Q&A: Jeff Gubitz, executive director of the Knoxville Jewish Alliance

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Gubitz is the executive director of the Knoxville Jewish Alliance, one of four groups presenting Knoxville’s fifth annual Menorah Madness, a Dec. 26 event open to the public to benefit the Interfaith Health Clinic. Admission is $6 and includes a falafel dinner, donuts and crafts, music, and activities. The group will light a menorah in celebration of Hanukkah beginning at 5:30 p.m.

So this event is open to the general public?

Yes, all are welcome, though there is an admission charge. We’ll have games and activities for the young, music, and then Mayor Rogero will be the first to light the menorah, along with students of the religious schools, pre-schools, and Jewish community.

What kind of fun and games?

There will be dreidel spinning, face painting—fun for young people of all ages.

Will there be food?

That’s why we love this. There will be potato pancakes, falafel—fried chickpea balls served in pita—pickles, all kinds of good food.

Is there a significance to serving the potato pancakes?

That’s correct, as well as the falafel—we have fried items to symbolize the miracle in the story of the eight days of oil, when the sacred oil continued to burn after the temple had been occupied by the Greco Assyrians, before the Jews reclaimed it. In Israel, they use jelly doughnuts—sufganiot. Anything fried—the potato pancakes are typically Eastern European. Frankly, the only thing edible there this time of year was the old potatoes in the cellar. In the more temperate climates, Mediterranean lands, they use fried noodles, and the falafels are traditional in Middle Eastern countries.

When did Knoxville start doing falafel with the potato pancakes?

I’ve been here five years, so we’ve been doing it at least that long. We’ll also serve sour cream and applesauce with the potato pancakes.

Any idea why they use applesauce?

It’s sweet, and again throws back to our Eastern European roots. Apples could be stored and cooked down [by] those fortunate to be able to store apples in barrels and still have them in winter.

It is winter this time of year in Eastern Europe?

Oh yes, it’s freezing in Eastern Europe. And it influenced our traditional foods. My grandfather was from Russia—Minsk—and it was nothing for him to sit at our table, smear chicken fat on a slice of rye bread, cut up a raw onion, and eat lunch.

Menorah Madness is a catchy name, but what does it mean?

We’re collecting change. We have a very, very large menorah made out of acrylic tubing. Last year we collected the change people put in there and ended up giving it to KUB’s light and warmth program. This year, we decided to help the Interfaith Clinic. They’ve been a beneficiary of our community for many years, and many of our members have been actively involved with them. The nice thing is, they help people irrespective of race, creed, religion, social standing, or gender.

Wait, what about the music?

We actually have Brian Salesky, the Knoxville Opera director, playing keyboard music. And the youth from our day school will sing some traditional songs, too.

For more information about the Dec. 26 event, from 5 p.m.-7 p.m. at the Arnstein Jewish Center, call AJCC at 690-6343, or check its website: jewishknoxville.org

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