BRADENTON -- When Temple Beth El dreamed up a downtown Bradenton Hanukkah celebration in 2009, about 40 showed up for a formal little gathering on the lawn of the Manatee Players Theater.
Last year, it was as cold as Green Bay, but still, 75 came, sang Jewish songs and huddled together in front of the theater for warmth.
But on Monday, a glorious night befell Bradenton for the 3rd Annual Downtown Hanukkah Celebration and 200 brought their folding chairs and packed the street in front of the theater.
At the close of Monday’s event, the throng joined hands, swayed back and forth and sang out beloved a medley of Hanukkah songs like “Hineh Mahtov” and “Oseh Shalom.”
“The three words to describe the night are circle of unity,” said Rabbi Harold Caminker of Temple Beth El. “All Jews in Manatee County were invited and it felt like many came.”
“I would say it was a ‘hamisch crowd,” said Neil Spirtas of Temple Beth El, who related that “hamisch” is a Yiddish word for ‘down to earth and real.’”
For the first time, Rabbi Barbara Aiello of Bradenton’s Congregation Ner Tamid attended. Aiello was formerly the rabbi at Temple Beth El.
Many Congregation Ner Tamid members also attended Monday.
Caminker drew laughs with his song “Mrs. Maccabeus,” which gave Mrs. Maccabeus’ potato pancakes credit for the triumph, being that the Jewish troopers couldn’t wait for the battle to be over so they could enjoy her cooking.
Perhaps the one most thrilled was Betty Klein of Temple Beth El, whose birthday is today which marks the beginning of Hanukkah’s eight days of festivities.
“I feel like everyone gathered for my party,” a smiling Klein said.
Actually, Hanukkah is indeed a Jewish party that has been going on for thousands of years.
As Rena Morano , service leader and education director of Congregation Ner Tamid, related to the crowd, thousands of years ago the ruler of the Middle East, Antiochus Epiphanes, launched a “culture war” to unify his kingdom, requiring everyone to follow his religion.
It worked everywhere but the land of Israel, where the people revolted and, led by their hero, Mattathias and his band, the Maccabees, threw out the foreign occupiers, Morano said.
Once the Maccabees had regained control they returned to the Temple in Jerusalem, but, by this time, it had been spiritually defiled by practices such as sacrificing swine, Morano said.
Jewish troopers knew they needed to purify the Temple by burning ritual oil in the Temple’s menorah for eight days, but there was only one day’s worth of oil left in the Temple.
“They lit the menorah anyway and, to their surprise, the small amount of oil lasted the full eight days,” Morano said.
“This is the miracle of the Hanukkah oil that is celebrated every year when the Jews light a special menorah for eight days,” Morano added.
Monday’s prelude to Hanukkah kicked off with a combined children’s choir coached by Morano and Temple Beth El’s Susie Konicov singing favorites.
Rabbi Aiello sang a spirited Hanukkah blessing for the seventh night called “Festival of the Daughters.”
As she has done in previous years, Bradenton councilwoman Marianne Barnebey sang “Light One Candle,” to great applause.
“Don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears,” Barnebey sang.
Candle readings were performed by Lee Manevitch, Kate Richmond, Janet Hazuda, Marlena Johnsky, Art Durshimer, Sheila Kovalsky, Sandra Williams and Simone Shaw.
“I love the whole thing,” said Roz Rothman of Temple Beth El. “We’ve never had anything like it in downtown Bradenton.”
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411