As the thermometer dipped into the low 20s Tuesday night, only one man was crazy enough to brave the cold — without a massive down jacket — and hand out chocolate coins to anyone who walked by. One might say that is to be expected of the man who led the Jewish revolt against the Syrians over 2000 years ago, and won. That man was Judah the Maccabee.
Judah, (actually a festively attired Menachem Stern, a member of the Rabbinical Institute of New Haven), joined hundreds of others in downtown New Haven to participate in the city’s first ever ChanukaMania celebration. Jews and non-Jews alike invaded New Haven’s shopping district on the fifth night of Chanukah to shop, listen to music, and munch on latkes, the tasty potato pancakes served throughout the holiday.
ChanukaMania New Haven was modeled after a similar ChanukaMania that was held last year in West Hartford.
“It is a block street party fair that aims to share Chanukah with everyone,” said Harriet Dobin, marketing sales director for The Jewish Ledger and director of ChanukaMania. “Chanukah isn’t just a children’s holiday for getting presents.”
It was not your typical night in New Haven. As holiday shoppers emerged from The Gap, they were shocked to see a horse-drawn milk cart escorting dozens of ecstatic children around Chapel Street. Judah and a man playing Tevya, the milkman protagonist of the play “Fiddler on the Roof,” alternated as tour guides for the milk cart, captivating the predominately younger passengers with the history of Chanukah.
Though Chanukah is a Jewish holiday, organizers said they did not intend for ChanukaMania to be a religious event.
“We are not making a statement and we are not following an agenda,” Dobin said. “We just want everyone to enjoy the celebration.”
Many stores in downtown New Haven kept their doors open late and offered free food during the celebration. Those who missed the man carrying free freshly-made latkes could dine on chocolate chip cookies at Atticus Bookstore Cafe. Enson’s Gentleman’s Clothing even hosted a wine tasting for those who needed a little something extra to warm them up during the frigid night. Those who were of age were pleased to note that Manischewitz was not the only brand of wine being served.
Participating stores paid for their own contributions, meaning that food, drink and entertainment were all free of charge.
Jim Civitello, president of Enson’s Gentleman’s Clothing, said he was happy to help with the celebration.
“This is a great opportunity for people who don’t normally come downtown to see how nice it is here,” Civitello said. “I saw what happened in West Hartford last year. [ChanukaMania] was great for the city.”
Food and milk cart rides were not the only attractions. Myriad other activities were taking place all over downtown, often simultaneously.
The Whiffenpoofs, who recently returned from Los Angeles after taping an episode of the “West Wing,” performed on Chapel Street along with the Temple Beth Shalom Choir, the Ezra Academy Choir, and the Neighborhood Music School Performers, who sang a variety of songs from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Stephen Dest, the musical theater program director for the Neighborhood Music School, said it was nice to have Jewish songs be the centerpiece of a holiday celebration.
“When you think of street caroling you think of Christmas carols,” Dest said. “It is great to show that there are other songs, there are other religions, and there are other holidays.”
ChanukaMania also featured demonstrations of a traditional olive press, performances by the Actors Ensemble of a scene from “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and several children’s activities, including face painting.
The Yale Klezmer Band, which performs traditional Jewish songs, also gave a concert.
“This festival may seem like sort of an anomaly in New Haven,” said Daniel Wielunski ’04, a member of the Klezmer Band. “What is different about this is that we have tons of people from the community here to celebrate and enjoy our music.”
As traditional Jewish music blared in the background from a car sporting a huge rooftop mounted menorah, Dobin said she was pleased with the event.
“This was a fabulous, smashing success,” Dobin said. “We served a lot of latkes.”
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