Some unpack prolific menorah collections, many make latkes, others make doughnuts and most buy presents - but whatever a family's traditions to prepare for Hanukkah, hundreds of Islanders will light the first menorah candles at sundown this evening, the beginning of the eight-night Festival of Lights.
From the children of the Depression to the iGeneration, the role and perception of Hanukkah have changed in some ways, but the celebration has steadfastly kept the same focus: family - and food. Those will be plentiful at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center's annual Hanukkah party tonight, which begins at 5:30.
To prepare, Hebrew school students fried hundreds of potato pancakes called latkes in the Hebrew Center's kitchen this week, and practiced prayer songs for the lighting of the menorah. Each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, one candle is lit, using the flame of the extra candle in the middle.
"It started with just the founding families but now we expect about 100 people attend," Hebrew school education director Nicole Cabot said of the party. "Hanukkah has really turned into a much larger holiday than in years past." When the Hebrew Center was founded in 1940, its membership included the 10 Jewish families on the Island. The center has celebrated Hanukkah every year since; there are more than 250 member families now.
Hanukkah celebrates an event that took place, according to an ancient text called the Talmud, about 2,170 years ago: the Miracle of the Oil. When Judah Maccabee re-dedicated the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, he found that most of the consecrated olive oil needed to fuel the temple's menorah had been desecrated. There was only enough consecrated oil to fuel it for one day, although the flame was supposed to burn eternally. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, enough time to prepare and consecrate more olive oil.
To commemorate the miracle, traditional Hanukkah foods like latkes and doughnuts are cooked in olive oil. The Hebrew Center's party will include storytelling by Rabbi Caryn Broitman, singing by the children and games played with dreidels, tiny tops lettered in Hebrew.
Historically, Hanukkah also memorializes the battle victory that led Judah Maccabee - which means Judah the Hammer - to reclaim the temple. Judah and other Jews fought the much larger armies of the Serian-Greek emperor who had outlawed traditional Jewish dietary restrictions, circumcision and the Saturday Sabbath.
"All that was seen as backward and primitive," said sociologist and Chilmark resident Rick Shweder. When the emperor prohibited those traditions, the Maccabees organized a resistance. "Now it's celebrated as the right to religious freedom against oppression," he said. Mr. Shweder is working on a book that applies that story to religious traditions condemned as barbaric today.
Light has become the symbol of Hanukkah. For some it symbolizes the miracle in the temple of Jerusalem. For others, it celebrates the Jews' survival over thousands of years.
"I look at it as the light of our nation and the light of the children passing down this tradition," Mrs. Cabot said. "Through difficult times, we can still celebrate happiness and overcoming odds."
The celebration of light can also be more literal, said Charter School teacher Lori Shaller. Hanukkah tends to be around the winter solstice, signifying "coming back to the light in the depth of winter," Ms. Shaller said.
Ms. Shaller recently traveled to Israel to study Hebrew. "People there are into the holiday in a much more political way," she said. "There's some symbolism there for the contemporary Israeli."
Sherry Kagan Segal and her family moved to West Tisbury from the Isreali city of Modi'in two and a half years ago.
"They'd never heard of Santa Claus," or seen a Christmas tree, Mrs. Segal said of her three children, Maya, Talia and Noa, who are 12, 10 and four and a half. "The only traditions [in Israel] are those of Hanukkah."
Hanukkah there was particularly special: the revolt against the emperor began in the ancient city of Modi'in. The present-day city was laid in 1993.
Although Mrs. Segal did not receive presents for Hanukkah growing up, she and her husband Daniel, who owns Edgartown Pizza, give many presents to their own children. The traditions and magnitude of gift-giving have changed over the generations. Originally, gifts were not a part of Hanukkah.
"We do one gift, and then we try to minimize that aspect of it - it's really not about that," said Cindy Kane of Vineyard Haven, whose husband Doron Katzman grew up in Israel and never received Hanukkah presents. "We try to focus on the food a lot," she added. It was hard for her children at times, Ms. Kane said, in a culture where most children receive Christmas gifts. "As they get older, they develop maturity about what the holiday is not," she said.
Ruth Stiller remembers celebrating Hanukkah during the Depression. She lived in the same house in Vineyard Haven as she lives now, and lit the Hanukkah candles on the same menorah, which was her mother's.
"When I was a child, Hanukkah really wasn't an important holiday, so I really didn't know much about it," she said. "I didn't even know gifts were involved," she added. She learned about Hanukkah gifts from a generous uncle, who gave her "gelt" - coin money.
"My uncle gave me five cents and I said, ‘What's that for?' and he said ‘It's Hanukkah, you're supposed to give a gift.'" she recalled. "I was shocked - we never heard of it." In the 1950s, when she was raising her own children, Mrs. Stiller created a family tradition of gift-giving. There were not many Jewish families on the Island in those days.
"I wanted them to have an equal share with everyone else," Mrs. Stiller said. It's now common for Jewish children to open one present on every night of Hanukkah.
"It's hard to think of enough gifts," Mrs. Stiller laughed. "But we try."
The Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center Hanukkah party and potluck is today at 5:30 p.m. at 130 Centre street in Vineyard Haven.
For details, call 508-693-0745.