With the lighting of the first of eight candles at sundown Tuesday, Jewish families will begin the celebration of Hanukkah, a minor festival that has been "magnified" into one of the faith's most visible religious observances.
Known also as the Feast of Lights, the joyous eight-day festival commemorates the overthrow of Syrian oppressors by a band of Jewish guerrillas who recaptured the Temple of Jerusalem and gained religious freedom for the Jews. Recalling the victory and the ensuing miracle is intended to inspire renewed Jewish pride.
Although Hanukkah, which means dedication, is not a Jewish Christmas, many non-Jews view it as such because it is celebrated in December and involves giving gifts to children. Even some Jews get caught up in the Christmas-commercialization craze.
"It does not compare with Christmas, but it is treated by some as the equivalent of Christmas as a response" to Christian holiday activity, said Rabbi Robert J. Eisen of Temple Beth El of Greater Buffalo, Town of Tonawanda.
"Hanukkah has become magnified in this country because of the popular culture and the attention it receives in the public schools," he said.
"When a Jewish child goes to school and the teacher starts to talk about Christmas, the Jewish child feels left out," Rabbi Eisen pointed out. "In art class they make Christmas decorations. The school concert includes Christmas songs."
To compensate for the pressures and confusion caused by all the Christmas activities, some Jewish parents make Hanukkah a bigger festival than it was intended to be, Rabbi Eisen said.
But in most homes, he said, the emphasis is "not on the gifts."
"They are kept in perspective and not made the major emphasis of the holiday. The emphasis is on the latkes, the menorah and dreidels," he said. "By the end of the eight days, the gifts have been forgotten."
Latkes, potato pancakes fried in oil, remind Jews of the one-day-supply of lamp oil that miraculously burned for eight days after the Jews drove the Syrians from the temple. The menorah is the special candelabra that holds nine candles, one for each day of the Hanukkah observance and an extra candle used to light the others.
A source of amusement and diversion, the dreidel is a four-sided top used in a game by young and old alike to win nuts, raisins or candies during the home celebration.
The giving of gifts to children, Rabbi Eisen said, is an American expansion of the practice of distributing Hanukkah gelt, usually chocolate coins wrapped in foil.
Jews regard the retaking of the Temple of Jerusalem in 168 BCE (Before the Common Era) by Judas Maccabaeus and a small band of followers as the first recorded battle for religious liberty.
By defeating the Syrians, Rabbi Eisen said, the Jews won "the right to live Jewishly in a non-Jewish world."
Because Hanukkah is a minor festival, its observance in the synagogue consists of only a few liturgy changes.
Most of the celebrating is done in Jewish homes where latkes or jelly doughnuts, menorahs and dreidels are the focus of the observance.
One of the most important aspects of the home celebration, Rabbi Eisen said, is putting a menorah in a front window as a way of "publicly proclaiming the miracle of Hanukkah."
While the restoration of religious freedom is always the theme of Hanukkah, Rabbi Eisen said he believes that this year a lot of Jews will celebrate a more recent victory -- the exodus of 150,000 Jews from the Soviet Union "so they can be free to practice their religion."
Many of the Soviet Jews who have settled in the Buffalo area will experience their first Hanukkah during a celebration from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday in the Buffalo Jewish Center, 787 Delaware Ave.
The start of Hanukkah will be marked publicly by the lighting of the first candle on a giant menorah on the lawn of the Jewish Center at 4 p.m. Tuesday.