Today at sundown many Jewish families will begin the celebration of Hanukkah. Locally, events related to the holiday and open to everyone will be held at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage today and Friday and at the West Valley Jewish Community Center on Sunday.
Hanukkah--a word consisting of only three letters when written in Hebrew, but spelled a variety of ways when rendered into English--is sometimes called the "festival of lights." As most people already know, the observance involves lighting candles and reciting special prayers each of the holiday's eight nights.
After the candles are lit, gifts are exchanged, special foods--particularly potato pancakes, called latkes, are eaten and children spin a four-sided top called a dreidel--also spelled many different ways.
In the Children's Discovery Gallery at the Autry, young visitors will get a chance to play dreidel--which newcomers to the game will find is played by spinning a multi-sided top.
It turns out that there were long periods in the history of the Old West when Jewish religious observances had to be held in secret. The Autry is offering a Hanukkah program, in part, to explain why this was so.
According to Mary Ann Ruelas, head of public programs at the Autry, some Hispanic families in New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California--during the period when those territories were under Spanish rule--conducted their public lives as devout Catholics, but practiced Jewish rituals in secret.
"In order to escape being killed by the Inquisition, and to get out of Spain to come to the New World, many [Spanish Jews] outwardly professed to be Catholic," said Ruelas. Upon arriving in Mexico, these "conversos," as they were called, "high-tailed it out of Mexico City to the farthest borders of New Spain, where they settled in New Mexico, Arizona and California and could live in relative safety."
But such fear died hard. Secrecy itself became part of the religious observance. Many of the practices continued as family rituals into this century, although stripped of any direct association with Judaism--and the early religious faith of these families became shrouded in secrecy.
Such was the case with various branches of Ruelas' own family. She recalls learning from cousins in Tucson that a venerable aunt used to wonder aloud about an old family practice: "Why did we always light candles in the closet?"
Nowadays, the pendulum of fate has swung in another direction. Jewish life in the former border areas of New Spain, such as the San Fernando Valley, is no longer lived on the fringes of civilization, but in the mainstream. This is certainly one of the messages of a new audiovisual presentation open to the public this Sunday at the West Valley Jewish Community Center.
"Portraits of Our Community: A History of San Fernando Valley Jewish Life" is the title of a slide and tape show on view at 12:30 and 2:30 p.m.--part of an afternoon Hanukkah festival at the center.
The historical program chronicles the development of the Jewish community in the Valley. (Ever wonder where Sherman Oaks and Lankershim Boulevard got their names?)
It's a traveling show, by the way, which premiered at the center yesterday. Local teachers and club organizers who conduct cultural diversity programs can rent duplicates of these audiovisual materials from the center--and put on the show themselves.
The other events included in Sunday's festival are games for kids--including dreidel, and astrojumper (inflated trampoline)--clowns, an art exhibit, a boutique of unusual items of Judaica, Israeli dancing and two concerts conducted by Cantor Caren Glasser. For teens there will be a special area devoted to packing food boxes for the needy.
There will be one particular event that grabs the attention of newcomers. A few years ago, center volunteer Irv Lehrbaum produced a Yiddish version of bingo, and it's become a feature of holiday celebrations there.
The game cards spell out various Yiddish words in English letters. This, of course, includes the name Lehrbaum chose for his version of bingo. As with the original, players are accustomed to yelling the name of the game every time they get lucky. Lehrbaum chose to call his version "Oy vai."
* AT THE AUTRY: Hanukkah Games at Children's Discovery Gallery of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park; (213) 667-2000; today and Friday from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Activities are included with museum admission price. (Children 2 to 12, $3, seniors and students, $5, general admission, $7.50)
* WEST VALLEY Hanukkah Festival. Public is invited to enjoy games, choral concerts, Hanukkah specialties and Israeli food, dancing and a multimedia exhibit on Valley's Jewish history; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; admission $1 for kids, 2-12, $2 for adults. For more information, call (818) 587-3300.