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Pryors share Jewish tradition, culture with community

The Pryor family (clockwise from front) Jacob, Chris, Laun and Naomi, pose beside their festive Hanukkah bush. The family begins the observance of Hanukkah on Christmas Eve this year.

The Pryor family (clockwise from front) Jacob, Chris, Laun and Naomi, pose beside their festive Hanukkah bush. The family begins the observance of Hanukkah on Christmas Eve this year.

Since childhood, I’ve enjoyed opportunities to learn more about various holiday celebrations around the world.   And this year, I set out to discover more about the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

So, I went to the best local source: Greenville High School English teacher Naomi Pryor.

Pryor, the daughter of rabbinical clergy, and her husband Chris are members of Temple Beth-Or in Montgomery. The couple graciously invited Benny and me to share an early traditional Hanukkah dinner with their sons Laun and Jacob, friends Stu Stuedeman and Kenzie McEachern and Chris’s dad, Roy. It gave us a chance to experience more about this Jewish holiday first hand.

We found out Hanukkah can fall anywhere from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar that the vast majority of us use every day.

“The observance of Hanukkah is actually based on the Hebrew calendar. And it always starts on the 25th day of Kislev (Chislev), which is the ninth month of the Hebrew calendar. Last year, it fell right around Thanksgiving,” Naomi Pryor explains. “Hanukkah starts almost a month later, on Christmas Eve, this year.”

Hanukkah officially commemorates the re-dedication of the Holy, or Second Temple in Jerusalem, following a successful Jewish revolt against the Selecuid Empire. The fighting actually ceased on that 25th day of Kislev. At the newly dedicated temple, it was said a miracle occurred when the pure olive oil used in the temple lasted eight days instead of the expected single day—exactly the amount of time needed to prepare more of the oil.

Today a special eight-branched candelabrum called a menorah is lit, one candle added each night until all eight are glowing by the end of the eight-day observance. While it’s a remembrance of that long-ago military victory, it also serves to bring light to winter’s long nights—and with it, the promise of hope even in life’s darkest times.

Before our meal, several blessings were given in Hebrew by different family members. Naomi used the shamash, the extra candle   always found on the menorah, to light the first night’s candle placed on the far right (“because Hebrew is read right to left, the menorah’s candles are also added and lit from right to left”) and said a prayer. Young Jacob, whose Bar Mitzvah is slated for next October, blessed the food in Hebrew while father Chris blessed the wine, followed by a chorus of “L’Chaim” (“To Life”) as glasses were raised.

The dinner we enjoyed together on Monday night represented the type of meal a Jewish family would share to celebrate the beginning of Hanukkah.

Naomi pointed out the various dishes awaiting us in their Park St. home’s dining room. “We have braised beef brisket by my mother’s recipe; steamed asparagus, rolls and lokshen kugel, which is a sort of baked noodle pudding that is considered a side dish, but can also be like a dessert because of its sweetness,” she explained.

And then there are latkes.

“OK, because of the miracle of the oil, oil-based foods are part of the celebration, and these are potato pancakes made with potato, flour and egg. You fry them to make them nice and crispy on the outside,” Naomi said, as husband Chris served a prepared plate to each guest. The latkes are traditionally served with applesauce, but at the Pryor home there is also sour cream (Naomi’s preference) and ketchup for the two boys (“You know, fried potatoes, French fries— boys gotta have ketchup!”). Other popular oil-based foods for Hanukkah include doughnuts (and, at least here in the south) fried chicken.

And the Pryors did their own unique twist on dessert for our meal, Naomi said. “Our family’s favorite type of cake is yellow with chocolate icing and I had all these cute little Hanukkah-themed toppers—so here are some Hanukkah cupcakes!”

With a husband who grew up Southern Baptist and then converted to Judaism, and her marriage into a family who celebrates Christmas with Santa, Christmas trees and all the trimmings, Naomi admits she had to make some adjustments.

Like a tree. “Chris grew up with Christmas trees, of course, and he really wanted to have one. I grew up with a rabbi for a father and it just wasn’t something I had ever considered having,” Naomi explained.

And then they found that perfect Star of David tree topper online. “We bought the very first one and had to sent a photo to the company to show it off. They were as excited about it as we were,” she said. And in the corner of their living room sits a “Hanukkah bush” topped with that special star, featuring cute ornaments crafted by the boys in school and the Boy Scouts, Hanukkah gifts scattered beneath its branches.

Nearby is a table with a special menorah shaped like Jerusalem, handmade menorahs created by Laun and Jacob and various dreidels (traditional Hanukkah toys) collected over the years, with a decorative banner displayed over the items.

While Naomi and Chris’s sons are being raised in the Jewish faith, Laun says their granddad Roy and other Pryor family members make sure they experience a taste of Christmas, too.

“I’d say we get the best of both worlds,” Laun said with a grin.

His mom says she has enjoyed the chance to share the traditions of her faith with Christian friends here in Greenville.

“It was great to be able to do a Passover observance at St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church . . . to be able to share the religious customs important to us with one another,” Naomi Pryor said. “We love being a part of this community.”