SUNSET TUESDAY, DECEMBER 12: Set up the menorah, fry up the latkes and try your luck at a game of dreidel, because the first night of Hanukkah has arrived! Though not as religiously significant as some other Jewish holidays—Yom Kippur, Sukkot or Passover, just to name a few—Hanukkah is widely celebrated, and is easily recognized even by non-Jews.
Each evening during Hanukkah, Jewish families light candles on a menorah, in honor of the Maccabees’ victory over Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Greeks in the 2nd century BCE. As the traditional story is retold: Once the Second Temple had been reclaimed from the Greeks, purified and rededicated, there was only enough sacred oil found to burn for one day—but, miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. In celebration, Jews today partake in foods fried in oil, light candles, play traditional games and sing songs.
THE MENORAH, SHAMASH AND THE DREIDEL
Hanukkah is faithfully observed by most Jews with the lighting of candles in a nine-branched Menorah, with one candle for each of the eight nights and one extra candle (the shamash), which is often placed separately from the others. The shamash must be used for “practical” purposes, so that the remaining candles may be used solely for publicizing the miracle of the oil.
While a menorah lights up a window, a game of dreidel is often played. The four-sided spinning top that is the centerpiece of the game has a Hebrew letter imprinted on each of its sides. The letters are an acronym for “A great miracle happened there.” Candies, money or chocolate gelt (coins) are often wagered in a game of dreidel.
Meanwhile, the sound of spattering, hot oil fills the Jewish kitchen, as devotees cook latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyots (doughnuts) and other deep-fried foods. Some partake in dairy foods, too, in remembrance of Judith and her involvement in helping to defeat the enemy.
NOT CHRISTMAS: The 8-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah is not like Christmas, so far-flung Jewish relatives don’t rush home for these holidays as Christian families migrate for Christmas day. However, the whole point of lighting the Hanukkah candles, each night, is to remember connections stretching back thousands of years. Often, parents and their children enjoy the ritual together to establish this tradition for future generations.
HANUKKAH: AN AUTHOR’S PERSPECTIVE
In her inspiring book, This Jewish Life, Debra Darvick writes dozens of true stories about Jewish men and women experiencing the seasons in Judaism. In one section of her book, she explains the basics about Hanukkah’s commemoration:
“In 167 BC, Antiochus decreed the practice of Judaism to be an offense punishable by death. The Temple was desecrated, and the Syrians went so far as to sacrifice pigs in the Temple. A Jew named Mattathias and his five sons began a revolt not only against Antiochus, but against the Jews who were quite willing to take on the ways of the majority population and jettison Jewish practice. Three years later, the Maccabees, as the Jewish fighters were known, and their followers, were victorious and the Temple was once again in Jewish hands.”
She further explains:
“According to Jewish tradition, when the Temple was finally cleansed for re-dedication, there was but a single day’s supply of ritually pure oil for the ner tamid, the everlasting light that hangs in every synagogue as a symbol of God’s ever-presence. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, the time needed to press and ritually purify additional oil for the ner tamid.”
FRONT-PORCH LATKES: THE STORY OF A NEW TRADITION: Every week, Bobbie Lewis brings readers a new story about the way food connects with faith and family traditions in her popular column FeedTheSpirit. For Hanukkah (or “Chanukah,” as Bobbie spells it), she invited writer Sheri Schiff to share her delightful story about latkes. You’ll love this story: One year, Sheri dreamed up a solution to making latkes without leaving a heavy aroma in her home—and her clever idea wound up feeding friends and neighbors! Now, her front-porch latkes are a beloved neighborhood tradition. And, yes, Sheri shares a yummy latke recipe with readers.