festival of lights

The Schmalenberger family lights menorahs to celebrate Hanukkah.

When Jamie Schmalenberger’s son Jude returned from his first day of kindergarten at Manatee Elementary School, he asked his mom why he was the only kid in his class celebrating Hanukkah.

Jamie Schmalenberger, who had grown up in a much larger Jewish community in South Florida, realized it was very important to make certain Jude and his sister, Jemma, understood the significance of the Festival of Lights, as Hanukkah is known.

Although Hanukkah is not considered one of the High Holy Days of the Jewish faith, for this Viera family the holiday connects them with their faith.

Since Jude’s kindergarten days, Jamie Schmalenberger has visited her children’s classrooms each year to talk about Hanukkah. When she first started, only a couple of hands shot up when she asked the kids if they had ever heard of Chanukah, or Hanukkah. These days, a lot more hands appear, and the kids look forward to the dreidels and accompanying gelt chocolate coins that are part of the traditional Hanukkah game.

Schmalenberger brings enough of the four-sided spinning tops, plus little sacks of coins, for all of Jude’s and Jemma’s classmates to take home. The kids love it.

She tells the children the history behind the eight-day holiday and how it commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after Jews revolted against their Greek-Syrian oppressors.

Hanukkah, which means dedication in Hebrew, is celebrated in November or December, according to the Hebrew calendar. Most years, it falls within the Christmas season

“Twice that I remember, it has overlapped with Thanksgiving,” Schmalenberger said.

 This year, it starts on the evening of Dec. 18 and ends on the evening of the Dec. 26.

The menorah, the nine-branched candelabrum used in the Tabernacle and in the Temple in Jerusalem, plays an important part in Hanukkah. Every night during the eight days, families light one of the candles with the ninth candle lighting the others. A prayer is sung each evening.

Dr. Mike Slotkin, the board president of Temple Israel of Brevard, the Viera synagogue that the Schmalenbergers attend, remembers how important the lighting ceremony was when he was growing up in Miami.

“The kids really looked forward to lighting the candles,” he said.

The lighting ceremony was nice, but the presents were even nicer.

“The presents were a big deal,” Slotkin said.

In his neighborhood, one or two presents per Hanukkah were the norm.

“I don’t remember anyone getting more,” he said.

In Jamie and Jake Schmalenberger's household, however, fortunate Jude and Jemma receive a present per day, with the biggest gift saved for last. The family kicks off the holiday with a Hanukkah dinner, typically brisket, paired with kugel noodle. For dessert, it’s sufganiyot, or jelly donuts. Latkes, those addictive potato pancakes, are a huge favorite enjoyed that first meal and every day of Hanukkah.

“They go very fast in our family,” said Schmalenberger, who expects that when Jude and Jemma grow up, they will fondly remember those eight singular days known as Hanukkah.