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Festival of Lights

Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday celebrating the Maccabees victory over Syrian Greeks in rededicating the Temple in Jerusalem, begins at sundown Wednesday. And, even thoughugg cardy the celebration is linked to the rest of the holiday season with gift-giving and other elaborate displays, it is important to remember that all you need for a fine Hanukkah celebration is a few potatoes.

“My father in-law, who came from Europe, will say ‘I don’t know what need all these things for,’” said Shirley Ginzburg, who runs the Temple Beth El gift shop in Aptos. “In the dead of winter, his family ugg boots ukwould slice a potato in half so it lays flat, dig nine holes in it, fill them with oil and place threads in them, and light the threads.”

The potato served as a makeshift hanukiah or menorah. When the Maccabees re-entered the temple, they found only enough pure olive oil to burn for light to last one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days and nights, which was long enough to produce more oil. The lighting of the menorah signifies the miracle. The candelabra has room to hold eight candles as well as a so-called attendant, or shammus candle. On the first night of Hanukkah, a single candle is placed in a menorah, and is lit by the shammus after a blessing is recited. Each successive night, an additional candle is added and the ceremony is repeated.

Add latkes, the traditional potato pancake served during Hanukkah meals, and spuds provide everything one needs.

“The potato is a food of the people,” said Sheila Baumgarten, interim director of Santa Cruz Hillel. ”When you don’t have anything else you have the potato. You can turn the potato into something wonderful and gorgeous, an it doesn’t take a lot to make that way. It’s the simplest thing. Similarly, candles transform darkness into light, it’s special but simple.”

As the white noise of shopping and office parties during the holiday season grows yearly, it becomes more important for religious leaders to express the roots and significance of the holidays themselves.

“The holiday season has become so commercialized, but the message of Hanukkah is the polar opposite of that,” said Rabbi Yochanan Friedman of Chabad by the Sea. “We have to resist temptations to secularize and commercialize that which is purposeful and genuine. The relationship between me and my creator is real, and the traditions and religious practices that I express that relationship through are meaningful and authentic.”

The idea of a single light in the darkness, of overcoming oppression and forces of assimilation, is a central theme echoed repeatedly by Jewish leaders across Santa Cruz.

“For me the message of Hanukkah is a message of light, increasing light,” said Rabbi Shifra Weiss-Penzias of Temple Beth El. “That light can be a metaphor for the spirit, for goodness…. No one person is greater than any other person. No human being, no living being at all deserves to be degraded or in a situation of oppression, and these are all Jewish messages.”

The Maccabees rose up against the King of Syria Antiochus IV, because they refused to give up their religious practices as the emperor wanted. It was a fight against forced assimilation.

“It is ironic that Hanukkah has become part of the ‘holiday season,’” said Tammi Benjamin, UC Santa Cruz professor of Hebrew and one of the founders of the Congregation Kol Tefillah. “It’s about Jews not assimilating, and preserving faith in the face of power. A power that made them try to lose it.”

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