Raul Castro Celebrates Hanukkah with Cuban Jews

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Cuban President Raul Castro celebrated Hanukkah with the island's tiny Jewish community, the Associated Press reported Sunday. 

The gesture's symbolism is rich with irony, even as Cuba continues to hold an American Jewish subcontractor on alleged espionage charges.

Castro, 80, never mentioned Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned for a year without being formally charged.

According to the report, U.S. government officials say Gross was in the country to distribute communications equipment under the USAID program to Cuba's diminutive Jewish community, which numbers about 1,500. 

Gross's wife, Judy, and leaders of Havana's Jewish community, appealed again this week for his release.

Castro's Celebration

The candle-lighting ceremony, which took place at Havana's Shalom synagogue, was broadcast on state-run television Sunday evening.

The Cuban president donned a kippa (skullcap) for the ceremony as he lit the first candle on the Hanukkiah (traditional Hanukkah candelabra).

It was the first time that either Castro or his brother, Fidel, participated in a holiday with the country's Jewish community, according to the report.

Castro thanked his hosts for a "very enjoyable afternoon" and said he hoped to take part on other occasions to talk about "the Hebrew community in Cuba and the fabulous history of the Hebrew people."

Gross, a native of Potomac, Md., was arrested Dec. 3, 2009, while delivering communication equipment to the local Jewish community. His family denies he was spying.

U.S. government officials have warned that his detention is a "major impediment" to improved ties between the two countries.

Hannukkah's History

Hanukkah, also called the Festival of Lights, commemorates the victory of a small band of Jewish freedom fighters, led by Judas Maccabee, over the Syrian-Greek army, which vastly outnumbered them.

The Syrian Greeks taunted the Israelites by desecrating their Temple, erecting a statue of Zeus inside and sacrificing pigs on the altar, an anathema to the Torah (law).

After recapturing the Temple, the Jews set about cleansing the defiled interior.

According to tradition, the one day's supply of prepared oil they found to relight the Temple Menorah miraculously lasted for eight days until more oil could be prepared. 

To commemorate the rededication of the Temple and the eight days the oil burned, Jews in Israel and around the world light one more candle - or tiny oil lamp - on each of the eight days of Hanukkah.

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