The children ooh, they ahh, they stand on a lawn awash in lights, music and kitsch while their parents ask this: Who lives here?
Who, they wonder, strung the white lights on the gutter? Who stuffed the fiddler on the roof? Who hung the giant dreidels on the dormers, chimneys, boxwoods, walkways and balconies?
They want to know: Who lives in the Hanukkah House?
For 12 years, the decorations at 6211 Park Heights Ave. have drawn the curious, in part because no other Baltimore house decorates this much for the holiday.
Here are floodlights and flashing lights, mechanical teddy bears with Hanukkah presents, a Pooh Bear with a yarmulke, a menorah made of tiki torches. Here are menorah flags, Stars of David in every front window, strands of blue-and-white dreidels ankle-high along the sidewalk.
It's all so lavish -- and unexpected for Hanukkah -- that if you zip down Park Heights and don't read the Hebrew on the wall, you might assume a gentile went overboard for that other holiday.
Slow down, though, and you could see Morris Cohen lighting the menorah. You might see his wife, Ann, giving cookies to children. Maybe you'll find their son, Irv, fussing with the decorations, or their neighbors, Sam and Will Shoken, grabbing someone by the sleeve before they trip over a dreidel.
The Cohens live on the first floor, in the apartment on the right. Their son Irv, who is 46 and a graphic artist, lives in the apartment across the foyer. The Shoken brothers -- Sam is 46 and sells safety supplies; Will is 44 and an architect -- live in the apartments upstairs.
What they share, besides an old friendship and a home, is an Orthodox belief, and the belief that Hanukkah is about educating the world and celebrating religious freedom.
A menorah in the window was never enough decoration for the Cohens. Even in the 1960s, when Irv was young, their bay window menorah was accompanied by a strand of lights Morris made with plastic dreidels.
In 1987, Irv was shopping at a pottery outlet in Williamsburg, Va., when he spotted a 2-foot-tall metal knight, and it made him think of the ancient Jewish soldiers.
He paid $19.95 apiece for nine of them, set them outside, plugged in a spotlight, and the first cars pulled over to the curb. The crowds have grown since, and as many as a few hundred people come every night now.
When they started, there were so few Hanukkah decorations that Irv, with a glue gun, converted Christmas characters. He covered a Santa's red fur with a rabbi's black clothes. He painted the words "I Latkes" on Mrs. Claus' apron and made her into a bubbi. He gave Elmo a dreidel.
On the balconies, he hung mannequins in plastic chairs and called them a Jewish folk band. The fiddler on the roof wears Irv's old clothes and his father's hand-me-downs.
What Irv envisions, the others bring to life.
Will Shoken handles the lights and climbs the roof, Sam Shoken has a friend who keeps them in plastics. Irv's father does the nightly blessing and the menorah lighting; Irv's mother covers refreshments. No one walks through her doors (which are wrapped with Happy Hanukkah! paper), without eating.
On any night, their lawn is crowded with people: Jews, from Orthodox to Reform, non-Jews, scores of children. Last year, 50 deaf children came, and last week, a group of African-American kindergartners came because their teacher read them the story of Hanukkah.
To make certain everyone understands the holiday, they print fliers. They also split the electric bill. This year, they printed 100 Hanukkah cards, with the house pictured on the front. Proceeds go to a scholarship fund.
No one has ever said to them the display is inappropriate, commercial or garish, like 34th Street. The people who stand on their lawn say "thanks," and "we enjoyed it," and "we'll be back next year." That's why they do it.
The Hanukkah House will stay lighted until Dec. 22, even though the last candle was lighted last night. Dec. 22 just happens to be the day everyone has the day off.