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Hanukkah marks a beloved celebration of light, joy and family in Grand Forks

Families across Grand Forks celebrate the Jewish holiday each year by lighting the menorah

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Chassidy and Josh Strege follow the ancient Jewish tradition of lighting a candle on each of the eight days of Hanukkah with their sons, Paxson and Devin, on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022 in their home in Grand Forks.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — In their quiet, cozy home, Josh and Chassidy Strege gather with their sons in the dining room to light the menorah as part of their observance of Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday, which began at sundown Sunday, Dec. 18.

The lights in the room have been dimmed as son Paxson strikes a match to light the first candle — the shamash, or the “helper candle” — which he uses to light three other candles Tuesday, Dec. 20, the third day of Hanukkah. As each candle is lit, the family members speak or sing a Hebrew blessing in unison.

During this ritual, each action is deliberate and represents a centuries-old tradition. The candles are usually lit at sunset on each day of Hanukkah. In the Jewish tradition, the day begins at sunset.

They are placed in the menorah from the outside in and then lit consecutively from the inside out, according to tradition. The helper candle is placed in the center, the tallest point of the menorah.

One candle is added and lit on each of the eight days of Hanukkah, four on each side of the helper candle. New candles are used each night, Chassidy Strege said. Each night, the candles burn for about 30 minutes.

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“While they’re burning, we don’t do work,” she said. It is a time of reflection and contemplation.

Like other Jewish children, the Strege children play with a dreidel, a small four-sided wooden toy, spinning it like a top in an age-old game, another Hanukkah tradition.

Steeped in history

Hanukkah, which means “dedication,” is a celebration of the reclaiming of a temple by the Maccabees from the Greeks in Syria more than 2,000 years ago. When they entered the temple, the Maccabees relit the “ner tamid,” a lamp which burned constantly in a Jewish temple. They found a single jar of oil, which was sufficient for only one day. The messenger who was sent to secure additional oil took eight days to complete his mission, and, miraculously, the single jar of oil continued to burn until his return.

Hanukkah is the festival that commemorates the purification and rededication of the temple following the Greek occupation of that holy place. The holiday reminds Jews to rededicate themselves to keeping alive the flame of Jewish religion, culture, and peoplehood so that it may be passed on to the next generation.

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Paxson Strege spins a dreidel, a four-sided wooden spinning top, during a game which children play during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah as his parents Josh and Chassidy Strege and brother Devin look on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Traditional foods

Following Jewish rituals, Chassidy Strege makes jelly donuts, or sufganiyot, and latkes during this holiday. Both are cooked in oil, a reference to the oil that lasted not for one day, but for eight days, according to the Jewish Talmud account.

The making of jelly donuts is a more recent addition to Hanukkah customs, having been introduced in the 1920s, according to sources.

Like Strege, Bert Garwood, president of the B’nai Israel Synagogue in Grand Forks, also enjoys making latkes, a type of potato pancake, as is the Jewish custom during Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights.

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“I generally fry those a couple times during the holiday,” Garwood said, noting that he makes them with potatoes, onion, salt and pepper and tops them with applesauce or sour cream. “I like them both ways,” he said.

Garwood also makes jelly donuts, or sufganiyot, which he forms into golf ball-size balls before frying them, he said. “They’re good when they’re fresh.”

Lighting the menorah

Like many other Jewish families, Jack Weinstein, UND Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, and his family light candles on the menorah each night during Hanukkah. They place the menorah on their dining room table.

“It’s often tradition to put (the menorah) in a window so that people can see — and there’s a bunch of different reasons for that,” he said. “But, how much people do that these days depends on how comfortable they are in the community, because there are a lot of people — especially in North Dakota — who feel that advertising their Judaism is a little dangerous right now. And so, I think, a lot of people will end up keeping it out of their windows and in a more private place.”

Also in the 1920s, Jewish families added gift-giving to their Hanukkah celebrations, leading some to call the holiday the “Jewish Christmas.” That, however, is a popular misconception, Weinstein said.

Although some families exchange gifts during Hanukkah, the Weinsteins do not.

“A lot of families — especially with kids — do, because Hanukkah is a way to help manage the Christmas season for kids who feel isolated and alone,” Weinstein said.

The practice likely was adopted as a means of helping children feel more included during holidays in predominantly Christian communities. Some Jews give gifts on each day of Hanukkah, while others give just one big gift the first night of Hanukkah and smaller gifts each remaining night.

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The Weinstein family lights a candle on the menorah each night, and “we enjoy it because it’s a nice moment, it’s a nice way of celebrating the holiday and the lighting of the candles — the more candles there are, the more beautiful it is — so by the end of the eight days, it’s quite satisfying to look at. It’s fun.”

“I think that, for most families, (Hanukkah) is a kid-centered holiday, much like Christmas is,” he said. “And for most families, it’s a celebration, it’s a happy holiday, not a sad holiday.”

In the Jewish religion, Hanukkah is “more of a minor holiday, it doesn’t have that much spiritual importance,” Weinstein said, “but it’s a reminder of the time that we get to spend together, and it’s a reminder of our connection with all the other people who are lighting the candles. So I think we do it as much to share in a global tradition as we do it for personal meaning.”

Local synagogue

In Grand Forks, the B’nai Israel Synagogue is a small but vibrant congregation with members, who represent a variety of Jewish traditions and backgrounds and who are from Grand Forks, UND, Grand Forks Air Force Base and surrounding communities.

Members of the Reform Jewish congregation, with about 25 families, worship in a building that was built in 1937, Garwood said.

The synagogue, which was incorporated in 1893, welcomes members of every Jewish denomination, as well as non-Jewish visitors, according to its website. A student rabbi travels here to lead worship periodically in the synagogue, Garwood said.

During the eight days of Hanukkah, there is a proper way to greet someone of the Jewish faith.

“Happy Hanukkah is a good one,” he said. But “Happy Holidays” is also appropriate.

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Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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