Traditional, fresh events greet Hanukkah in greater Portland

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PORTLAND — Eight days and nights of Hanukkah began last weekend with several events in and around Portland.

The annual Hanukkah party was held Friday night at the Maine Jewish Museum as a preview to the festival. Saturday night saw the lighting of the grand menorah in front of the steps at Portland City Hall, followed by music, a fire-and-ice show by Mad Science, and plenty of latkes, or potato pancakes, for everyone.

The Saturday evening event, called Chanukah Extravaganza, was sponsored by Chabad Lubavitch of Maine. Children gathered at the base of the steps to sing traditional songs, including “I Have a Little Dreidel.” Several local politicians, including state Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, and Mayor Michael Brennan, and Jewish leaders, including Dr. Stephen Simons, read proclamations regarding the first night.

Then, in what has become a Portland tradition, Rabbi Moshe Wilansky was hoisted into the air with the help of a Portland Fire Department truck. He spoke from the ladder bucket to the assembled crowd, braving a bit of rain, about the importance of Hanukkah as a reminder of the miracle of the “Maccabees who fought against the might.”

Wilansky made the three blessings, “to You who commanded us to kindle the lights, who has performed miracles for our fathers, and who has given life.” He then lit the first candle to his far right on the menorah. He lit the shamash, the center candle and not one of the eight, after that – a bit out of the traditional order. The crowd seemed unfazed, and the celebration continued in the State of Maine room in City Hall.

Festivities kicked in to high gear on Sunday afternoon when the LeeVees rocked Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland.

The band was formed when Adam Gardner, from Guster, and Dave Schneider, from the Zambonis, met when their bands toured together. They convened in the back of the tour bus and started penning songs about Hanukkah. In 2005, Warner Brothers produced “Hanukkah Rocks” with such songs as “Applesauce vs. Sour Cream” about the latke-topping debate and “Nun Gimmel Heh Shin,” the four sides of the dreidel.

“This is a fun project. My buddy Dave and I wrote the record in eight days,” Gardner said. “We wanted to do something that would contribute to the Jewish holiday. The lyrics are light-hearted, but it’s not a joke. Dave and I are drawing from our experience, about food and family and celebration.”

Gardner said there are great Christmas songs, and they wanted to add some great Hanukkah songs to the mix.

“If I can enjoy Christmas music, why can’t non-Jews enjoy this music?” said Gardner, who moved to Portland from New York City eight years ago with his wife, Lauren Sullivan. They started a non-profit called Reverb, an environmental group that helps bands go green on tour.

But playing with the LeeVees is something he does for the sheer joy of it.

“There are not a lot of good Hanukkah songs. There’s the Adam Sandler song, and some traditional songs, but not many songs put out by rock bands. It became immediately obvious: this could be mainstream music,” he said.

The crowd on Sunday certainly loved the festive atmosphere, with children dancing up front between spins of the complimentary dreidels. Adults of all ages clapped along and delighted in the verbal puns the songs conveyed, including such new classics as “At the Timeshare” and “How do you spell Channukkahh?” an intentional combination of all the variants. The sense of merriment was mutual, and the musicians seemed to revel in the delight.

“The writing is very easy and natural for Dave and me when we get together,” Gardner said, adding they expect to add other Jewish rock songs to their repertoire. “We plan on putting out music that goes beyond the Hanukkah holiday that you can listen to all year long.”

The band is winning a lot of new fans, including a few hundred more from Sunday’s show.

“One of my favorite quotes on our first tour was ‘your band makes me want to be Jewish,’” Gardner said. “It’s funny. Obviously, we’re not out to convert anyone, but it’s fun to see a mainstream audience get big into it.”

Sidebar Elements

A young fan gets a good view of the LeeVees performing Sunday at Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland. The concert was one of several events that marked the beginning of Hanukkah over the weekend in greater Portland.

Rabbi Moshe Wilansky of Chabad Lubavitch of Maine discusses the significance of Hanukkah before lighting the grand menorah outside Portland City Hall on Saturday night, Dec. 8. The Jewish Festival of Lights continues through Dec. 15

Rabbi Wilansky, with an assist from a firefighter, lights the first lamp on the giant Hanukkah menorah from his bucket perch in a Portland Fire Department truck.

Dave Schneider, left, and Adam Gardner of the LeeVees are joined by violinist Jennifer Elowitch of the Boston Pops in Sunday’s concert at Congregration Bet Ha’am in South Portland.