by Lauren Odomirok

MOORESVILLE – While some may have a vague familiarity with dreidel games, menorahs and latkes, these symbols of Hanukkah are bound to increase as Lake Norman’s population diversifies.

According to Rabbi Michael Shields of Temple Kol Tikvah in Davidson, the religious Jewish population is growing steadily. His congregation has expanded from just 15 families 10 years ago to more than 200 today.

Yet a Jewish population thrived in Statesville at Congregation Emanuel as early as 1883, with its members working in the retail, tobacco, textile, liquor and merchandising industries.

“Now Davidson is a second nucleus for Jewish life in the greater Charlotte area outside of Shalom Park in Charlotte,” Shields said. “The Davidson mayor has called me ‘his rabbi’ on occasion. We really feel embraced here.”

In 2008, the Jewish Council of Lake Norman formed to increase awareness, knowledge and understanding of Jewish life and history through programming, including Hanukkah celebrations.

Although conflicting interpretations exist regarding the eight-day holiday, the traditional story begins when Jerusalem came under the rule of Syrian king Antiochus III around 200 B.C. after he won a war against Egyptian king Ptolemy V.

Jews in his new kingdom maintained their religious traditions. Yet the king’s son, Antiochus IV, was not nearly as kind. His army marched on Jerusalem in 168 B.C., slaughtering thousands, desecrating the Jewish temple and forcing everyone to worship Greek gods.

By 165 B.C., a revolt won the temple back and sought to cleanse it. According to Jewish histories, olive oil was needed to keep the temple’s seven-branched candelabrum, or menorah, burning. Although only one day’s supply was available, the oil burned for eight days.

Today, Jewish families light one candle of a nine-branched menorah each night from the middle candle, or shamash, to remember this history.

“Hanukkah celebrates a common theme in Judaism of triumph over evil and those who seek to oppress us,” said Shields. “It’s a minor holiday, but because of its proximity to Christmas, it’s perceived to be larger than it is. It doesn’t actually have Biblical origins and is not a central story to Judaism like Christmas is central to Christianity.”

Although there are no religious reasons to be off from school or work, families celebrate by singing, cooking foods fried in oil, playing with dreidels and exchanging small gifts and chocolate coins called gelt. This year, Hanukkah begins at sundown Dec. 8.

“The dreidel is a small spinning top used as a game to pass the time during the second century B.C.,” Jewish Council of Lake Norman President Jason Tanenbaum said. “Latkes define Hanukkah for me. They are fried potato pancakes you cover in applesauce. I could eat about a million of them.”

On each side of the dreidel is a letter representing the phrase, “Nes Gadol Haya Sham,” or “a great miracle happened there,” referencing how the menorah burned on.

These days, Israeli bakeries supplement traditional Hanukkah strawberry doughnuts to include ones stuffed with chocolate and vanilla cream, caramel and cappuccino fillings, adding a little sweetness to an ancient tradition.