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Turlock celebrates the Festival of Lights
Chanukah pic1
Danielle Benavides holds her daughter, Tessa, as she lights one of the candles on the 5-foot Menorah set up in Central Park on Wednesday. - photo by KRISTINA HACKER/The Journal

Over 30 community members gathered at Central Park in downtown Turlock on Wednesday for a public Chanukah celebration and Menorah lighting — something that Rabbi Shalom Bochner from Congregation Beth Shalom called a "historic event."

"When was the last time Yiddish was sung in downtown Turlock?" asked Bochner goodheartedly before leading the group in the song "Oh Chanukah," which has verses in both English and Yiddish, the historical language of the Jewish people.

The hour-long event included the singing of a number of traditional Chanukah songs, an explanation of how to play the dreidel game, a history of the Jewish festival and, of course, the lighting of a 5-foot tall Menorah at sundown.

Chanukah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday that commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt in the 2nd century. The Maccabees led a Jewish revolt against the Seleucid empire, which had claimed their territory, including the Holy Temple. The Jewish fighters were able to reclaim the temple, but didn’t have enough oil left to consecrate the holy site. The small jar of oil they found was only enough to light the Temple’s Menorah for one night, but lasted eight nights, allowing for new consecrated oil to be prepared.

The holiday follows the ancient Hebrew lunar calendar and this year started at sundown on Dec. 24, with the last night being Saturday.  This particular timing of the winter holiday won’t re-occur for more than 20 years. Each year the holiday over-laps with the new moon, and thereby always includes the darkest nights of the year. 

Bochner said that Chanukah is not only the commemoration of the "minor" miracle of oil lasting eight nights instead of one, but of two other miracles as well — the Maccabees fighting for religious freedom and the unbroken tradition of celebrating the winter holiday.

"We've been lighting candles for over 2,200 years; keeping the hope and keeping the faith," said Bochner.

The rabbi made the ancient history of the festival a little more real to those gathered on Wednesday night by passing around a pottery shard from the time of the Maccabees he obtained from a dig site in Israel.

"You've not only made history in this community gathering in Turlock, you've touched history," he said.

Turlock resident and member of Congregation Beth Shalom Danielle Benavides said she was excited to be able to attend a Chanukah celebration in her hometown.

"There's never been anything like this. It's nice to have representation," she said.