Hundreds drawn to Chanukah fest at Union Square

Mitchell Roth of Berkeley attended the 26th annual menorah lighting in San Francisco to take a strong stand as a Jew.

"With all the stuff happening in the Middle East, I think it's important to show solidarity with Israel and not hide your Jewish identity. I think that it's important to make that kind of statement," said Roth, who joined some 500 onlookers in Union Square for the lighting of the first Chanukah candle on Dec. 21.

San Francisco resident Nora Pevemen, a recent emigre from the former Soviet Union, voiced similar sentiments. "Being here makes me feel more Jewish," she said.

"It's an opportunity to learn more about our religion and our culture — and that opportunity wasn't available back in Russia. So we shouldn't take it for granted."

On the first night of Chanukah, the rich mosaic of Bay Area Jewish life was on display when San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Men's Warehouse President George Zimmer, and Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad of S.F. lit the first candle.

In what one of the onlookers called "a miracle of the season," Brown, famed for his sartorial splendor, and Zimmer, renowned for providing fashion for the everyman, shared a crane with Langer, who is famed for riding a Harley.

As the three men embarked on their wobbly ascent to the top of the Bill Graham Memorial Menorah, they led the crowd in a chorus of "Maoz Tsur." The ceremony was dedicated to Graham, the late music impresario.

The annual event, begun in 1975, was the first public, outdoor lighting held outside Israel. Since then, other public chanukiot have been introduced throughout the world as well as in other Bay Area communities.

Roth, who lives in Berkeley, planned on being present for several events in Union Square during the eight-day festival, which also featured Israeli Rabbi Asi Spiegel, the Rokdim Beyachad Dance Troupe and the klezmer group Mozaik.

Also on hand was a contingent from Jews for Jesus, who led a sing-along, mixing Gospel with traditional Hebrew songs.

"We're here to show the Jewish community that we're a part of it," said member Joshua Rubinstein of San Francisco. "Chanukah is a very spiritual time for us, and a time to renew our Jewish communal ties."

The event also drew dozens of curious onlookers who were scrambling to get their last-minute holiday shopping done.

Cappy and Lorraine Cappellieri of San Jose braved the holiday hordes and took in a matinee of the Abba musical "Mamma Mia." Neither had seen a Chanukah lighting before and they were impressed.

"I think it's real neat how everyone comes together as a community," said Lorraine Cappellieri. "It's good to have traditions like that."

Her husband agreed, although he said the euphoria of seeing "Dancing Queen" performed live had not yet worn off.

Providing yet another perspective on the event was James Franklin, who lives "somewhere around San Francisco." Franklin, who looked like a combination of Sam Elliot and a young Frank Zappa, was handing out Street Sheets for $1 donations.

"I caught the tail end of the whole thing, and I guess you could say it was pretty intense," he said. "Everybody seems to be mellow and in tune with each other, so that was a definite plus."

Franklin, who does not identify as Jewish, said that he briefly touched the menorah before it was lit.

"I did it because everyone else was doing it. So, I figured I'd give it a shot. It was kind of cool, but I didn't come away enlightened or anything like that."