Herb Friedson has warm memories of celebrating Hanukkah as a child.
"When I was growing up in Cleveland, it was a wonderful time of the year, because the whole family would get together at grandma's house," Friedson said.
"We would have a celebration that centered around the making of the potato latkes -- the potato pancakes. Grandma would also make a fabulous honey cake, and there would be applesauce and sour cream, all the goodies that go along with Hanukkah. But the main dish was the potato pancakes; they were wonderful."
Decades later, Hanukkah, known as the Festival of Lights, remains a meaningful time for Friedson.
Only now, he marks the eight-day Jewish holiday -- which began Friday and ends Dec. 27 -- with his wife, Martha, his three adult children and four grandchildren.
"This year, we're going to my daughter's in Kansas City. We'll have the same celebration like we would normally have at our house. We'll light the menorah, and I have been designated to make the potato pancakes," said Friedson, a member of the Lawrence Jewish Community Center, 917 Highland Drive, since 1965.
Friedson is among many Jews in Lawrence who will celebrate Hanukkah by lighting candles, singing songs and eating holiday foods to commemorate a Jewish military victory against the Syrian-Greek rulers of Israel and the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E.
The symbol of Hanukkah is the menorah or hanukkiah, a special candelabrum with eight branches and a holder for the shamash -- or "helper" candle -- that's used to light the other candles, one for each night of the holiday.
To Neil Shanberg, president of Lawrence's Jewish center, Hanukkah really means a time to celebrate a festive occasion among family.
"Even if it's just short and sweet, right before running out the door, being able to light the candles with the kids is nice. I have a lot of pictures of us standing behind the lit menorah, and those are special," he said.
Hanukkah means a lot more than just eating potato pancakes, though.
The Hebrew word itself actually means commemoration or rededication.
Hanukkah celebrates the victory of a small, guerilla-style Jewish army, led by Judah Maccabee, who defeated the military forces of Antiochus, a Syrian king who ruled Israel. Antiochus had banned Jewish ritual and was forcing the Jews to join the Syrian's dominant Greek culture and adopt its way of life -- along with worshipping the Greek gods.
The Maccabees celebrated their victory by reclaiming the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been desecrated by foreign troops.
They re-lit the Temple's menorah with a small cruse of oil they found, a supply that would only be enough to last one day. But when they used the oil, it burned not for one, but eight days.
This became known as the "miracle of the oil," and is the reason why Jews light candles for eight days during Hanukkah. It is also the reason that potato pancakes, and other foods that are fried in oil, became associated with the holiday.
But the importance of the story doesn't end with the candles and the oil.
"One of the funny things about Hanukkah is that it has been taught for a long, long time as the celebration of a miracle. But an equally important aspect of it is that it is a celebration of a successful struggle for religious freedom," Rabbi Scott White said.
"It was a triumph for freedom of religious expression, because the Syrian-Greek rulers were preventing Jews from practicing the Jewish tradition. They outlawed Judaism. It was really the first instance of large-scale religious persecution in antiquity."
Importance to Jews
A common misperception of Hanukkah is that it is the "Jewish Christmas," a holiday that has the same central role in Judaism that Christmas plays in Christianity.
"The only relationship with Christmas is a coincidence of falling at the same time of year. That's the only thing. It's strictly the fact that they come at the same time of year," White said.
For Jews, Hanukkah is not a yom tov, or holy day, such as Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement) or Passover.
That's because holy days in Judaism are all derived from the Pentateuch, or Hebrew Bible. The Hanukkah story took place long after the events that are recorded in the Pentateuch.
"I would explain that unlike Christmas, being the first or second most important holiday to Christians, that Hanukkah is not on the same level as far as religious observance as those two holidays," Shanberg said.
"It's an important holiday -- don't get me wrong, the aspects of religious freedom are very important, and Jews have struggled to have that for 5,000 years. But it doesn't have the religious importance that Christmas does (for Christians), and that's a widespread assumption."