Bright Time of the Year : Jewish Festival of Lights Is a Minor Holiday for Some but a Joyous and Visible One

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's no mere nine-candlepower celebration. It's the brightest time of the year.

That's the way 7-year-old Sam Wilshinsky views Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish celebration that concludes Sunday.

"We light the menorah and then eat dinner and have potato latkes and jelly doughnuts, and we might have pizza," the Tarzana boy said excitedly. "You get presents. I got a remote-control car. This is my favorite time of the year."

Sam was explaining the joys of Jews' festival of lights the other night as he stood beneath a 10-foot-high, nine-armed candelabrum near the center of the Promenade mall in Woodland Hills. Two king-size, motorized tops called dreidels were rotating in front of a clown who was dancing with children.

Although some Jews consider Hanukkah a relatively minor holiday, public menorah-lightings in shopping centers across Los Angeles have made it one of the most visible of Jewish celebrations in recent years.

Most are sponsored by ultra-orthodox Jews who belong to the Brooklyn-based Chabad movement.

"They're for Jew and Gentile alike," explained Rabbi Joshua B. Gordon, head of Chabad of the Valley. "It inspires people with the optimistic message of the holidays, which is hope and light and understanding. That's what the world most needs now."

The message was mostly delivered with music the other night.

During a break in Hebrew singing by adults and children, Rabbi Mordy Einbinder promised the crowd of about 500 to "get the rough stuff over with early" with "a 30-second sermon."

He explained that Hanukkah is "about hope, about humanity . . . truth and freedom." It proves that Jews and non-Jews can "come together and celebrate what unites us."

The two-hour ceremony ended with the lighting of menorah candles and the singing of a Hebrew song called "All the Miracles" by a children's choir.

From the back of the crowd, Stephen Wilshinsky, a securities company vice president, listened as his son, Sam, sang along.

Mall ceremonies are helping people become more tolerant of each other, Wilshinsky said. "People should accept people without prejudice," he said.

"That's the most important lesson we can teach our children."

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