The face and eyes illuminated by a torch and menorah candle were those of a 17-year-old Israeli girl, Leraz Weiss, who had journeyed to Baltimore to celebrate the beginning of Hanukkah yesterday at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills Jewish Community Center.
The significance of her presence tapped into both the past and future. More than 2,100 years ago, the Maccabees wrested control of Jerusalem from Syrian-Greek soldiers. After the Jews reclaimed the Temple, the lighting of lamps gave rise to the festive celebration of Hanukkah. The Maccabees, a family of Jewish leaders, lived in Modin, near where Leraz, a student soon to be a soldier, lives.
But for yesterday, she was an Israeli youth movement ambassador for the JCC Maccabi Games, an international teen-age athletic event to be held in Baltimore and four other cities next summer.
"I'm here to convince people to come see their homeland," Leraz said in an interview before the lighting of the menorah. "Jews in diaspora, Jews in Israel, we're all the same Jews."
`Sense of community'
Unlike the High Holy Days earlier this fall, which call for atonement and reflection, Hanukkah is upbeat, almost determinedly so yesterday.
Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin said the turnout of parents with small children for afternoon games, crafts, songs and latkes - traditional potato pancakes served with sour cream and applesauce - was in the hundreds, easily twice as high as last year's event.
"There's a heightened sense of community, a yearning for the comfort of belonging," she said, adding: "Not that it's being articulated. It's an underlying feeling."
Jennifer Ranen of Owings Mills watched her daughter Sophie, 6, make a sky-blue dreidel, or spinning top.
In light of the terrorist attacks three months ago, Ranen said, more attention is paid to the here and now. "Anything that has to do with getting the family together," she said. "It's more of a conscious effort."
Getting eight presents each for a boy and girl, one for each night of Hanukkah, was no simple task. "They, the presents, have to be fairly even," she said. In a soft voice, she confessed, "I'm exhausted."
At the center yesterday, making beeswax candles and small wooden dreidels associated with Hanukkah took up much of the time. The workshops also were an easy way to relate ancient Jewish stories to youngsters.
Blake Dickler, 5, seemed to have an elementary understanding that dreidels were used to fool the Syrian-Greeks into thinking the Jews were merely playing spinning-top games when they were practicing their religion and reading the Torah.
At the end of the activities came the lighting of the menorah by Leraz, re-enacting the ritual performed about 165 B.C. at the Temple. The miracle, the story goes, is that the Jews found only enough olive oil to fuel the Temple lamp for one day, but it burned for eight days.
`Now they understand'
Even amid the balloons and Yiddish folk songs, the Israeli teen observed something different about Americans since she was here a few years ago. They are more attuned to vigilance, she said - which Israelis live with every day: "Now they understand."