Actor Bill Murray, who starred in the 1993 movie "Groundhog Day." (AP Photo/Dana Tynan) AP Photo/Dana Tynan
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World famous groundhog Punxsutawney Phil was mentored by a stalwart of the local Jewish community.

By Yakir Benzion, United With Israel

The world’s most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, emerged from his winter hibernation Tuesday on Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and predicted another six weeks of winter.

But few people are aware that the annual ceremony every Feb. 2 was not that big a deal until a local Jewish coal mine operator added pizzazz to the festivities, The Forward reported.

According to the website jewishfamilieshistory.org, Punxsutawney was incorporated in 1849 and the first synagogue was founded in 1889. In the mid-20th century, the Light family was well known in town with the patriarch Abraham Light, who owned several coal companies and was director of the Punxsutawney National Bank. Light’s son Sam was also in the coal business but made his name as president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club from 1952 to 1976.

Soon after becoming president, Sam Light decided he would give the day some added flair by wearing a top hat and tails for the Groundhog’s Day event when Punxsutawney Phil is pulled from a tree stump shortly before 7:30 a.m. to determine if he could see his shadow. No shadow means an early spring, but if he sees his shadow, he heads back into his burrow to wait out six more weeks of winter.

“In those days, celebrities and other important people would arrive in New York aboard ocean liners, and there to greet the ships was Grover Whalen [chairman of the Mayor’s Committee on Receptions to Distinguished Guests],” said Light’s widow, Elaine. “He wore a tall hat and tails. Sam adopted that costume to greet the groundhog because he said he, too, was a very important person.”

Sam Light’s dress code caught on and soon the entire 15-member Inner Circle of the Groundhog Club wore snazzy tuxedos.

Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney began in 1886 and was carried only on radio until the advent of television when local Pittsburgh stations broadcast the festivities.

However, Groundhog Day really took off when Elaine, now 98, appeared on the “Today Show” for Groundhog Day in 1960, where she also spoke about her cookbook, “Cooking with the Groundhog.”

Sam’s daughter, Meredith, who lives near her mother in Washington, D.C., said her father also composed the famous greeting used every year: “Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Hear Ye! On this Groundhog Day, February 2nd, Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, King of the Groundhogs, Prognosticator of Prognosticators has responded to the tapping welcome of Groundhog Club President ….”

Who knows, without the fame created by Sam Light whereby Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney was shown on national television every year, the highly popular 1993 movie “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray may never have been made. The film, however, boosted the town’s fame even more with as many as 40,000 tourists coming Groundhog Day.

Sam passed on in 1983 and his trademark top hat is now in the town’s historical museum.

Over the years, the town’s Jewish population has shrunk with just a few Jews among Punxsutawney’s residents.

“The Jewish community was powerful and important to this town,” said Jeffrey Lundy, current president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.

The town’s synagogue closed in the early 1980s and its two Torah scrolls were sold to a synagogue in New York, The Forward noted. A synagogue in Pittsburgh took the prayer books. Some of the synagogue’s items – including its ark, one of its stained glass windows and candlesticks – are now on display in the Punxsutawney historical society.

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