BRADENTON -- As she prepared to sing before the largest crowd ever to attend a Temple Beth El Downtown Bradenton Hanukkah Lighting Celebration Monday night, opera singer Deborah Polkinghorn Suta said she could barely breathe.
"I was verklempt," Suta said before she performed "One Special Night" and the Hebrew "Rock of Ages" for 150 people who set up lawn chairs in front of the old Manatee Players Riverfront Theater, 102 12th St. W., Bradenton, for the fourth annual lighting event.
Verklempt is a Yiddish/Jewish saying meaning "choked with emotion." It's appropriate for Suta since she recently discovered she is part Jewish and was celebrating her first Hanukkah as a Jew.
The 34-year-old soprano, who received a long cheer from the crowd, has performed opera all over the
world and sung at Jewish functions not knowing her grandmother on her mother's side, Wilma Abraham, was a German Jew.
"I felt pure love and acceptance from the crowd as I looked into their faces," said Suta whose remarkable story was told to the crowd by Temple Beth El Rabbi Harold Caminker before she sang.
"I think my story illustrates that we are really all part of each other," Suta said. "Hanukkah is all about defeating hate in the world. As I was standing there, that's what I realized."
Caminker later called Suta "our Hanukkah hero" and said he was so moved by her story -- including how she discovered being Jewish after she realized she could speak Yiddish, a language spoken by her "Oma," or grandmother. Yiddish borrows from Hebrew, German and Slavic tongues.
Suta's analysis of Hanukkah being a holiday to draw everyone to together, and not just a Jewish celebration, was a theme for the evening.
"The credit for this, our most outstanding and diverse program, goes to Irv Zamikoff of our Temple, who put it together," said Caminker.
Zamikoff's invitation to the First United Methodist Church Choir was also accepted. First UMC sang before the appreciative crowd.
Former Bradenton City Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey, slick as a dreidel, performed her now anticipated annual performance of "Light One Candle" and Temple Beth El Cantor Alan Cohn led the crowd in some singalongs, notably "Oh Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah."
"Oh Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah, come light the menorah," sang crowd member Marilyn Brenner of Bradenton Beach.
"My best memory of Hanukkah is going to visit my grandmother and grandfather, Hyman and Esther Bratt, on 178th Street in the Bronx in 1944, when I was 6, and smelling my grandmother's cooking," Brenner said. "My grandfather gave us Hanukkah gelt, which was a silver dollar."
There were Hanukkah candle lightings by Temple members and guests, including Beverly Safron from P.S. 189 in New York and Betty Klein, from P.S. 150. Others in the audience said they attended public schools in New York, including P.S. 102 and 106 graduate Neil Clark, husband of Temple President Sandy Clark,
Hanukkah, which is celebrated for eight days, began at sundown Wednesday due to Leap Year in the Jewish calendar, coinciding with Thanksgiving in an extremely rare event that won't recur for 70,000 years.
Also called the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah marks a successful rebellion of Jews more than 21 centuries ago to drive out occupying Syrians, Caminker said.
"The most thrilling thing about Monday is to see how the event has grown," said Temple member Stephanie Konicov. "Each year it draws a bigger crowd, which, to me, is beautiful."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.