By STEVEN NALLEY
There are dozens of churches in Starkville, but not a single synagogue.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few menorahs in Starkville among the dozens of Christmas trees this Hanukkah. The nearest synagogue is Temple B’nai Israel in Columbus, and one of its members is Carolyn Adams-Price, an associate professor of psychology at Mississippi State University.
“Starkville has a small Jewish community,” Adams-Price said. “(Temple B’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 aren’t members of the synagogue or Hillel.”
Hanukkah began at sunset on Tuesday, beginning an eight-day celebration for the members of Starkville’s Jewish community.
Hanukkah commemorates the Jews’ 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 temple’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 B’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.
“The 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,” Oppenheimer said. “Fortunately, we have a little gift shop at the synagogue. It’s run by the women’s group at the synagogue, and they usually order stuff beforehand so people can have what they need.”
Adams-Price said Hanukkah candles are available at Temple B’nai Israel, and latke mix is commonly available in grocery stores.
“Donuts are also often eaten at Hanukkah,” Adams-Price said, “especially jelly donuts.”
Adams-Price said B’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.
“Hanukkah isn’t that major a holiday that people would travel out of town for it like they would for Passover or Rosh Hashanah,” Adams-Price said. “However, 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.”
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 Jews’ 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.
“Because my husband is not Jewish, we do have a tree, but I would never call it a Hanukkah bush,” Adams-Price said. “Except for gift-giving, I think Jews try not to make Hanukkah the Jewish Christmas.”