The most prominent piece of furniture in Sarah Refson's great room isn't a sprawling sofa or a widescreen TV, because there are none. The focal point is a dining table, and it makes a spiritual statement about her family and their beliefs.
Every Friday night, additional tables are set up in the mostly empty room to accommodate as many as 40 people who come to share in the observance of Shabbat, or Sabbath, that centers around a festive dinner.
The sharing of meals also is an important part of religious holidays such as Hanukkah. The eight-day Jewish celebration commemorates the burning of oil and reclamation of the Temple in ancient Jerusalem. The celebration began Tuesday and ends at sunset Dec. 28.
"Jewish tradition very much revolves around food," says Refson of Mount Pleasant. "Walk into a Jewish home and smell the holiday."
Most Jewish holidays center on the home versus the synagogue, she says. "Almost as if to say the home is a sanctuary. The kitchen would be the holiest of holiest" spaces, and the family gathering at the table for a meal is a deeply meaningful time.
Like other Jewish families, she and her husband, Yossi, a rabbi, and their two children, Mendel and Blu, come together for lighting the menorah and eating traditional foods during Hanukkah. They also tell stories or play games such as dreidel with its four-sided spinning top.
The preparation of Hanukkah foods is inspired by the miracle of the oil -- a one-day supply burned eight days -- at the Temple of Jerusalem in 165 B.C. That means a number of fried specialties, including latkes (potato pancakes) and doughnuts filled with jelly or custard.
Refson makes those as well as sugar cookies in symbolic shapes such as dreidels. Her family also enjoys a standing, edible menorah constructed with chocolate wafers, Cheerios, marshmallow fluff as "glue" and jelly beans representing the candle flame.
She says it's important for the children to have a role in the process, such as decorating the doughnuts and choosing the fillings, so they can connect to the story behind the foods.
"I feel the kids have to have their imprints. I like it to be their own."
Refson, 32, comes naturally to her love of cooking. She grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a family of 10 children -- seven girls and three boys. She and her sisters would prepare dishes for Shabbat or other holiday dinners to give their mother a "vacation" but also because they liked honing their cooking skills.
They continue to trade recipes today and quiz each other, "What are you making?" for various meals.
Refson's children are taking an interest in Jewish food traditions as well. Mendel, 8, wonders what things they will be making for Hanukkah this year and helps with the shopping list. Even 2-year-old Blu knows when she sees flour on the kitchen counter that it's time for baking challah, a braided bread.
The Refsons came to Charleston four years ago to establish a Chabad center. Chabad-Lubavitch is an outreach movement in Orthodox Judaism known for its hospitality and emphasis on religious study.
While the food aspect of Hanukkah is meaningful, she says it's only one part of the overall religious experience. For example, lighting an additional candle on the menorah each night "teaches us that we need to be going up the ladder in spirit."
As for holiday presents, she says it's important to stay focused not on the gifts but "bringing more light to the world, and acts of goodness and kindness."
Makes 12-18 pancakes about 3 inches in diameter
Sarah Refson makes latkes, or potato pancakes, with a twist for Hanukkah. She uses sweet potatoes instead of white, and seasons them with curry, Cajun spice and cilantro.
3 pounds sweet potatoes (about 3 large potatoes)
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning
Dash of curry powder
Peanut oil for frying
Peel potatoes and shred with the coarse grater in a food processor.
Whisk eggs. Mix eggs and seasonings with potatoes. Make loosely formed patties about 3 inches in diameter. Fry on both sides in hot peanut oil until golden brown. Serve with a dollop of sour cream.