This year, the Jewish holiday of Chanukah starts on the evening of December 6. And yes, I’m talking about the holiday you might have seen spelled like “Hanukkah” or some other way entirely. It’s a Hebrew word (meaning “dedication”), and not one that’s easily written in English. The first letter of חֲנֻכָּה – the letter on the far right – has a sound that’s kind of like saying H when your throat’s full of phlegm. Say it with me: Chhhhanukah!
Chanukah’s a bit of an oddball holiday. Unlike other Jewish holidays, it doesn’t have biblical origins. At no point in the Torah does God tell us to celebrate Chanukah, like God does for other holidays. Sometimes I joke that we just looked around, noticed that everyone else seemed to be getting presents this time of year, and decided to join the fun. But to be honest, I really like Chanukah. It has a nice story and fun traditions, and who doesn’t like the sound of an eight day long holiday?
The story of Chanukah is the story of the Maccabees. Long ago, there was a temple in Jerusalem, where Jewish priests practiced their religious rituals. But a Greek army, led by Antiochus IV, invaded Jerusalem. Antiochus banned the practice of Judaism and had his army loot Jerusalem and desecrate the temple. Mattathias Maccabee, a Jewish priest, and his sons led a rebellion against Antiochus, and after several years finally drove out their oppressors, despite the might of the Greek army -- a miracle indeed. The Maccabees set about cleaning the temple and rededicating it to God, which involved lighting a certain lamp that was never supposed to be allowed to go out. There was only enough oil for the lamp to burn for one day, and it would take a week to make more. But another miracle occurred, and the oil burned for eight days!
Now that I’m finally out of the university dorms and no longer forbidden to use fire indoors, I’ll be able to light my own lamp this Chanukah, called a menorah. A menorah is a candleholder with nine branches: one for each night, and one for the shamash, the “helper” candle. Every night of Chanukah, we add another candle, sing a special prayer, and use the shamash to light the other candles. To further celebrate the miracle of the oil, we make foods fried in oil, primarily a kind of potato pancake called a latke and jelly donuts called sufganiyot. Sweet potato latkes are my favorite; they go great with applesauce!
I also brought another Chanukah tradition with me this year: a couple dreidels! Dreidels are little tops with letters on them, used to play a fun little game. To play, you spin the dreidel, and depending on what letter is facing upwards when the dreidel falls down, you get to take some gelt -- chocolate coins -- as a prize. The letters stand for a phrase that translates to “a great miracle happened there”, but more importantly to the game, they stand for how much gelt you’ll get: the whole pot (ג), half of the pot (ה), none of the pot (נ), or -- tragically -- you have to give one of your gelt back to the pot (ש)! It doesn’t take much skill or thought, sure, but it’s almost finals week. I’m not about to complain about an excuse to spend some time just having fun and not thinking too hard!
!חַג שָׂמֵח (Happy Holidays!)