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Israel begins celebrating Hanukkah

Israelis celebrated the first day of Hanukkah on Wednesday, praying at the gravesides of the Jewish heroes the holiday honors, lighting candles and eating traditional foods.
A supporter of the Temple Mount Faithful carries a menorah Wednesday during a Hanukkah protest march in Jerusalem’s Old City.Kevin Frayer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israelis celebrated the first day of the festival of Hanukkah on Wednesday, praying at the gravesides of the Jewish heroes the holiday honors, lighting candles and eating traditional deep-fried foods.

In Jerusalem, Hanukkah got a bright face lift this year.

At the entrance to the city, workers set up a huge menorah, a candelabrum for the holiday, said to be the biggest in the world. Thousands of motorists entering the city had their way lighted by the 72-foot menorah with 1,800 light bulbs — a project to promote a charity for needy children.

Schoolchildren enjoyed the first day of a winter vacation as their parents shopped for jelly doughnuts, one of the highly fattening foods that characterize the holiday and which have increasingly become a target of criticism from health advocates.

Shadow of controversy
The festival commemorates the victory of the Jews in 165 B.C. against their Syrian-Greek oppressors, rededicating the biblical temple in Jerusalem, which had been defiled. The name of the festival means “dedication.”

Israel’s modern conflicts were recalled this year, as well, as political activists tried to co-opt the festival for their own ends.

A small group of Jewish zealots gathered Wednesday morning at the Hasmonean graves, where the Jewish heroes of the Hanukkah story were said to be buried near Modiin, lighting torches and calling for the rebuilding of the temples.

The group, called the Temple Mount Faithful, demonstrates several times a year in the Old City of Jerusalem, demanding that the Jewish Temple be rebuilt in place of the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest shrine.

The two Jewish temples were destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. and by the Romans in A.D. 70.

Miriam Amihud, a member of the group, said it went to the burial site of the Maccabis, the Jews who overthrew their Selucid overlords to set up the Hasmonean Dynasty, because the story was symbolic of the rebirth of Israel.

“This is Hanukkah, which symbolizes the restoration of the house of Israel,” she said.

The protesters then went to Jerusalem’s Old City, where they held a demonstration, tearing up Palestinian flags.

As the buses of protesters departed the ancient grave site, a solitary figure remained. Wrapped in a prayer shawl, he lit a wick doused in olive oil and prayed beneath a large carob tree beside the empty shallow graves carved into the white rocks.

“I came to get in touch with our roots,” said Yehezkel Zion, 60, when he finished praying. “If we don’t have roots, our history will be swept away.”

Bemoaning the modern commercialism of the holiday, Zion said he was not surprised to be alone at the historic site. “The herd go where you lead them. If you lead them to the malls, they go to the malls,” he said.

Celebrations for the weight-conscious?
The holiday also reflects the legend of how oil that should have lasted for only one day in the temple the Jews were rededicating miraculously lasted for eight.

The overbearing presence of oil in traditional festival fare sparked some criticism of Israel’s favorite Hanukkah food, the deep-fried jelly doughnut.

A survey by the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot found that Israeli children would eat about 13.5 million doughnuts during the eight-day festival, consuming 6 billion calories.

At Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, doughnut vendors said sales were down compared with previous years.

“Maybe people are more concerned about their weight,” said Yaki Sharabi, 52, who was offering doughnuts filled with chocolate, caramel and the traditional sticky sweet strawberry jelly.

According to Yediot, upscale doughnut makers this year are trying to tempt customers with such innovative fillings as mango, wild berries and even a Mexican version filled with tequila and chili peppers.