Happy Hanukkah, no matter what

When Sabina Dener was a child in the Bronx, she knew it was Hanukkah when everyone started singing Christmas carols.

"When I was in school, we had to learn Christmas carols and we had to stand up and sing them, too," she said, describing the World War II era. "That's just the way things were. Hanukkah was a minor holiday we celebrated at home. It was about treats and games and that was that.

"Now everything has changed. Just look at this."

It was a glorious evening to light the first candle of the eight-day "festival of lights," as about 3,000 Jews gathered under the palm trees at CityPlace, a $550-million development in the heart of West Palm Beach, Fla. If celebrants stood in the right place on the balcony last Sunday night, they could see the whole panorama of Macy's, the New York Pretzel stand, a nonsectarian holiday tree and the eight-foot-tall menorah.

On the map, this is a long way from the boroughs of New York City. But the two regions are connected by tradition, statistics and what can only be called the Seinfeldian ties that bind. Research in 2000 found that 230,000 people live in Jewish households in Palm Beach County -- America's sixth-largest Jewish community.

The mood at this celebration seemed to be, "Happy Hanukkah, no matter what." Rabbis offered meditations about sacrifice and justice. The local congressman loudly praised the military and attacked the enemy.

Hanukkah traditions include a note of defiance. The holiday centers on events in 165 B.C., when Jewish rebels, led by the Maccabees, defeated their Greek oppressors. The rite of lighting candles -- one on the first night, increasing to eight -- began with a miracle linked to this victory. When it came time to purify the recaptured temple, only one container of ritually pure oil could be found for its eternal flame. Tradition says this one-day supply burned for eight days.

For centuries, Hanukkah has symbolized the need for Jews to defend the purity of their faith, when asked to assimilate. Today, many insist that the holiday is a celebration of religious liberty and pluralism -- period.

"In every generation, there are Maccabees," shouted Rabbi Isaac Jarett of Temple Emanu-El, one of nine participating rabbis from the various branches of Judaism. "In every generation, there are people who seek to destroy us -- as unbelievable as that seems.

"Right now, we have Maccabees in Afghanistan fighting to preserve Western Civilization. ... So why did you come here? You came here tonight, not because you wanted to be here. You came because you needed to be here."

It was hard to find anyone present who was not from the New York City area or somehow connected -- through family ties -- with the events of Sept. 11. It was impossible to find anyone who didn't connect recent events in Israel and in the United States. When the music played, even the most frail and elderly people in the courtyard rose to their feet to sing "The Hope," the national anthem of Israel, and then "The Star Spangled Banner."

When the anthems were over, Baby Boomer Gregg Lerman kept bouncing 9-month-old Hope in his arms. Her sparkling ear studs matched her father's and her tiny t-shirt proclaimed: "My First Chanukah."

"What's this all about? It's about rebirth and freedom," said Lerman, who grew up in Long Island, N.Y. "That's what Hanukkah is supposed to be about and that is certainly what it means to me right now. It's about survival in the face of adversity, both here in America and, as always, in Israel."

After an hour or so, the sermons ended and the partying began. People shopped, danced, sang traditional songs and made pilgrimages to Starbucks and The Cheesecake Factory. Children lobbied for more presents and parents headed to the parking deck with their heavy shopping bags.

But this was one year when everyone knew Hanukkah was about something else.

"It's about the triumph of good over evil," said Dener. "After Sept. 11, this holiday is suddenly very relevant. The concept of a life and death struggle between good and evil is not theoretical right now. It's real."