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Hanukkah Time for Reflection, Hope

Hanukkah starts this evening and ends the evening of Dec. 9. Here is a look at the origins of the holiday, and some suggestions for one of the newer traditions — gifts.

Most residents of Pikesville settled in at home this evening to celebrate Hannukah, the eight-day Festival of Lights that these days reminds Jews of miracles, the power of perseverance, and to be lights in the world themselves.

David Weisshaar of Pikesville explained that, as Jews light each candle of the menorah — one a day  — they are to reflect on Jewish history. "As you add in the lights, you are bringing light into the world," he said. "And as a Jewish person you are supposed to bring light into the world.

It has another meaning, too. "We are supposed to look at the light and reflect, think about the miracles of God during that time," he said, referring to happenings 21 centuries ago.

Rabbi Jonathan Seidemann of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Pikesville recalled the history for Patch, and said he believes that the story of Hanukkah has a powerful message in modern times. "It reminds one to never give up," he said.

There was a time, more than 21 centuries ago, that the Syrian-Greeks ruled over the land of modern-day Israel, said Seidemann, the college's director of communications, and rabbi of congregation Kehilath B'nai Torah in the Mt. Washington/Greenspring area.

The Syrian-Greeks sought to assimilate the Jewish population into the Syrian-Greek way of life. "The ruling authority made many attempts to deprive Jews of freedom of worship and to deprive them of observance of the laws of the torah," he said, referring to the whole body of Jewish religious literature.

In 168 B.C.E (before the Common Era) the Syrian-Greek army seized and defiled the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. One year later the Syrian-Greek emperor outlawed Judaism, and anyone caught practicing it would be put to death, Seidemann said.

A Jewish resistance, known as the Maccabees, was formed to fight back and gain religious freedom. Against all odds, the Maccabees defeated the much larger Syrian-Greek army. "When they returned to the Temple to clean things up, they were only able to find one jar of uncontaminated oil to light the menorah, the candelabra of the Temple," said Seidemann.

It was thought that the oil would only last for one day. In order to purify the Temple, though, the Jews needed the oil to burn for eight days. They lit the menorah anyway. "Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days," Seidemann said.

"The Jews could have given up and abandoned their religion to follow the way of the Syrian-Greeks. On paper, there is no way their small army should have won [in battle] against the mighty Syrian-Greeks, but they did just that. They could have given up as well when it came time to re-dedicate the Temple because they had so little oil."

So, Hanukkah is celebrated every year with the lighting of the menorah for eight days to recognize and remember both the miracle of the military victory and the miracle of menorah candles burning for eight days, he explained.

One candle is lit each day until the entire set of candles is ablaze on the eighth day. Because the lighting of the candles each day is done with the "shamus" candle, also on the menorah, a menorah actually has nine candleholders.

Menorahs can be either plain or be works of art or sculptures themselves.

Weisshaar said he prefers to use a menorah with oil lamps that are more like the lamps in the Temple so long ago. He said he gets a new one every year.

Eight Days of Presents

Often during Hanukkah, menorahs are given as gifts.

Shabsi Schneider, the owner of Shabsi's Judaica Center, located at 6830-A Reisterstown Road, said that a Hanukkah tradition is to give children one present for each of the eight days. He offered some gift suggestions.

"We have three books in the store that I recommend. One is a 3-D Jerusalem picture "The other two are kosher cookbooks. They are called 'Quick and Kosher' and 'Kosher by Design for Teens.'"

The shop is located near Pikesville in the Fallstaff Shopping Center. For more information, call 410-764-1587.

The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation's Sisterhood Judaica Shop, located at 7401 Park Heights Ave., has numerous items that have been popular with Hanukkah gift shoppers this season, according to shop merchandiser Linda Paige.

"The biggest sellers for Hanukkah this year have been menorahs," Paige said. "Specifically, we have sold a lot of menorahs designed for children. Dreidels and Judaic jewelry has also been popular. We have necklaces with the Star of David and Pandora-style bracelets with Judaic symbols." For more information, call the shop at 410-764-1587, or visit http://bhcong.judaicabeautiful.com/

Baltimore County Executive-Elect Kevin Kamenetz said he recommends "Age-appropriate gifts based on your child's interests. ... My children, who are nine and almost seven, are really into yo-yos and anything to do with the Ravens and WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment]. So, I'm looking to buy them age-appropriate gifts dealing with those two things." 

Kamenetz takes office on Dec. 6, the middle of Hanukkah. 

Still not sure what to buy for Hanukkah gifts? Visit Presentations Gifts, located at 1500 Reisterstown Road (410-484-5196).

They have an array of Judaic gift items, including menorahs, mezuzah covers, and jewelry.

The friendly staff, which includes owners Hahuva Weinerd, Tova Taragin, and Judy Shields, will gladly show you around and help you decide the ideal Hanukkah gift. "We have something for everyone on your shopping list," Weinerd said. "Consider us your one-stop shop for Hanukkah."

You also can order store items online at www.presentationsgifts.com. "There are gifts for babies to bubbies in our store," Taragin said.

Chaim Kalish, a student at Community College of Baltimore City and Cheswolde resident, said the kinds of gifts given during Hanukkah vary greatly, based on family economics and traditions.

Since his birthday is Dec. 26, gifts given to him are always given to celebrate both Hanukkah and his birthday, he said.

Last year he got some Xbox games and a other items. And at his parents' home, Hanukkah is always spent with family.

Janet Metzner, editor, also contributed to this story.

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