GARDINER — Bob and Ava Gross picked a booth at Dennis’ Pizza Sunday and settled in for their meal, but instead of a slice and a cola, the Grosses dined on potato cakes and fruit the pizza parlor had made for the annual Hanukkah celebration.

The Grosses have been to every latke festival since Susan Montell began hosting them seven years ago.

“There are so few community events for Jews,” said Bob Gross, of Gardiner.

The festival has moved around a few times over the years, but this was the second straight year the Bridge Street pizza shop has played host. Owner Kara Waller, who scurried around the kitchen offering tips on how to prepare the potato delicacies, said it was a good chance to work with her children and to learn about a different faith.

“It’s fun to have the whole family involved,” she said. “It’s helping with the community, and it’s a tradition I really have no idea about.”

Bringing people together is at the heart of the festival, said Montell, of Gardiner. She expected a few dozen people to show up throughout the day. She said a good number would come from Temple Beth El in Augusta, but there would be no shortage of non-Jewish friends and neighbors making an appearance as well.

“It’s all about spending time with people you care about,” Montell said. “It’s really not a religious event.”

But Hanukkah is deeply rooted in Jewish history. The Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, is an eight-day commemoration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and it’s the hot oil rather than the potato cakes that honor the Jewish tradition. Rabbi Erica Asch of Temple Beth El said it celebrates the miracle of an oil supply that was supposed to burn for one day but which lasted for eight days.

“It’s about the miracles God did for us in the past and that God does for us today,” Asch said.

Latkes, which are made with shredded potato, eggs, flour and other ingredients, were incorporated into the Hanukkah celebration in 17th century Europe.

“Eastern Europe had a lot of potatoes hanging around,” Asch said.

The latke is cooked in heavy oil, which commemorates the miracle God performed when He kept the lamps burning for eight days, Asch said.

“They’re delicious and very heavy,” she said.

The latke was served with bits of smoked salmon, apple sauce, fresh fruit and sour cream.

“These are the best latkes we’ve had of all the places,” said Bob Gross.

“It’s just the cuisine we grew up with,” added Ava Gross, who said making latkes at home is a lot of work and because of all the oil involved, and more than a little messy.

“It has a lot of oil,” she said. “It’s symbolic.”

“It’s symbolic of a fire hazard,” Bob Gross interjected with a chuckle.

Montell first started the latke festival to offer balance to the blitz of programs and celebrations held this time of year in honor of Christmas. There is little public fanfare locally that celebrates Jewish history.

“I thought I would like something right where we live,” Montell said.

The Grosses have made a point of attending every year because they enjoy it, but also because they want to support community events that honor their faith.

Hanukkah, which began Dec. 6, ends Monday. It is a minor Jewish holiday, but it has garnered a lot of attention outside the Jewish community because of its proximity to Christmas. As a result, and because of Montell’s latke festival, the holiday presents unique opportunities.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to share our traditions with the wider community,” Asch said.

Even before Hanukkah was over, Asch said she was already looking forward to the next celebration. Judaism is marked by celebrations that come around almost every month of the year. Perhaps the most important is the weekly observance of the sabbath, but there are a number of other celebrations, including Passover, the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

“I love Hanukkah,” Asch said, “and I love that next month we’re going to have another holiday, and then throughout the whole year.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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