Jo Josephson lights a menorah, built by Bob Parns, on the seventh night of Hanukkah Saturday, Dec. 4, in Temple. Josephson is a former Livermore Falls Advertiser editor, a writer and a founding member of “Bagel and Dreidel,” a group for the Jewish community of Franklin County. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

REGION — Hanukkah isn’t the most important Jewish holiday on the Hebrew calendar. No, that would be the Jewish New Year (or high holidays, as many Jews call them). The Jewish New Year manifests in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur over a 10-day period.

But Hanukkah (with at least 14 spelling iterations: Chanukah, Hannukah, Hanuka, etc.) is still very cherished. Hanukkah, though considered a “minor holiday,” is one of miracles and resiliency; the fight for religious freedom in the face of persecution.

You might be surprised to hear that in Franklin County, there is a vibrant, connected and “eccentric” Jewish community in a state with a Jewish population of just 1.6% – this, according to 2020 census data and Documenting Maine Jewry.

The community, or rather a group, is called The Jewish Union of Franklin County, or more commonly “Bagel & Dreidel” (B&D), founded in 1985. They’ve spent Yom Kippurs together atop mountains blowing the shofar (a horn traditional to the New Year); spent Passovers cooking matzoh balls in the kitchen of the First Congregational Church of Farmington for one another and (spontaneously) for the church congregants.

This Hanukkah (which was celebrated Nov. 28 – Dec. 5), B&D did not formally gather due to a variety reasons. But B&Ders still celebrated and honored the many meanings and messages of Hanukkah across Franklin County and beyond.

The Franklin Journal spoke with a number of B&Ders to get a better sense of the story of Hanukkah, the kinds of celebrations they hold and what the holiday means to them on a personal level.

Hanukkah tells the story of the Jewish people in 168 BCE Jerusalem driven into hiding due to an oppressive king named Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes, according to “History: The Hanukkah Story” by The Union for Reform Judaism. King Epiphanes “abolished judaism,” outlawed the observance of Shabbat among other Jewish practices and “sent his soldiers to Jerusalem,” where they “desecrated the Temple, the holiest place for Jews at that time.”

Eventually, Jews formed a resistance movement in the form of a group called the Maccabees, led by Judah. The Maccabees, “though outnumbered … miraculously won two major battles.”

According to (unconfirmed) legend, a miracle was afoot when the Jews and Maccabees reclaimed the Temple. They went to relight the “ner tamid,” a light that hangs above the Torah ark in every synagogue. They found they only had enough oil to light the ner tamid for one night. But it miraculously lasted for eight nights – long enough to replenish their stores.

Today, Jews celebrate Hanukkah for eight nights by saying Hebrew prayers and lighting a menorah – a nine-flamed lamp. Eight candles represent the eight nights and one candle, the shamash, lights the others. Night one starts with one candle and the shamash. One candle is added each night until the menorah is fully lit on the eighth and final night.

Many Jews put a menorah (electric or candle-lit) in their window to represent that which the Jewish people could not do when driven into hiding: declaring their presence, resiliency and pride for being Jewish.

Jews eat fried foods such as latkes (fried potato pancakes) and jelly donuts to symbolize the oil of the temple – additionally, it doesn’t hurt that they are both delicious treats.

They give presents: one for each night, except on the sixth night when, in some households, you do a mitzvah, hebrew for good deed, by giving to a tzedaka, charity.

There’s also the game of dreidel – essentially spinning a four-sided top. For each side of the top, there is a Hebrew letter that is associated with the actions of the game: gimel (ג), hei (ה), shin (ש) and nun (נ). Gelt (chocolate coins) are the poker chips of this game and depending on what you spin, you get the whole stash of gelt, half of the stash, nothing or you have to put your own piece of gelt back.

Children are often taught that the core of Hanukkah is about miracles – the miracle of the Maccabees’ win and, in many case more highlighted, the miracle of the long-lasting oil. They are often raised on the fun of presents – which is one of the reasons why Hanukkah is associated with Christmas and aligned with that holiday’s importance in Christianity. They are often raised on the child-like fun of playing dreidel, the tastiness of latkes and donuts, and the ritualistic joy of lighting the menorah each night.

Temple-resident and B&D founding member Jo Josephson – a former editor of the Livermore Falls Advertiser, a writer and scholar – said she sees the core of Hanukkah as a “war about freedom of religion.”

“It was the war of liberation … this was [one of] the first wars of religious freedom,” Josephson said over a plate of homemade latkes she shared with this reporter during a meal together. “And it was also a civil war, because there were Jews who became Hellenized and the Jews who [did not assimilate] fought against them.”

Josephson has celebrated Hanukkah in Franklin County since she left the Upper West Side of New York City and first arrived here in 1975. At that point, she and partner Bob Parns took a 2 x 4 block of wood and drilled holes to create a makeshift menorah.

After some time, Parns built a one-of-a-kind menorah that, to this day, hangs on Josephson’s wall year-round. The menorah is intricate, fragile; built with unique shapes and a symbolic, unbridled emphasis on the candles; delicately hung. Josephson’s menorah is nothing like this reporter has ever seen.

Josephson lit the menorah with care. She pointed out how the shadows of the menorah’s abstract silhouette grew on the wall as the candles burned down to the remnants of wax.

Barbara Leopold – a Wilton resident from Long Island, New York – feels similarly to Josephson about the core message of Hanukkah.

