Life jackets were optional Sunday at an unusual annual Hanukkah celebration that’s drawn an increasing number of San Antonio’s Jewish community to the River Walk since 1998.
An estimated 800 celebrants of all ages turned out for music, barge rides, fun, food and fellowship at Chanukah on the River.
“I think it’s great,” said Joseph Bressman, 90, before boarding one of three barges that were decked with giant menorahs, each with lights indicating that the fifth day of the eight-day holiday had arrived.
Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem in 165 B.C. following the Jews’ victory over a Syrian army. During the temple’s rededication, the Jews miraculously saw a one-day’s supply of lamp oil last for eight days.
The holiday is normally celebrated more privately, with families lighting one candle each day on the nine-branched candelabrum at home.
Sabine Zenker was among those in San Antonio’s Jewish community of about 9,500 who joined in the public celebration.
“It’s a great way to feel unity with other synagogues and other Jews from throughout the city,” said Zenker, 40, before setting off on a barge with her kids, Shalev, 5; Asher, 3; and Remez, 20 months. “The question today was, ‘Will there be life vests?’”
Shouts of “Happy Hanukkah!” by barge-riders surprised unsuspecting shoppers as the boats circled the River Walk, and festive Jewish songs echoed off the bars and hotels lining the river.
The shouts were joined by hundreds of Hanukkah observers assembled on the steps of the Arneson River Theatre enjoying hot dogs, donuts and other treats from the concession stand.
“How wonderful it is,” said Rabbi Yossi Marrus, administrator of Chabad-Lubavitch of South Texas, which organized the first Chanukah on the River 13 years ago.
“It began with 40 kids and one boat and a little menorah,” he recalled. “It’s become a city celebration, including all of these different synagogues and Jewish organizations.”
Marrus, the event’s emcee, thanked the sponsors — which include the city and the San Antonio Express-News — and then welcomed Mayor Julián Castro to the stage, which featured an 8-foot-tall menorah crafted from 4,000 tiny building blocks.
Castro said the city is blessed to host a population of many faiths and backgrounds who live well together. The Hanukkah lights illuminate the fundamental goodness of people, he said.
After helping haul in equipment for the event, San Antonio resident Jonathan Krigel, 17, was eager for the main act — Pardes Rock, a Florida group billed as a nationally acclaimed Jewish rock band.
“I hope they’re head-bangers,” said Krigel, clad in a T-shirt bearing an anarchy symbol. “A lot of Jewish music is boring.”
Guitarist Asher Essebag was sure Krigel and other lovers of heavy-metal music wouldn’t be disappointed.
“We take no prisoners,” he said.