Gil Korine was 12 years old and living in Israel when he used electric and hand saws to carve a menorah out of olive tree wood during an after-school program at a local shop.
Today, 35 years later, the Dix Hills resident still has the menorah, which has become a treasured family heirloom. As he has for years, he will take it from a spot of safekeeping at his sister’s nearby home this Sunday for the start of Hanukkah and light its candles for eight consecutive nights.
“What ties generations together are these traditions,” said Korine, 47, whose ancestors lived in Iraq for centuries until the late 1940s, when his mother and father moved to the new country of Israel. “This is a very special time for me.”
Hanukkah, also known as the “Festival of Lights,” begins Sunday at sunset and ends the following Sunday, Dec. 13, at sunset.
The popular Jewish holiday marks the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean revolt of the second century Before the Common Era. According to the Talmud, after Jewish warriors retook control of the temple, one night’s worth of oil for the temple’s menorah miraculously burned for eight days, feeding an eternal light in the sanctuary.
To commemorate the event, Jews light one additional candle on the menorah each night, until the entire menorah is lit.
The faithful also celebrate the holiday by saying prayers and blessings at home, eating traditional foods cooked in oil, such as potato latkes and jelly doughnuts, and having children play with tops called dreidels.
But the centerpiece of the Hanukkah celebration is the menorah, according to local rabbis. Many families have numerous menorahs that they light during the holiday.
Some are homemade, often by their children. Others were bought in Israel. Yet others are designed specifically for children.
At Yussel’s Place Judaic Gifts and Art in Merrick, the faithful have a wide selection of menorahs with almost any design imaginable: baseballs, ballerina slippers, dogs, cats, a skateboarding dude, a fire engine, and a hippie-style menorah featuring a van complete with flowers, hearts, a smiley face and a peace sign.
“They’re so creative,” said Hannah Halpern, a retired public school art teacher who was browsing through the store last week. “It just brings the holiday alive. It’s not just about the tradition. It’s bringing the tradition into modern times.”
Specialty menorahs started becoming popular about 15 years ago, and keep growing in demand — and design, owner Michael Freiser said.
“When we think we’ve seen everything, another menorah comes out,” he said.
Fifteen years ago, the shop would sell perhaps 25 specialty menorahs, mostly during Hanukkah, he said. Now it sees as many as several hundred go out the door.
Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center said he has about 25 menorahs he has acquired over the years, including one that is 120 years old and was made in North Africa. He also has about two dozen menorahs his children made.
Every year, he and his family light at least one menorah for each person gathered in the house.
“Hanukkah is a magnetic attraction for people of every age,” Buechler said.
While Hanukkah is not a strictly religious holiday and the faithful are not required to attend synagogue, it carries a powerful and profound message, said Rabbi Steven Moss of the B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, the longest-serving rabbi in Suffolk County.
Hanukkah “reminds us of the story of the little oil that lasted eight days,” he said. “It relates to the sense of faith and belief that special things can happen in our world. The unexpected can happen in a positive and good way.”
Korine said the menorah he made in Israel has special significance because he made it around the time his grandmother died.
“I felt like I was doing something positive for the family” during a time of great loss, he said.
Not long after, the Korines moved to America — and the menorah came with them. Every year, he retells the story to his four children, his wife, and other relatives who gather with them.
“He’s always proud to show it to our children,” said Korine’s wife, Debbie. “I think it’s amazing — the fact he made it when he was a kid.”
The Festival of Lights
Hanukkah’s roots. The holiday marks the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean revolt of the second century Before the Common Era. Jewish warriors retook control of the temple and found oil in it to relight a menorah. The oil appeared to be enough to last only a day, but the menorah burned for eight days.
Celebration. The faithful light candles on a menorah for eight consecutive nights, adding one candle each night until the menorah is fully lit. Many families also eat traditional foods cooked in oil, such as potato latkes and jelly doughnuts. Children play with tops called dreidels.