Barbara Leopold of Wilton considers Hanukkah to have multiple core messages that are important to her: the fight for religious freedom, resiliency and “bringing light to darkness.” Pictured are two of Leopold’s menorahs, lit with seven candles for the sixth night of Hanukkah Friday, Dec. 3. Photo courtesy of Barbara Leopold

“It was a fight for freedom. Worship … and freedom to live openly and freely as a Jewish people and keep the Torah,” Leopold said. “The scenes of religious freedom and identity are the parts of the story that resonate for me.”

Leopold, however, also pointed out the complexities in the story of the Maccabees. Leopold said that “on the flip side, the Maccabees were pretty intolerant and radical on their own.”

Though the Maccabees fought for the rights of the Jewish people to exist and pray as they wish, there was also infighting amongst the Jewish people. The Maccabees fought with former Jews who had assimilated and now followed Hellenized Greek customs, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Leopold converted to Judaism of her own accord as a teenager and dove deeply into the history of the Jewish people.

“I think it’s a story that the more history I learned about it … the more I realized that there’s a lot of gray in the Maccabees’ story,” she said.

This adds a bit of complication to the message of religious freedom, Leopold feels. Nevertheless, the importance in the message of religious freedom still stands, she said.

For B&D member Diane Kruchkow, who has lived in Franklin County since the 70s, celebrating Hanukkah is, in some ways, a matter of her familial and personal traditions; of the traditions and culture that runs deep in Jewish lineage and community.

“(Celebrating Hanukkah) is what I’ve always done … I’ve done it all my life,” Kruchkow, who was raised Jewish, said. “It’s just my tradition.”

Kruchkow, Josephson and Leopold also love Hanukkah and the overall B&D community for the way it brings people together.

Many years, B&D gathers for Hanukkah celebrations and parties. Members, including the three aforementioned women, also invite neighbors – Jewish and gentiles (non-Jews) alike – to celebrate together.

Kruchkow also enjoys the holiday as a means to educate gentiles on Jewish culture and traditions by inviting them into her home for the festivities.

“It’s a time of celebration and people coming together, which I appreciate,” Kruchkow said. “I feel really connected.”

“I enjoy certainly the family aspect of it – that we all gather together and keep this custom together,” Leopold said.

“I gather people around my kitchen table and I make them latkes,” Josephson said. “I tell them the story of Hanukkah.”

It is certainly true that Josephson does this. On the seventh night of Hanukkah, Josephson invited this reporter to her kitchen table, made her latkes and, once again, told her the story of Hanukkah.

Jo Josephson of Temple salts a pan of latkes fresh off the stove on the seventh night of Hanukkah Saturday, Dec. 4. Though at surface level Hanukkah is about “miracles,” Josephson feels that the true story of Hanukkah is one of fighting against persecution for religious freedom. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

Josephson, Leopold and Kruchkow also cherish the time of year in which Hanukkah falls. The days are dark, but the winter solstice, as a sign of days soon growing longer, is approaching. In many cases, the solstice falls during Hanukkah as the Gregorian and Hebrew calendars differ.

“Each night, the candles get more and more bright, the lights get stronger,” Josephson said.

“It’s bringing light to the darkness,” Kruchkow said.

Leopold believes the menorah represents a sense of “enlightenment” and the question of “what do we give to the world.”

“At a time of great darkness, you start with just a little bit of light, and that light increases. It is such a helpful, hopeful and beautiful message for me,” Leopold said. “The themes of illumination are something that we’re all seeking … We have a spark within ourselves and what do we do with that spark that is [an ability] within each of us.”

This message of light, hope and persistence is one of the reasons why many Jews leave menorahs in their windows.

One of the most famous images of a menorah in the window was taken by Rachel Posner, wife of Rabbi Akiva in 1931 Kiel, Germany. In the background of the photo, a large Nazi flag is seen hanging from the window of a building across the way.

In some ways, the photo is most moving because the foregrounded menorah and the eight burning candles are the focal point of the photo. The swastika is merely a blur.

The back of the photo is inscribed with the words, translated from German, “Chanukah, 5692. ‘Judea dies’, thus says the banner. ‘Judea will live forever’, thus respond the lights.”

“The menorah lights in the window … imply survival and strength beyond just being a decoration like Christmas lights,” Kruchkow wrote in an email following the interview. “(They are) much more stark and truer, in a way.”

Leopold feels that message is especially apt at this point in modern history.

“Throughout history but particularly now, when there’s so many challenges in our lives on many different levels – whether it’s COVID, politics, climate change, all of these different things – it’s easy to look at the world and see so much darkness.

“To be able to focus on the fact that you can start with just a little bit of light and that light increases with persistence, with faithfulness, with just sticking with it and believing it … that’s an important thing for me,” Leopold said.

Franklin County is certainly no Nazi Germany. However, some Jews in Franklin County and B&D have experienced palpable anti-Semitism, all three women explained. Josephson said that when one Jewish family in Franklin County put a menorah in their window, someone threw a snowball with a rock inside of it and broke the glass.

However, Josephson said that the community rallied around this couple. In fact, the First Congregational Church of Farmington brought congregants to sing outside of the family’s house and show their support.

Leopold feels that the symbolism of placing a lit menorah in the window of her Wilton home is symbolic of how she’s felt the general community of Franklin County she’s most familiar with has “welcomed and embraced” her family. That community has been “open,” she believes.

“That freedom to be public and open about who we are and what we believe is something that is important to us,” she said. “We call it loud and proud.”

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