Rocker Carlos Santana lights up S.F. giant menorah as 3,000 gather with Chabad to usher in Chanukah

He didn't play. He also didn't know much about Chanukah — only that it was "a holy, spiritual, sacred celebration," he said earlier.

But when the time came, guitar legend Carlos Santana did what he came to do.

As this year's "Ambassador of Light," Santana got into the cherry-picker with Rabbi Yosef Langer on Sunday evening and was hoisted up to light the first candle of the giant Bill Graham menorah in San Francisco's Justin Herman Plaza.

Although the San Francisco lighting was the largest and had the biggest name on the bill, it was one of many Chabad-sponsored Chanukah festivities that took place throughout the Bay Area this week.

This was the 27th annual Bill Graham Chanukah celebration, named after the S.F.-based rock promoter who survived the Holocaust as a child and died in a helicopter crash in 1991.

The celebration, which usually takes place in Union Square, was moved this year because of construction there.

One attendee, John Milde of Oakland, said he preferred the new venue because "there's no Christmas tree," as there was in Union Square. Milde, who usually comes to the annual event, said, "Whenever I see the big menorah lit, it almost moves me to tears."

Amid the current atmosphere of America's war in Afghanistan and the ongoing violence in the Middle East, the Chanukah message of bringing light into darkness seemed to resonate with those assembled even more so than usual.

The crowd was the usual San Francisco Lubavitch event assortment: Chabadniks from around the country flown in to help, hippies, spectators of all ages, Israelis, Russians, and the odd guy in the Santa's hat, who probably wandered over from the ice-skating rink on the other side of the plaza.

While there was sparse attendance earlier in the afternoon, when a number of entertainers performed, by the time the menorah was lit at dusk, the crowd had grown to around 3,000 people, according to police estimates.

The entertainment ranged from Chabad rockers Abraxas Bridge to spoken-word artist Matthue Roth who, with tzitzit hanging over his black vinyl pants, performed a number of Chanukah-inspired musings, like "I'm a little dreidel maven, looking for a dreidel maidel."

The crowd was less than enthusiastic about an acoustic duo of high school students called "Up with Hope, Down with Mayonnaise." During their short set, one woman approached the stage and wagged her finger back in forth in their faces, to show her disapproval of their ear-splitting songs. When they finished, one of the singers told the crowd, "We have stickers and stuff, but only take one if you really want one because we only have a few." (He needn't have worried.)

The Los Angeles-based Shlomo Katz and the Happy Minyan Band were the headliners, playing a number of feel-good Shlomo Carlebach tunes, prompting the Harley-riding Langer to jump and clap on stage in classic Chassidic gyration.

Several officials and friends of Chabad addressed the crowd, including Supervisor Aaron Peskin, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Men's Wearhouse founder George Zimmer.

Sam Salkin, the CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, said that often, public menorah lightings can bring controversy.

"That controversy has gone away," he told the crowd. In these post-Sept. 11 times, "lighting the menorah has meaning for Jews and the community at large."

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi of San Francisco's Congregation Chevra Thilim said that Chanukah is the time when "we Jews dedicate ourselves to bring light into the world. We can't wait for it just to happen. All of us need to bring goodness into the world."

Langer recalled how Graham, when he was alive, would come to the lighting each year, but not to stand backstage with the officials. Instead, he would arrive anonymously, standing among the masses.

This year, Graham's 24-year-old son, Alex, attended the lighting for the first time in several years.

"I come to honor my father and my heritage," said Graham, "but also those who continue to work to make the world a better place, despite their own personal struggles or injustices."

When Langer introduced the guest of honor, he said that after Santana returned from a trip to Israel, "we invited him to come down to light up with us." Langer meant the menorah, but it elicited a roar from the crowd. Later, when Katz and his band returned, they riffed on that theme, playing "Lord, Get Me High, Get Me Higher." But judging by the smell wafting through the air, some audience members did not appear to be waiting for the Lord.

Santana began his remarks by reciting Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, the prayerful words he uttered when he accepted the Grammy award for his 1999 "Supernatural" CD.

The guitar great asked for a moment of silence "to acknowledge the divine presence of the angels, who show us that we came from the light, and will return to the light. We are just visiting here."

Later, he said, "We don't have to die to go to heaven; we can have it right here."

Candles were passed out to those assembled, and Langer plunged into the crowd, lighting candles as he went with a huge torch. Others lit the candles of those standing near them.

This part especially touched Serena Shaw of El Cerrito, who said that watching the light pass from person to person made her feel that the light was growing from within herself.

"I felt pride in how humans can be, that they can gather and share and be so good and kind," she said.

Children came to the front, to light menorahs.

Two friends from Mexico City who now live in the Bay Area reflected on the evening.

Natan Zaidenweber of San Francisco said that it was truly an "only in San Francisco" kind of event. "Seeing a Jewish Chabadnik singing a reggae song makes me think of the famous words of Bob Marley, 'There will be peace when the color of a man's skin is no more significant than the color of his eyes,' so to see this gives you hope."

And Zak Zaidman of Oakland took the rabbis' Chanukah message to heart.

Zaidman said he didn't feel cohesion among the crowd at first, but after everyone was holding a candle, he looked back, and saw the light reflected in everyone's eyes.

"Everyone really wants the same thing in the world," he said. "I feel like Chanukah has started for real, that lighting the candles re-ignites my passion to do the work I need to do. It should be that way for everyone."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."