In a classroom at the Arlington-Fairfax Jewish Congregation, 4-year-old Robby Gessel raced to grate a potato as fast as he could. Part of a children's class surrounding the celebration, Gessel was part of a team Sunday morning learning to make latkes — traditional potato pancakes — in honor of Hanukkah. The class was divided into two groups and which ever one had more grated potatoes on the plate by the end, got to try them first when they came out of the oven.
Hanukkah began Tuesday night of last week at sunset and concluded this week with celebrations in many Jewish homes throughout Arlington. The holiday commemorates the rededicating of the holy temple in Jerusalem in 165 C.E., according to historians and the two books of Maccabees found in the Bible, after Jewish rebels known as the Maccabees defeated Syrian Greek invaders who had altered it years earlier as a place of worship for the god Zeus and outlawed Jewish religious practices.
After an estimated three years of fighting, the rebels reclaimed their homeland and the temple. Yet when reconstruction of the temple was complete and a celebration was called for, oil to light the temple's menorah could not be found, save for one small flask containing only enough to light it for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days.
"Hanukkah is about the struggle for religious freedom," said Emily Feinberg, the synagogue's education director. "It was one of the world's first organized fights for the ability of people to worship God in the way they see fit."
FOR CHILDREN, THE CELEBRATION is an innocent occasion but the meaning isn't lost on them.
"You light candles and sometimes you eat gelt (coins of chocolate wrapped in gold-colored foil) and sometimes, for dessert, you eat jelly doughnuts," said Jonathan Melks, 5. "It's because when the Maccabees lit the light, they thought it would only last for a day but it lasted for eight days and because they defeated the Syrian Greek army. They used elephants to fight. Elephants can really hurt."
The word "Hanukkah" means dedication, as in the rededicating of the temple. The celebration may center around the reclamation of Jerusalem from invaders but it also carries spiritual significance, a message Feinberg tries to instill in her students.
"It's very important that there be a spiritual element to the celebration," she said. "We try to inspire the children to see the wonder in it."