In Washington D.C., White House Budget Director Jacob Lew helped to light the National Menorah Tuesday evening. The National Menorah stands over 30 feet tall, and is considered one of the largest in the world. The lighting dates to 1979 when Jimmy Carter was president.
The 8 day festival begins at sundown today, December 20th. It's a festival with ancient roots. It is not a Jewish version of Christmas, but both events coincide with winter solstice.
A special luncheon, at Fresno's Temple Beth Israel, with music helped to launch the Hanukkah celebration.
"Hanukkah literally means "dedication" and it remembers the day more than two thousand years ago when the Jewish people were ejected from our house of worship, the great Temple of Jerusalem, we fought to restore it and were able to rededicate it. In rededicating it we established an 8 day festival," said Rabbi Rick Winer with Temple Beth Israel.
Key parts of the festival include eating potato pancakes fried liberally in oil.
"It's a tradition. Your house smells for two weeks, you smell for two weeks but they are good," said Rita Karsh Goldstone of Fresno.
Action News: "What makes the smell?"
"Its just the frying, and the frying is what has to do with Hanukkah because the old story about the candles burned the oil for 8 days."
Another fried food, jelly donuts, is also on the Hanukkah menu.
"The oil is ancient and the jelly doughnuts feel ancient after they've been sitting in your stomach for a few days."
Although gifts may be exchanged, Hanukah is not like Christmas. But they are both celebrated around the time of the winter solstice, darkest day of the year, and both involve lighting up the night. Both synagogues and churches try to keep the spirit of the holidays in focus.
"These winter holidays tend to take on a large commercial spirit. We don't begrudge our friends who have to make a living in doing so, but we also remind people that the spirit of each of these festivals are found in the homes and houses of worship," said Rabbi Winer.
Rabbi Winer said Hanukkah was a relatively minor Jewish celebration, but its become bigger because of the American holiday season.