Hanukkah celebration begins tonight



Rabbi Zalmy Kudan lights an olive menorah in the doorway of a Jewish home.THOMAS KELSEY / NEWS-PRESS

December 20, 2011 5:55 AM

Tonight, the first candle of the menorah will be lit, signaling the start of the eight-day Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights.

"We know that a little light dispels a lot of darkness," said Rabbi Zalmy Kudan, youth director at the local Jewish community Chabad of S. Barbara.

That, he said, is an analogy and a message of Hanukkah that can resonate with all people, whatever their belief background. And, it is that message that Chabad of S. Barbara has invited the greater Santa Barbara community to be a part of in its 32nd annual Chanukah in the Mall event tonight at 5 p.m. in La Cumbre Plaza. The Art of Hanukkah, this year's theme, will pervade the evening, with glass blower Tim Lindemann crafting dreidels live and the opportunity to create a mosaic on the base of a large menorah.

There will also be traditional friend Hanukkah foods, an olive press, live music and, of course, a menorah lighting - all with the intent of drawing the community together to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness. In these troubled times, said Rabbi Kudan, that is one message that especially needs to ring true.

"I think that's very relevant nowadays when there is a lot of confusion, a lot of stress, and the economy," he said. "There's a lot of darkness, if you will. And the light of Hanukkah is saying, 'Hey look, every person has an opportunity to connect to God and to make the world a better place.'"

The message of Hanukkah is not to wait on the world to improve, but for each person to do his or her part - to make a little difference somewhere. That, he said, is an especially important message for children to hear, and is partly why children are so central to the holiday.

"Let's do it now, what we can, and then God will help us," Rabbi Kudan emphasized.

Hanukkah - spelled "Chanukah" oftentimes in Jewish tradition - is celebrated at a different time around December each year, in keeping with the lunar-based Jewish calendar. The holiday always begins on the 25th day of Kislev, but can fluctuate anywhere between Nov. 28 and Dec. 26, according to the Chabad of S. Barbara.

Tonight is also a chance for the Jewish community to enjoy their freedom to openly display and celebrate the menorah, he said.

"Thank God in America we do have freedom of religion," said Rabbi Kudan, contrasting the scene that will unfold tonight with the persecution surrounding the holiday's origin.

The celebration of Hanukkah traces back to more than 21 centuries ago. In that time, the Syrian-Greeks ruled over the Jews, outlawing the reading of the Torah and making it a crime punishable by death.

But, a small group of faithful Jews defeated the Greeks in battle, according to the Chabad of S. Barbara. The Jews reclaimed the Holy Temple and dedicated to God. The word "Hanukkah," in fact, translated means "dedication," representing the dedication of the temple.

When the Jews sought to light the seven-branch menorah, they found only a single small portion of olive oil that had not been contaminated by the Greeks. In what the Jews proclaimed a miracle, it is recorded that the menorah stayed aflame for eight whole days on the small portion of oil. That is why menorahs used in celebration of Hanukkah have eight branches rather than seven, said Rabbi Kudan.

"The way we commemorate the miracle specifically is by lighting these candles," he said.

Today, Jewish families usually place those menorahs in one of three locations, he explained - either in a window or at the front door to publicize the miracle, or in a doorway of a home's main room so as to be near the holy commandments typically posted in doorways. Some menorahs burn candles, and others use olive oil. All are lit from right to left, one night of the celebration at a time.

Dreidels, which will be created at tonight's festivities, represent education and the role of children in the Jewish tradition. During the persecution Jews experienced centuries ago, children, according to Chabad of S. Barbara, would spin dreidels to fool the Greeks into thinking they were just playing when they were actually studying. At tonight's event, each child will be able to take home a dreidel.

"The idea behind the dreidel is that even children are able to affect resilience and stand strong for what they believe is correct," Rabbi Kudan said. "Judaism and spirituality and life in general, contributing to the community, is not something when I get older. It's something I can do now."

Tonight's celebration starts at 5 p.m. in La Cumbre Plaza by Macy's, and is free and open to the public. For more information about the event, and to learn more about the background of Hanukkah, visit sbchabad.org/chanukah.

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