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By STEVEN NALLEY
There are dozens of churches in Starkville, but not a single synagogue.
That doesnâ€™t mean there arenâ€™t a few menorahs in Starkville among the dozens of Christmas trees this Hanukkah. The nearest synagogue is Temple Bâ€™nai Israel in Columbus, and one of its members is Carolyn Adams-Price, an associate professor of psychology at Mississippi State University.
â€śStarkville has a small Jewish community,â€ť Adams-Price said. â€ś(Temple Bâ€™nai Israel) has about 25 members, most of whom come from Starkville. MSU has a Hillel (Jewish group for college students) with about 20 members, and I know about 15-20 Jews in Starkville who arenâ€™t members of the synagogue or Hillel.â€ť
Hanukkah began at sunset on Tuesday, beginning an eight-day celebration for the members of Starkvilleâ€™s Jewish community.
Hanukkah commemorates the Jewsâ€™ rededication of their temple in Jerusalem after their successful revolt against the kingdom of Syria, documented in 1 Maccabees. According to the Talmud, after the rededication when there was only enough ritual oil to burn in the templeâ€™s menorah for one day, it miraculously kept burning for eight.
Seth Oppenheimer, a professor of mathematics at MSU, is also a student in the ALEPH Rabbinic Program working with Bâ€™nai Israel. Oppenheimer said in addition to celebrating the miracle of the oil with a menorah, celebrations at home and among congregations usually involve fried foods, including the traditional potato cakes known as latkes.
â€śThe celebration of Hanukkah is usually done in the home with the lighting of candles, the saying of a certain number of blessings, playing of games, the eating of fried foods and, in the West, the giving of gifts,â€ť Oppenheimer said. â€śFortunately, we have a little gift shop at the synagogue. Itâ€™s run by the womenâ€™s group at the synagogue, and they usually order stuff beforehand so people can have what they need.â€ť
Adams-Price said Hanukkah candles are available at Temple Bâ€™nai Israel, and latke mix is commonly available in grocery stores.
â€śDonuts are also often eaten at Hanukkah,â€ť Adams-Price said, â€śespecially jelly donuts.â€ť
Adams-Price said Bâ€™nai Israel normally holds a Hanukkah party for the congregation during the eight days themselves. This year, she said, Hanukkah is so close to Christmas that the congregation party took place early to accommodate MSU students and staff leaving during winter vacation.
â€śHanukkah isnâ€™t that major a holiday that people would travel out of town for it like they would for Passover or Rosh Hashanah,â€ť Adams-Price said. â€śHowever, when Hanukkah coincides with Christmas like it does this year, a lot of folks are off work anyway and may visit family in other places. It is better when Hanukkah coincides with Christmas, because we are all off work.â€ť
Oppenheimer said Hanukkah and Christmas are close together enough each year that Jewish families have co-opted the Christmas tradition of gift-giving. He said a more traditional Jewish gift-giving holiday has been Purim, the springtime holiday commemorating the Jewsâ€™ deliverance from the Persian empire as told in the Book of Esther.
Adams-Price said her family does give small gifts each day during Hanukkah, but there are many other Christmas traditions which are rarely co-opted in Jewish families.
â€śBecause my husband is not Jewish, we do have a tree, but I would never call it a Hanukkah bush,â€ť Adams-Price said. â€śExcept for gift-giving, I think Jews try not to make Hanukkah the Jewish Christmas.â€ť