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Crunchy menorah marks evolution of Hanukkah celebrations across Tampa Bay

Celebrations were more intimate affairs when Jews from Eastern Europe and Germany first settled in Tampa during the 1840s.

On the second day of Hanukkah, Rabbi Levi Hodakov of the Chabad of Clearwater will light what must be the first menorah of its kind — 9 feet high and made entirely of breakfast cereal.

Over the past decade, Hodakov has developed a reputation for fashioning one of the sacred, nine-branch candelabra out of non-traditional materials — pizza, falafel, taffy, jelly beans, ice cream cones and more. Even his stage is non-traditional, outside the Surf Style Mega Store along busy Clearwater Beach.

For Hodakov, the event at 4 p.m. Monday is all about the children.

Hanukkah events in Tampa

“Every year we try to think of something new and exciting for the kids,” Hodakov said. “The way I see it is that children will do better in a classroom setting when a teacher comes in and brings it a little more down to earth and make it exciting and hands on.”

Pizza is just one of the unusual materials Rabbi Levi Hodakov has used to create menorahs appealing to children. This year, it's another food item: Boxes of cereal. [Courtesy of Levi Hodakov]

As unusual as the rendering may seem, a crunchy candle holder fits squarely into an evolution of Hanukkah observances that dates back 50 years in the Tampa Bay area — public celebrations of the ancient Jewish Festival of Lights.

Celebrations were more intimate, home-based affairs when Jews from Eastern Europe and Germany first settled in Tampa during the 1840s, said Barbara Rosenthal, a filmmaker who created the documentary Seders and Cigars: A History of Jews in Tampa.

It would be decades before the first references to more open Hanukkah celebrations were recorded, at a time when everyone else was marking the annual celebration of Christ’s birth.

Jewish merchants in Ybor City, Rosenthal said, were known to work long shifts during the Christmas season in the early 1900s, and as a gesture of thanks, the Hernandez family that ran the Columbia restaurant would host them for dinner.

The melting pot of traditions in Ybor City during the period is chronicled in The Christmas Eve Cookbook: With Tales of Nochebuena and Chanukah, written by the late artist, writer and renowned “Fight Doctor” Ferdie Pacheco.

A 1918 a newspaper clipping mentions Hanukkah services at the Rodeph Sholom synagogue on Bayshore Boulevard, opened in 1903.

“It’s a fascinating story of America in general and the way we meld our traditions,” Rosenthal said. “It only kind of became a big deal because of Christmas celebrations and assimilation."

Rosenthal remembers drawing the iconic Jewish Star of David on Christmas coloring sheets she got in school as a child. Having the story of Hanukkah acknowledged, marking the rededication of a desecrated temple and the lamp oil that lasted eight days, was part of a larger nod to the history of the area’s early Jewish settlers.

“You can apply that to anything in life: ‘I had that limited thing, but it got me to where it needed to go,’” Rosenthal said.

Sandy Turkel, 81, who has been a member of Congregation Rodeph Sholom all her life, said she remembered carnivals in the local social halls and congregations growing up.

“I think it’s awesome they do a Hanukkah candle lighting in Hyde Park and City Hall now,” Turkel said. “I think it’s amazing they’ve brought Hanukkah to life much more than before." That helps younger people, she said, "take pride in their faith and know their holidays aren’t secondary.”

Rabbi Chaim Lipszyc lights the menorah at Chabad of Spring Hill during Hanukkah 2019. [Chabad of Spring Hill]

The city of Tampa began lighting menorahs about 40 years ago, said Rabbi Mendy Dubrowski of Chabad CHAi South Tampa. Dubrowski’s congregation will co-host this year’s lighting Sunday, Hanukkah’s First Night, with a family-style festival at 5 p.m. featuring free doughnuts and latkes at City Hall Plaza downtown.

In the late 1980s, the city halted public ceremonies with a religious theme while a Pennsylvania lawsuit over the separation of church and state worked its way through the courts. The celebrations resumed in 1989.

“The menorah has always stood as a symbol of freedom and religious tolerance,” Dubrowski said. “At a time when you see an increase in anti-Semitism and decrease in religious tolerance, the symbol of the menorah is more powerful than ever.”

It’s a sublime message, but one that can be told with cereal, too.

Rabbi Hodakov will be using eight types of cereal to make a menorah — including a gluten free variety — and then serve it to guests at the event. Leftovers will be donated to a food pantry.

“Hanukkah is a very Jewish holiday, but it’s also very much connected to education and the Jewish word for education,” Hodakov said. “We’re also celebrating the fact that we’re able to celebrate our freedom.”

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