ALBANY, Ga. — As Christmas looms just days away, there’s another religious holiday that started this week and is being celebrated by a small but dedicated group of Southwest Georgia Jews.
Hanukkah, the annual Jewish celebration of a battle between their ancestors and Syrian-Greek forces in 650 B.C., started this week in the United States and will run through Dec. 28.
For Christians in the South, there often is little interaction with people of the Jewish faith.
According to some statistics, there are roughly 6.5 million Jews in the United States — the largest population on Earth — and yet only a small portion of those live in Georgia.
According to the jewishvirtuallibrary.org, roughly 127,000 Jews live in Georgia, the largest numbers centered around major metropolitan areas like Atlanta and Savannah.
But Gail Greenfield, a congregant of Temple B’Nai Israel, says that it can be challenging finding people who share her Jewish beliefs and heritage in the conservative Christian South, but, as with many faiths and religions, how you cope with being the religious minority is a matter of faith.
“It’s a very individualistic thing,” Greenfield said. “Here in Albany the issue of Christmas and Hanukkah really isn’t that big of a deal because you have a lot of Jewish people whose spouses have retained their Christian roots and so the family practices both,” Greenfield said. “It is different living here because I came from an area where there was a larger Jewish population, but I try and surround myself with people who are Jewish and I don’t have much of a problem.”
For outsiders, Hanukkah appears to be a major Jewish holiday, but in reality, Hanukkah is largely a secondary holiday when compared to the Rashashana and Yom Kippur.
According to the Jewish website Chabad.org, Hanukkah is “the eight-day festival of light that begins on the eve of the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev.”
“It celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materiality,” the site states.
In 650 B.C., the Syrian-Greeks sought to force their religion, beliefs and culture onto the people of Israel. After a battle in which a small band of Jewish rebels defeated the large Syrian-Greek army and reclaimed the Holy Temple Jerusalem, the Jews rededicated the temple to God.
The site explains that when the Jews sought to re-light the temple’s Menorah, they discovered that all that was left behind by the fleeing army was one small container of Olive Oil, which, according to Jewish belief, miraculously lasted eight days until new oil could be purified and used.
“We also add the Hallel and Al HaNissim in our daily prayers to offer praise and thanksgiving to God for ‘delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few... the wicked into the hands of the righteous,’” the site reads.
For Greenfield, Hanukkah is about religious freedom.
“It’s about the idea of freedom — which really is a cornerstone here in America; it’s our saving grace. Here, we have the freedom to worship whatever faith we choose without fear of persecution or harassment,” Greenfield said. “So after two thousand years the message of the holiday is still ringing true.”