PHOTOS: Happy Hanukkah – Jewish Congregation of Marco Island celebrates Festival of Lights

With a little ceremony, a little music, a little Hebrew, some latkes and cake, the Jewish Congregation of Marco Island celebrated the coming on Hanukkah Wednesday evening. What’s not to like?

About 200 congregation members, plus guests from Naples, and communities from further north, up to and including Canada, gathered at the temple on Winterberry Drive for a celebration of faith and fellowship, and to listen to some smokin’ music. Klezmer clarinetist Dr. Martin Cohn, a virtuoso on the instrument, played seasonal favorites, and delved into what he called “Jewish Vaudeville,” at an event that combined religious service and musical concert.

First, the congregation gathered outside the sanctuary, where an open-air menorah built and donated by Frank Lazarro stood with its oil lamps. David Willens, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Collier County, who co-sponsored the evening, did the honors lighting the flames.

As Wednesday marked the second evening of the eight-day Festival of Lights, two candles of the menorah were lit, along with the center flame, the “shamash” or servant flame. The shamash rises from the base, and serves to light the others. One more flame is lit each night of Hanukkah until all eight, plus the shamash, are lit.

Rabbi Edward Maline, the spiritual leader of Marco’s Jewish congregation, spoke on the meaning of Hanukkah, and how the ancient festival relates to the world of today.

“Hanukkah celebrates freedom of religion,” said Maline, “the right of every person to worship the god of his choice, without interference or government oppression. The message is not only for the Jewish people, but for the entire world.”

As examples of threats to freedom of religion, and to Judaism in particular, Maline cited radical Islam, with its “quest for hegemony,” branding every other faith as illegitimate, and the government of Iran, “trying to exterminate Israel, and wipe it off the map.”

Hanukkah, also spelled Chanukah, is known as the Festival of Lights. It begins each year on the 25th day of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, but like Easter, does not correspond to a fixed day in the Gregorian calendar used in the U.S.

The menorah symbolizes a miracle of ancient Judaism, when celebrants were rededicating the Holy Temple in Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt in the third century BCE, or before the common era, said Maline. The Greeks ruled Palestine, and tried to defeat the Israelites by defiling the temple, prompting the purification process symbolized by Hanukkah. The Jews only had enough oil to light the flame for one night, but it nevertheless kept burning for eight, which is, he said, “the small miracle of Hanukkah.”

Inside the temple, Cohn kept the congregation enthralled with his music. Looking up, you saw a clarinetist on the stage, but close your eyes, and you heard a fiddler on the roof.

Accompanied on the piano by Dr. Ron Doiron, who is music director both at JCMI and the Episcopal Church, and with a tambourine keeping the time, Cohn played the beautiful, haunting music from the Yiddish tradition. A mixture of jubilation and melancholy, the highly ornamented, often minor key melodies struck a chord with the congregation, who swayed, clapped, and sometimes sang along.

“I’m going to play a Bulgar – a hot Bulgar,” announced Cohn. “Let’s see if I can do it without fainting.” For the final number, he said, “I think you’ll know this one, the grand finale at most things Jewish,” and launched into “Hava Nagila.”

After the music, nothing was left but to catch up with old friends, many newly arrived for the season, and enjoy a little nosh. The latkes, or potato pancakes, are a traditional Hanukkah food, fried in the oil that is a focal point of the celebration. They are served with sour cream and applesauce, and accompanied by a variety of cakes.

Most nights of Hanukkah, said Maline, are celebrated in the home by individual families.

“Friday night, we’ll have a Hanukkah celebration, and that night, we’ll light the fourth candle,” he said.

Starting on January 15, JCMI will host the Jewish Film Festival, with a screening of “The Yankles,” about a group of yeshiva students who form a baseball team.

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