Holiday lights to burn again in O.C. park

Times Staff Writer

Robert Cohen recently returned to the scene of a crime.

It was the park in Ladera Ranch in southern Orange County where vandals last year broke the stem and smashed the stars and lightbulbs of a 15-foot menorah he and others had erected to celebrate Hanukkah. As a result of reports about the attack, the holiday festival crowd -- ordinarily 200 strong -- grew to more than 1,000 celebrants, many of them non-Jewish.

"It was a show of solidarity from every faith and culture," said Cohen, 44, a Ladera Ranch resident who's been putting on the annual Hanukkah festival since 2002. "It brought tears of happiness to my eyes."

This week he and a neighbor, who had rebuilt the giant menorah, were back in the park erecting it for a Hanukkah celebration Sunday.

"Our goal," said Doug Long, 45, a Mormon who owns a local auto repair shop, "was to make it a little bit taller and shining a little bit brighter. I think we accomplished that."

Indeed, it took four men to raise the 150-pound steel candelabrum alongside the park's gazebo in time for the eight-day holiday, which begins at sunset today. Working together in a scene oddly reminiscent of the Iwo Jima flag raising, they hoisted it, plugged in a cord and then admired their work.

"We're back in business!" gushed Ronnie Yesharim, 39, an Israel-born friend of Cohen's who had come along to help. "This is a wonderful feeling -- it's like a piece of us is back up."

In a way the story of the vandalized menorah is like that of Hanukkah itself. A celebration of religious freedom, the holiday -- also known as the Festival of Lights -- marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem following its desecration by ancient Syrians 2,200 years ago.

After the Israelites' victory, the story goes, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the temple's flame for a single day. Yet, miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, the amount of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate new oil.

Thus Hanukkah -- during which Jews light a candle and say blessings over a ceremonial menorah on each of eight nights -- has come to symbolize the religion's triumph, and the triumph of religious liberty in general, over millenniums of adversity and persecution.

That triumphant spirit seemed present this week as Cohen and his team stood admiring their work at Town Green Park. "I'm proud of it," said Long, whose wife is Jewish. "I think it looks great."

To make the huge menorah stand even "taller and brighter" than its predecessor, Long said, he added two feet, rewired the whole thing with more radiant bulbs and painted its stem and stars with a metallic glitter paint. He also reinforced the entire structure, making it more difficult to knock over.

"When somebody does something like that you wonder why," Long said of the vandalism discovered last Christmas Eve, the day before Hanukkah began. No arrests have been made in the incident. "It's crazy," Long said. "If it was aimed at the Jews, it was done from ignorance."

According to Cohen, security -- provided by both public and private agencies -- has been "substantially increased" this year in an effort to prevent another attack. He would not detail the measures taken.

Sunday's 4 to 7 p.m. festival in the park will feature, among other things, klezmer music, free doughnuts and hot drinks, a magic show, children's choirs, kosher foods for sale, face painting, candle dipping and, of course, the ceremonial lighting of the menorah by a rabbi.

"I feel healed," Cohen said during a recent test in which the bulbs burned for the first time. "I have a sense of finally taking the cast off a broken leg and being able to walk on it again."

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