Arts and Entertainment

Circus acrobats, games, ice menorah planned for Alaska's biggest Hanukkah celebration

In one form or another, a community celebration of Hanukkah, the weeklong Jewish "festival of lights," has been hosted by the Alaska Jewish Campus since the Anchorage organization was established 25 years ago.

This year, the AJC will hold their "Cirque-Tacular Hannukah" on Monday, Dec. 26, a bit later than usual.

Hanukkah usually takes place earlier in December or even late November, falling on different days according to the solar-based Gregorian calendar used by most of the world as a result of the variances between it and the Jewish lunar calendars. (According to the latter, however, Hanukkah is ALWAYS on the same date — the 25th day of the month of Kislev.)

According to the Time and Date website, this year, for the first time since 1997, the first day of Hanukkah and Christmas Day fall on the same day. The previous convergence was in 1951.

Further confusing things is that in the Jewish calendar a day starts at sunset, not midnight. Thus the first night of Hanukkah, the official beginning of the eight-day observance, will actually be Dec. 24, Christmas Eve on the Gregorian calendar.

The holiday (also spelled "Chanukah" and other variations) commemorates the liberation of Jerusalem by Jewish guerrilla forces led by Judah Maccabee around 2,182 years ago. The battle was followed by a cleansing of the Temple and relighting the multi-branched lamp known as the menorah. Despite having only enough oil to burn for a day, the lamp burned for eight days, by which point new supplies of fuel were available. Thus modern representations of the menorah are at the heart of contemporary Hanukkah celebrations.

"In the old days we used to have a lighting in the snow," said Mushky Glitsenstein, youth director for AJC. Since then the event has grown so large that it's been moved to the Egan Center. "It's the biggest Hanukkah party in Alaska," Glitsenstein said.

The idea of a chilly menorah-lighting has been retained. A large menorah carved from ice by Scott "Spirio" Stevens will be lit at the start of the evening.

The big draw, however, is the less-traditional display of jaw-dropping acrobatics by members of the New York Cirque-Tacular Aerialists troupe.

Glitsenstein said that bringing in family-friendly outside entertainment has been part of the local happening for several years. "It's for the entire community," she said. "Not just the Jewish community."

Other acrobatic acts have been featured recently, but this year's stars will be a little different in that they are more circus-oriented, Glitsenstein said, "with aerial displays and hoops. Every year we try to do something new and fresh for Anchorage, something for the community, something that's going to be fun for the kids."

In addition to the aerial performers, young people will particularly enjoy attractions like the big bounce-house shaped like a dreidel, the spinning top used in a traditional game. There will also be a menorah-making workshop with supplies provided by Home Depot. Those supplies will be limited to the early-comers and will include a Home Depot carpentry apron.

Other activities will include familiar face-painting and the less-familiar "Meltdown," which Glitsenstein called one of the more popular events for young people. "It's an inflatable multiplayer game," she explained. "There are seven places to stand and two arms that come around. When they come around you either have to jump over it or duck below it. If it hits you, you're out."

(Inflatable attractions like the bounce house and Meltdown require separate tickets.)

Students from the Hebrew Youth Club and AJC's after-school program will screen a film they've made about religious suppression in the Soviet Union, "Through Fire and Ice."

"Each year our students make a beautiful film for the program," Glitsenstein said. "This one shows how, even though Jews were being persecuted, the light of the Hanukkah candles carried them through those times."

In a nod to the featured performers, this year's celebration will have a circus theme with decorations and a giant elephant designed by Anchorage artist Margret Hugi-Lewis, who has helped design the event for the past 20 years.

At the end there'll be a drop of 300 balloons and the breaking of an eight-foot piñata in the shape of a dreidel, filled with candy, of course, for those who haven't got their fill of falafel or other Israeli cuisine available on the premises.

The "festival of lights" may be a Jewish tradition, but the celebration of culture is open to all, Glitsenstein said.

"All families are welcome. The message is for everybody," she said. "Light always prevails over might and education always prevails over intolerance."

As the calendars themselves would seem to suggest in these rare years when the Jewish and Christian festivities coincide.

In case you're into pre-planning, the next occasion on which the first day of Hanukkah and the first day of Christmas will happen at the same time will be 2027.

CIRQUE-TACULAR HANUKKAH will take place starting with the kindling of the giant ice menorah at 5 p.m. Monday, Dec. 26, in the Egan Center. Tickets, $10, $5 for students and children, are available at

Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham was a longtime ADN reporter, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print. He retired from the ADN in 2017.