HOLIDAYS : Brighter Festival of Lights : Popularity of decorating for Hanukkah is growing. It can serve to publicize the observance and help children feel positive about religion.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Roberta G. Wax is a regular contributor to The Times

Deck the halls with lights and dreidels? It's not exactly traditional Hanukkah decor, but many Jewish families are cele brating the holiday with more than just sparkily blue and silver tinsel garlands.

Outdoor menorahs that light up, two-foot-high Stars of David and strings of dreidel lights are some of the ways San Fernando Valley families highlight the Festival of Lights.

For the Bliss family of Agoura, the idea of decorating their house for Hanukkah began, as it so often does, with their three children, who adored helping a neighbor decorate for Christmas.

"The kids wanted something to represent our holiday," said Marsha Bliss, so husband Richard designed and built a six-foot-tall electric menorah for their front lawn.

Worried that a giant lawn menorah might not be kosher, they checked with their rabbi, who reassured them that even the Talmud, the Jewish book of laws, exhorted people to publicize the holiday, and that anything that made children feel positive about religion was good.

When their giant menorah was stolen one year, the entire community came together to help build others that are now sprinkled throughout the Agoura neighborhood.

Bliss said her children, 13-year-old twin boys and a 16-year-old daughter, still enjoy setting up the menorah and turning on one bulb each night of the eight-night celebration.

The Blisses also outline a large picture window in blue and white lights, framing a more traditional menorah, or Hanukkiah, inside, while streamers, mobiles and nearly every decoration the kids ever made spruce up the family room. Presents are spread around a two-foot-high wooden Star of David.

The increased popularity of Hanukkah decorating is reflected by retailers, who are stocking a wider range of the holiday decor and paper goods.

Bernice Cooperman said when her family opened Shalom House in Northridge 24 years ago, you were lucky to find a small selection of menorahs and some blue and white streamers.

But today, menorahs fit every taste and pocketbook--from inexpensive $15 models to funky Noah's Ark and baseball ones to fancy sculptured $400 works of art. Other popular sellers include plastic "Happy Hanukkah" banners that cover the front door, electric menorahs and strings of lights shaped like menorahs and dreidels.

"Hanukkah has really come into its own," said Ilene Levy, manager of Party King in Tarzana, where hot items are garlands, banners and cutouts of dreidels, menorahs and even stick-on pictures of famed Jewish warrior Judah Maccabee.

Many Jewish people still are hesitant to make too big a deal over Hanukkah, saying it is not really an important religious holiday and fearing that decorating likens the holiday too much to Christmas.

"There is always the hesitation that this would be perceived as Jews trying to be like Gentiles," said Rabbi Menachem Bryski of Chabad of the Valley, which hosts yearly menorah kindling ceremonies at local malls.

But, he added, "part of the observance of Hanukkah is to publicize the miracle, to share it. When we light the menorah in our own home, Jewish law tells us to do it near a window or doorway."

Hanukkah decorations will be downplayed this year at the North Valley Jewish Community Center nursery school, where "we used to go all out," said Bernice Lieberman, director of early childhood education. This year, she said, "we're stressing the freedom of choice and trying to get away from the commercialism."

Roslyn Rozbruch of Sherman Oaks loves making the house look festive, as do her daughters, Danielle, 6, and Erica, 2, who help put up garlands, mobiles and Hanukkah cards. She hangs blue and white Hanukkah "socks" near the fireplace, but her husband draws the line at putting up lights, saying that would be too "Christmasy."

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