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The Savell family celebrated their first Hanukkah after converting to Judaism. Laura Austin Photo

The Savell family celebrates 8 day Hanukkah traditions

BY LAURA QUEZADA News Review staff writer –

Hanukkah is an eight-day Jewish winter holiday that can fall from late November to late December since the Hebrew calendar is based on the lunar cycle. This year, Hanukkah started at nightfall on December 7 and ended at sundown on December 15.

After about three years of studying, the Savell family celebrated their first Hanukkah after converting to Judaism, which they completed this September. However, this is the third year they celebrated. Jim and Faith are starting family traditions that will possibly be honored by their 14-month-old son, Theo, throughout his life.

As students of Judaism, they follow the Reform denomination, which fits best into their lives. For example, they have chosen to give gifts on each day of Hanukkah while also following the Jewish tradition of giving to charity, called mitzvah. This is a commandment to do good deeds with an emphasis on conscious acts of empathy and kindness. They chose to give gifts to each other because they have so little opportunity to surprise each other and like most children, little Theo loves opening presents. They planned special celebrations for each night. On the first night, they gave each other Hanukkah- themed pajamas, and other nights were planned as family date nights, and many gifts celebrated their beliefs. Jim gives us a brief history of Hanukkah, which commemorates the re- dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem over 2000 years ago. Jim tells us, “The Jews were under Syrian control through the Greeks. During this time, they weren’t allowed to practice their religion at all. There was a small contingent of soldiers called the Maccabees. They were led by Judah. They had their revolt and so they were able to retake the temple. And the temple had been desecrated, things turned over destroyed and stuff. So, as they were going to light the menorah, there was enough oil for one day, and the miracle of Hanukkah is that it ended up lasting for eight. And so the tradition that has been passed down is that we light a menorah for eight days and then we fry foods in oil to remember that.“

Faith has learned to fry the traditional foods and it is a loving family joke that Jim has learned how to pronounce them. She has no problem pronouncing Latke, one of the most familiar foods. This is a sort of potato pancake, but the texture is different “because of the eggs.” Faith also made Hanukkah Pollo Fritto, a panko-fried chicken. Another favorite that Jim had to pronounce and spell is sufganiyoof, which Faith says she calls jelly donuts.

When asked how she learned how to cook these traditional foods, she tells us about online resources. “There’s actually quite a few Jewish influencers. I started following them. There’s one of them who is also a Reformed Jew, and there are quite a few Orthodox.” Faith describes them as strict. “They only do what they’re supposed to.” Faith appreciates the diversity of customs. “It’s an awesome thing because, in the show Jewish Matchmaker, she says there are 2 million Jews, and there are 2 million different ways to be Jewish. That was one of the things that stuck with us because Jim and I are a married couple, but we’re still different people, and we still have different ways to be Jewish.”

The family owns a few menorahs, and this year, they let Theo choose one with a whale base.

Jim gives an explanation of their candle lighting, “The first day this year, which was on Thursday, we could light them basically anytime after sundown, and you want them to be lit for at least half an hour. So you could light them anytime as long as it’s within half an hour before dawn. Then, the second night, which was Friday. Friday night through Saturday is the Jewish Shabbat, and so during that time, we are not allowed to kindle a flame. So the Hanukkah Menorah gets lit before the Shabbat candles and the Shabbat candles are lit 18 minutes before sundown. And so typically, anytime usually, you know 10 To 15 minutes before we light Shabbat candles and begin the Sabbath period.”

The family enjoyed a traditional dreidel game with their congregation. This is a gambling game played with a four-sided spinning top with a pointed bottom. Faith tells us, “You play it with pennies or gelt. Gelt are basically little chocolate candies that look like money. And so it’s kind of just fun. It’s just a little easy, a little fun way to gamble jokingly.”

It was during the pandemic that the Savells decided to follow Judaism. Faith shares, “I was raised Mormon. And Jim was raised essentially non- denomination. So it is very different from how we really grew up. How we converted was during the pandemic, I was just like, ‘I don’t know if this is what I want to do anymore. I don’t know this is what I want to be.’ And he was like, ‘Okay, well, if that’s not what we’re going to do, what are we going to do?’ And kind of half- jokingly, I said, ‘Well, what about being Jewish?’ And then he did some research, and he was like, ‘Yeah, that’s right. That’s the only thing that seems logical.’ The Savell family celebrates 8 day Hanukkah traditions The Raley family celebrates Jesus at Christmas time We ended up doing a lot of research before we ended up finally being able to go to the services. We took an Introduction to Judaism class for about six months. And it was awesome because it was every Tuesday we were in this (zoom) class, and they got to see Theo grow up for quite a while. And so then once we finished that, we had to have a rabbinical panel.” Jim interjects, “A beit din.”

“We walk through five life cycles and kind of what happens at birth. Then, once you reach the bar or bat mitzvah, age, and then death, we talked about the Jewish calendar, looking at major and minor holidays and Hanukkah, which actually is a minor holiday. But especially in America, its prominence in Jewish life has risen mostly due to Christmas popularity, right? But it’s definitely a holiday we like to celebrate.”

Jim embraces the history of Judaism and the three denominations: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed. While recounting the development of these three, Jim states, “The main difference in terms of the various branches is the understanding of the commandments or mitzvahs.” And he tells us, “Reform, especially in the United States, is the largest. Just because it can fit into your life a little bit better.”