WATERLOO, Iowa --- They had heard the story and the lessons many times before.
Hanukkah, an eight-night festival, commemorates Jewish ancestors' fight for religious freedom against Hellenistic Greeks in 168 B.C.E. and the miracle that followed. When rededicating the Jewish temple, oil that should have only been enough to light a candelabra for just one night burned for eight days.
On Sunday, the last day of Hanukkah festivities, children with a Hebrew School class at Sons of Jacob Synagogue in Waterloo enjoyed the lighter side of the holiday. A dozen students fiddled with toy tops called dreidels, munched on chocolate gelt that looked like gold coins and used handprints to paint a menorah --- the special candelabra most symbolic with this Festival of Lights.
Hebrew School, along with an all-synagogue Hanukkah party, builds community and promotes Jewish culture but the thrust of the observance happens in homes, among gatherings of family and friends.
"What we did for Hanukkah is, well, we got to spend time together and we went some places," said Josh Poston, 11, who also kept busy playing the role of Elmer Hopkins, the minister's son, in a local production of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever."
"Every night we light candles before eating and after that we eat latkes. They are potato pancakes we eat on Hanukkah," said Matthew Rothermich, 12.
Rothermich's parents, Sandy and Chuck, dropped him and his young brother, Benjamin, off at Hebrew School and set out snacks before ducking out to finish up Christmas shopping. All three Rothermich children are being raised Jewish but observe Christmas as part of a way to honor Chuck's religious traditions, as he is Catholic.
"We just blend it all in," Chuck Rothermich said.
Celebrating two holidays is simple when common values like goodness and family are emphasized, Sandy Rothermich said.
"For us, it's more about the family time. The family and the traditions," she added.
Rabbi Stanley Rosenbaum of Sons of Jacob emphasizes each year that the greatest miracle of Hanukkah is that the Jewish people survived against a mighty oppressor and preserved the right to practice their religion.
Throughout the centuries, Jewish people dispersed and migrated to different countries and continents, and despite adopting different traditions and customs over time, Rosenbaum said the most important values survived repeated persecution and pressure to assimilate.
Fittingly, Rosenbaum showed during Hebrew School on Sunday a recorded IPTV music special "Lights: Celebrate Hanukkah," which featured Jewish musicians singing Hanukkah tributes in Yiddish, English and Spanish as well as with folk, country and gospel music overtones.
"Jews have always been open and people have been attracted and bring their own styles," Rosenbaum said.
Sharing meals together with loved ones and friends are an important element of Hanukkah, according to Andrea Durnan of Cedar Falls, who said most Jewish holidays can be easily summarized.
"They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat," Durnan quipped.
For children in America, gift-giving is a much anticipated Hanukkah tradition. Some families give one present each night. Parents may go the practical route or choose to indulge.
"The first night is pajama night. We have underwear and socks night. The kids get a big kick out of that," said Durnan, adding that other categories include book night, movie night and big gift night.
Poston's mom, Sharron McGee, has practiced Judaism for several years and recently officially converted. She is creating new family traditions and her young sons weigh in.
"They want to be more festive," McGee said.
She is building her menorah collection. Her newest addition, made in Israel and purchased at a kosher deli in Des Moines, depicts miniature rabbis holding Kiddush cups. The piece served as a centerpiece at the dining table during Hanukkah, which McGee decorated with fine holiday China plates depicting holly berries --- a nod to her pre-Judaism family traditions.
"I'm gonna add things over time and right now just keeping it simple," she added.