JERUSALEM (AP) — Jews around the world ushered in the eight-day Hanukkah festival Saturday evening, lighting the first candles of ceremonial lamps that symbolize triumph over oppression.
In Israel, families gathered after sundown for the lighting, eating traditional snacks of potato pancakes and doughnuts and exchanging gifts.
Local officials lit candles set up in public places, while families displayed the nine-candle lamps, called menorahs, in their windows or in special windproof glass boxes outside.
Hanukkah, also known as the festival of lights, commemorates the Jewish uprising in the second century B.C. against the Greek-Syrian kingdom, which had tried to impose its culture on Jews and adorn the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem with statues of Greek gods.
The holiday lasts eight days because according to tradition, when the Jews rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem, a single vial of oil, enough for one day, burned miraculously for eight.
For many Jewish people, the holiday symbolizes the triumph of good over evil.
Observant Jews light a candle each night to mark the holiday.
Oily foods are eaten to commemorate the oil miracle, hence the ubiquitous fried doughnuts and potato pancakes, known as latkes.
In Israel, children play with four-sided spinning tops, or dreidels, decorated with the letters that form the acronym "A great miracle happened here." Outside of Israel, the saying is "A great miracle happened there." Israeli students get time off from school for the holiday, when families gather each night to light the candles, eat and exchange gifts.
Hanukkah — which means dedication — is one of the most popular holidays in Israel, and has a high rate of observance.
In Ohio, the first public candle lighting on Saturday was done by Holocaust survivor Abe Weinrib, who turns 100 on Tuesday. Weinrib, who lit the first candle on a 13-foot public menorah at Easton Town Center in Columbus, says his biggest triumph was surviving the Holocaust, the Nazi campaign to eliminate Jews in Europe.
Weinrib told The Columbus Dispatch newspaper that he was arrested while working in Polish factories owned by his uncle when he was in his 20s. He spent six years imprisoned in camps, including the notorious Auschwitz.
"Rather than blowing out 100 candles, he'd rather light one candle representing kindness and good deeds," said Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann of the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center in New Albany, which sponsored the menorah lighting. "He wants this to be the way he ushers in his next century."
In New York City, Jews celebrated the holiday's start with the ceremonial lighting of a 32-foot-tall menorah at the edge of Central Park. Rabbi Shmuel Butman lit the giant structure that weighs about 4,000 pounds and has real oil lamps, protected from the wind by glass chimneys.
"It was a beautiful event," he said. "A wonderful way to start the holiday."
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott celebrated the beginning of Hanukkah with a menorah-lighting ceremony in his office at the state Capitol in Tallahassee. He was joined by a rabbi from the northwest Florida branch of the Chabad Lubavitch outreach organization.
"The story of Hanukkah reminds us that confidence in one's identity and hope for the future are powerful forces that cannot be defeated — even in the darkest of times. Hanukkah is also a time to reiterate our support for the people of Israel," Scott said, adding that he and his wife are "keeping our friends in Israel in our prayers for a future of peace."
Associated Press Writers Colleen Long in New York City, Rebecca Miller in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Jennifer Kay in Miami, Florida, contributed to this report.