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Cliff Owen, Associated Press
Vice President Joe Biden talks to Basya Fogelman, 9, of Wilkes Barre, Pa, right, and Simmy Hershkop, 11, of Wooster, Ma., left, after they read their winning essays on what Hanukkah means to them as they participate in the annual National Menorah Lighting during a ceremony marking the start of the celebration of Hanukkah, on the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014.

WASHINGTON — The smell of latkes — fresh potato pancakes — wafted over the National Mall on Tuesday as Vice President Joe Biden marked the first night of Hanukkah.

On the Ellipse outside the White House, Biden passed a torch to a rabbi who was then lifted high into the air as he lit the national menorah, as a trio of cantors sang traditional Hanukkah songs. Biden told the crowd gathered that Hanukkah is about the miracle of courageous warriors overcoming great odds to protect their people's culture and dignity.

"Jewish heritage is American heritage," Biden said.

President Barack Obama, in a statement, said the holiday "brims with possibility and hope," reminding people that even the most daunting challenges can be overcome.

"May this Hanukkah embolden us to do what is right, shine a light on the miracles we enjoy, and kindle in all of us the desire to share those miracles with others," Obama said.

Jews mark each of the eight days of Hanukkah by lighting candles on a menorah, or candleholder. The national menorah has been lit in front of the White House every year since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter attended the first lighting.

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, commemorates the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees after their victory over the Syrians. The holiday starts Tuesday evening.