Chanukah Comes Early At MJE

Manhattan Jewish Experience’s annual Chanukah party for 20’s and 30’s lights up the West Village

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Move aside ugly Christmas sweaters — it’s Chanukah’s turn. Unflattering, loud, bulky sweaters boasting Chanukah accoutrement such as dreidels, menorahs and for those who were really feeling festive, latkes, were encouraged attire for Manhattan Jewish Experience’s Chanukah bash at The Anthony last Thursday.

Hundreds of young, Jewish professionals showed up to the swanky, new venue on Bleecker street, which opened just in time for the holiday season. In its 18th year, (chai time for a new locale), the annual Chanukah celebration helped get people into the spirit with chocolate gelt, sufaniyot and menorahs for guests to take home with them.

With the overlap of Christmas Eve and the first night of Chanukah falling on same day this year, the early event got ahead of the impending madness. And with the entire city being transformed into the North Pole starting before Thanksgiving, a pre Festival of Lights celebration feels warranted.

One guest was especially pleased to see the overshadowed holiday, often dwarfed by Christmas' enormity, get a little attention outside of the eight official days, “Christmas is everywhere for months so I think it’s nice that there’s an event that stretches out Chanukah a little bit,” said Rachel, 25, who lives in the area. “If I had it my way Chanukah would start in the fall and last until spring.”

Located in Greenwich Village, the upscale, new venue’s atmosphere pays homage to the decadence and Bohemian culture of the post World War II era. Dark wood floors, real, exposed brick, red velvet, Victorian style arm chairs, a low gilded ceiling and a warm, red glow create a seductive vibe, evoking the feeling of a speakeasy. “Chanukah isn’t typically associated with ‘sexy,’ this is a cool approach,” said Josh, 28, who was at his first MJE event.

In lieu of a Santa Claus guests were encouraged to take inventive photos with another kind of holiday representative who floated around the space: “MJE Mascot Max” (before that night he was known as Max Sterling). Described by friend Michelle Soffen, MJE director of communications, as someone who “would do just about anything for a free ticket,” Sterling wore an unusual costume involving a homemade garish Chanukah sweater boasting “MJE” spelled out in lights, a ski helmet, goggles and a portable light up Chanukah frame in which people posed with him.

Sterling’s getup was not merely a feast for the eyes but was also a way to promote MJE’s upcoming winter retreat. This year’s trip is a Shabbat and ski getaway weekend. Guests were prompted to upload their photos with Sterling using the MJESKI hashtag for a chance to win $100 off of the trip.

“I’ve always wanted to shine brighter than the Chanukah menorah,” said Sterling. He says he jumped at the next best thing: “the MJE mascot wearing an absurdly bright light-up sweater.” Sterling only laments that the helmet covered his “Kramer-esque” hair from sight, though he vows to wear the sweater on the ski trip should he be among the lucky winners.

Mike Gellis, who some attendees might recognize from the event’s promotional fliers, found his face’s prevalence throughout the advertisements humorous, “I started seeing my own face popping up all over Facebook ads,” said Gellis, whose fame even prompted a Jswipe user to message him. “For one shining moment I felt ‘Jewish New York famous’ … and it was awesome.”

MJE’s downtown director, Rabbi Ezra Cohen, headed the event along with a team: Soffen, Atara Neuer, Natalie Lebovits-Zaidenberg, David Miller, Rabbi Joshua Klein, Ruthie Braffman and Rabbi Jonathan Feldman all contributed to the evening.

Rabbi Cohen finds value in Chanukah’s accessibility to people of varying levels of Judaism. “Chanukah is easy entry … [there’s a] low level of ritual with few restrictions, so all types of Jews can feel comfortable celebrating,” said Rabbi Cohen.

For Rabbi Mark Widles, founder and director of MJE, seeing the venue full of people celebrating the holiday resonates on a profound level, “Getting so many young, Jewish people together and encouraging greater Jewish involvement as MJE does all year is the ultimate response to the Ancient Greeks and others who have tried to keep our people from keeping Judaism alive,” said Rabbi Wildes.  

When Soffen and Neuer were hunting for decorations the event, they came up against the challenge of tracking down anything Chanukah related or just “not Christmas-themed” at several craft stores. All they could find was one tiny aisle offering scarce options. Though they were without plentiful resources, with a little tenacity and ingenuity, they managed to turn what few materials they could find into something far more bountiful.

“Chanukah celebrates the continued existence of the Jewish people against all odds and its expressed in the miracle of the oil,” said Rabbi Wildes. 

Looking around the room at the festive scene, one wouldn't guess they started out with such a small supply.

“One day of oil lasting for eight [days]," Rabbi Wildes said. "That’s the Jewish story in a nutshell.”

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