December 4, 1999
Section: Religion & Ethics
Edition: Morning Final
Page: 1E



HIS white shirt is smeared with olive oil. His hands are spattered with purple juice. But no matter. The 23-year-old Rabbi Yisroel Hecht of Chabad of the Greater South Bay is bringing back the days of the Maccabees for the starry-eyed children seated before him. A few oily stains on his clothes are hardly a concern.


Throughout the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, which began last night, the energetic Hasidic rabbi will reach hundreds of youngsters at about 10 Jewish schools and centers in the South Bay with hands-on lessons in how to press olive oil and use it in menorahs — or candelabras — instead of candles. The ''living legacy'' project is designed to bring children closer to one of the miracles of Hanukkah, in which one day's worth of special sacramental olive oil burned for eight days until replenishment could be brought from a town that is three days' journey away. Jewish store owners and scholars say using oil in menorahs is increasingly popular and reveals the community's overall desire to get closer to its roots.
''Is buying oil menorahs some sort of a retro movement?'' says Ellen Bob, co-owner of Bob and Bob Fine Jewish Gifts, Crafts and Books in Palo Alto. ''No question!''


Although most people still buy and use candle menorahs because that's what they grew up with, Bob says each year, the store sees a few more oil-buying customers than it did before. Oil cups can even be bought to convert a candle menorah into an oil-burning one.


''People are going back to tradition,'' Bob says. ''Close to 2,000 years later we can burn the same oil that the Maccabees burned and smell what they smelled. It makes you feel so connected.''


American Jews have been returning to tradition in a serious way for the last 20 years, says David Biale, a Berkeley resident who teaches Jewish history at the University of California-Davis.


''It's paradoxically connected to the success of Jewish assimilation,'' he said. Now that Jews feel accepted and successful, which took a long time, they can stop being apologetic about their religion, he says. Although 1999 has seen a spate of anti-Semitic acts, Biale says that for the most part, Jews feel comfortable in the United States and recognize that the perpetrators of hate-inspired violence come from radical fringe groups.


In part, Hanukkah commemorates the successful fight of Jewish traditionalists — the Maccabees — against secular forces in ancient Judea around 160 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era). The Syrian King Antiochus' troops had destroyed most of the temple in Jerusalem and erected a statue of a Zeus-like god inside. When the Maccabees drove out the Syrian troops and reclaimed the temple, they immediately set out to rededicate it by lighting a lamp called ''eternal'' because it is never supposed to go out. The holiday is best-known for its story of the famous miracle of the oil. As described by the Talmudic rabbis: Only a single day's supply of sacramental olive oil, made of the first and purest drops, could be found in the wreckage of the temple, butit burned for eight days.


Hanukkah in Hebrew means ''rededication.'' On each of the eight nights of the holiday, one more candle is added to the menorah and lit to symbolically spread God's light.


Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, and is considered a traditionally minor holiday in the annual cycle of Jewish festivals. However, its status is elevated in the United States because it competes with the highly publicized, highly commercialized Christmas. Hanukkah usually falls in December.


Getting messy with the kids, showing them the black Mission olives he picked himself from Visalia, and letting them pit the fruit themselves helps de-commercialize Hanukkah and give the holiday a deeper meaning, said Hecht, who was recently hired as the Palo Alto youth director for Chabad.


He does not measure success by how many people promise to become Orthodox Jews or swear to light the menorah at home with their families. ''If children walk out of here happy and excited, then it was successful,'' Hecht says. ''I'm hoping that at a later point in their lives, they'll remember doing something fun in school.''


Like many Chabad groups, Hecht has been part of other ''living legacy'' projects in which the rabbis teach children how to bake their own matzo at Passover and polish shofars at Rosh Hashana.


Hecht's first oil-press project in the Bay Area began this week at the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale. Throughout the holiday, he will teach the program again at reform synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and yeshivas throughout the South Bay. If things go well, Hecht may try the program in public schools next year, where non-Jewish children can also learn about Hanukkah.


''This is Mr. Zayit,'' Hecht told a group of 4-year-olds, using the Hebrew word for olive. ''We're going to turn him into . . . olive oil.''


Then he spent the next half hour helping the children pit fruit, squash olives and spin the juice in a centrifuge to bring the oil to the top. Afterward, he let the children pour the oil into the menorah cups and make their own wicks out of cotton.


Even this seemingly complex way of making the oil is much simpler than the way the Jews in ancient times did it. Back then, they were not allowed to grind the olives. Workers would lay the olives flat, put heavy logs on top, and collect only the first few drops of the most pure oil to be used in the temple.


''I thought it was cool to watch it,'' said 9-year-old Kayla Robbins. ''It takes a lot of time. It seems more real and stuff to me now.''


Illustration:Photos (2)

Rabbi Yisroel Hecht helps fourth-graders at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School make olive oil from black Mission olives. Afterward, he lets the children pour the oil into the menorah cups and make their own wicks out of cotton.
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Above, youngsters at Jewish schools and centers in the South Bay get hands-on lessons in how to press olive oil and use it in menorahs.
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Store owners say the use of oil in menorahs, at top, is becoming more popular, indicating, as some scholars say, the Jewish community's desire to get closer to its roots.
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