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The First Night

It’s 6 p.m. on the corner of Brighton Beach Avenue and Brighton 11th Street, and Lubovitch Rabbi Hershel Okonov is riding in a cherry picker. The sun has set and it’s cold enough for the 50 Jews, mostly Russian, to see their breath as they watch the white ConEdison truck take him up, up, up to the top of a two-story tall menorah that stands in front of the Washington Mutual Bank. Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah and Rabbi Okanov is going to light the first candle.

Okanov’s smile is hidden between his long white beard and his black, brimmed hat, as he waves to the crowd below. He points a large lighter toward what appear to be small gas lamps placed on the middle candle and again at the right end. As each flame starts, the people on the ground cheer and take pictures. A younger Rabbi plays music on a keyboard while women hand out Dunkin Donuts and free boxes of Hanukkah candles. A man in a puffy blue parka wanders through the crowd, pouring shots of vodka into clear plastic cups. The cherry picker lowers Okanov to the ground, and people walk up to him to shake his hand.

“Where are the potato latkes?” asks a man, “every year they hand out latkes, but this year it’s donuts?” He is not pleased with the change.

The music continues and a few Lubovitch men dance in a circle with young children. But it is cold very, very cold and the crowd disperses within 10 minutes. Three Lubovitch men walk towards the subway, and as they cross Coney Island Avenue, a gust of wind blows the tallest one’s hat into the intersection. He runs in front of a car to retrieve it, puts it back on his head and resumes his walk home. His friends laugh.