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Commercialization makes celebrating Hanukkah easier
Gift shops, grocery stores carry new, traditional holiday items
Gem Jewelry displays a Hanukkah menora and dreidel set from Lenox.

Hanukkah service at Shalom B’harim

When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Dahlonega Presbyterian Church, 150 Warwick St., Dahlonega
Contact: 706-864-0801

When Rachel Glazer's class at North Hall High School made Christmas ornaments last week, she made hers a dreidel.

The dreidel, a four-sided spinning top, is a popular toy and symbol of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, which began Tuesday at sundown.

When Rachel was younger, finding dreidels, chocolate coins called gelt and the traditional menorah candleholder was a difficult task, but a recent commercialization of Hanukkah has given it more visibility.

"Do you know how hard it was to find dreidels in Gainesville, Ga.? I would be standing in the driveway waiting on the UPS truck," Teressa Glazer, Rachel's mother, said. "Now you can go to Publix and get them. I was in Publix the other day and they had Star of David-shaped cookies. That felt so good. ... When you're having to get things by mail order and have to drive into Gwinnett or Atlanta to get things for the temple Hanukkah party, there's a lot more convenience this way."

Mitch Cohen, lay spiritual leader of Shalom B'harim in Dahlonega, is not a fan of some American Hanukkah traditions, including small trees some families decorate and dub "Hanukkah bushes." But the modernization of the holiday is visible in the business community.

"If you were in New York City for example, you would have seen it a long time ago. It's just there weren't enough Jewish people (in this area) that marketing people said this is something we need to do," said Linda Orenstein, manager of Gem Jewelry in Gainesville.

"Times have changed. That's probably why you see more displays in stores. I know I have noticed during Passover, grocery stores will have display of Passover food."

Her store does put Hanukkah regalia out for sale.

"It's not a big demand, but we do have people come in," Orenstein said. "Someone will come in knowing we're Jewish and will want to send friends something for Hanukkah, and want it to be more traditional than a box of candy."

Publix grocery stores look at Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays as food occasions, and offer store managers the opportunity to receive shipments for those events, said Brenda Reid, Publix spokeswoman.

The products include things such as applesauce, brisket, candles, gelt, latkes, kugel (a noodle casserole) and menorahs.

Reid said the shipments also depend on how many synagogues are in the area. The "flagship" store for Jewish holidays is in Atlanta's Toco Hills Shopping Center, which has at least four in the area.

"We do sell cards and we will do special requests from someone as long as it's a Hallmark product," said Deangela Hurst, store manager at Jan's Hallmark in Flowery Branch. "What I have sells, but we order in accordance to that."

The special requests include things such as gift bags and paper products. Hurst said the store stocks 10 to 12 types of Hanukkah cards each year.

Hanukkah, like many Jewish holidays, begins at sundown.

"If you go in the book of Genesis, in the very first verses, you look in there and it says, ‘and there was an evening and a morning.' That's why every Jewish holiday starts at sundown," Cohen said. "It's a literal translation of how it's written. Everything starts at sunset when you can see three stars."

It is traditionally celebrated by playing dreidel, eating fried foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts, and by lighting the nine-candle menorah.

"The center candle is called the Shamash candle, which means servant candle. You light it first from right to left, the way Hebrew is read," Rachel Glazer said.

One candle is lit every night of the eight-night holiday.

In the past 60 years, however, another tradition has taken hold: gift-giving.

"It's driven in America. Prior to that, it was a holiday that was celebrated with small, if any, gifts given to children, one each night of Hanukkah," Cohen said. "As Jews left the inner cities and moved out to the suburbs, where they become even smaller minorities, they succumb to Christmas envy and they feel they have to compete to quell their children's jealousy."

The Glazers purposely do not decorate much for Hanukkah. They do give small gifts, like the family tradition of socks or crafts made by local artisans.

Hanukkah, however, is not a Jewish version of Christmas. It's a separate holiday altogether, commemorating a military victory.

The word "Hanukkah" means "rededication," Cohen said.

"From the year 167 to approximately 164 (Before Common Era), the Greek Assyrians had conquered the land of Israel, which was then Judah. The king at the time, Antiochus, forbid the practice of the Israelite religion. They desecrated the temple and forbid the practice of any of those festivals. One of those was Sukkot, the fall harvest festival. A group called the Maccabees ... started a guerilla warfare against the controlling power."

The Maccabees were victorious, and one of their tasks was to clean up and rededicate the temple.

"There's a tradition written in the Talmud that said when they recaptured the temple, they found enough olive oil to light the eternal light in the sanctuary for one day. The miracle is it lasted eight days while they were able to prep more oil, and that's why we light candles," Cohen said.

The victory was also celebrated lighting bonfires, a tradition kept by some who put large menorahs in their yards, he said.

"Where dreidel comes into the story, the men who wanted to study Torah would study in secret and they would do it under the guise of gambling in a top game. Then if the soldiers came in they would just see a bunch of guys gambling," Rachel Glazer said.

Each of the dreidel's four sides have a Hebrew letter on them. Together, they stand for "a great miracle happened there."

Dreidels in Israel, however, have a different letter at the end: "A great miracle happened here," Rachel Glazer said.

There are two blessings each night of Hanukkah, one to light the candles and the other to commemorate the season. Cohen said it is also popular to sing "Rock of Ages" after lighting the candles.

"It's funny that Hanukkah's become a way to address Christmas envy. If there wasn't a Hanukkah, there wouldn't be a Christmas," Cohen said. "Because of a small group of guerillas ... the Jews continued to practice their religion and Jesus was able to be born a Jew."

Hanukkah falls at a different time every year because the Jewish calendar is lunar-based. Each month lasts about 29.5 days, and to keep the Passover holiday in the spring, an extra month is added to the calendar periodically, Cohen said.

"Sometimes Hanukkah is before Thanksgiving and sometimes it's after Jan. 1," Orenstein said. "This year it falls right in the middle of Christmas and it makes it a little more obvious.

"I think it's neat (more products are) available. I have friends I've always sent Christmas cards to who send me Hanukkah cards back now."


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