather than exchange gifts. Donating to charity was something Levine did each year as a child and she looks forward to practicing that with her children.

Hanukkah is like many other holidays, in that no matter how busy life gets, it’s a time to remember what’s important: family.

“Whatever work commitments my husband and I have,” Levine says, “we always make sure we’re home to light the candles as a family.”

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 10 (December, 2011).
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