In the suburbs / A beacon of optimism and hope
Published 3:48 pm, Thursday, December 2, 2010
With no desire to be labeled the Grinch who tried not to make Hanukkah the Jewish Christmas, I wanted to set the record straight on what this festive holiday is ... and isn't for us. Despite knowing the story of Hanukkah since my childhood, I consulted Google for a concise explanation of the holiday and wanted to share that before talking about quirky tidbits surrounding Hanukkah, which officially began at sundown on Dec. 1.
"Hanukkah is the Jewish Feast of Lights or Feast of Dedication. The Hebrew word Hanukkah means dedication. The holiday begins on the eve of the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev" and lasts eight days. Hanukkah usually falls in the month of December, but occasionally can start in November." The actual reason for the movement in dates for the holiday has to do with the Jewish calendar being a 13-month calendar.
The story of Hanukkah is really all about a heroic family, the Maccabees and about a miracle. According to what I read, the books of the Maccabees tell the story of Hanukkah, which occurred in 165 B.C. After three years of struggle, in which the Maccabees operated like a well-oiled guerilla machine to weaken the forces of the Syrian tyrant, Antiochus, they regained control in Jerusalem and set about to cleanse the second temple of Jerusalem of Syrian idols.
"After removing all Syrian idols from the Temple, the Jews found only one small cruse of oil to light their holy lamps." The Maccabees dispatched one of their soldiers to bring back more oil, fearing that the oil would only burn a short time. "Miraculously, the cruse provided oil for eight days. Judas Maccabaeus, the Jewish leader, proclaimed a festival to be observed by Jews.
We light one new candle each night in the traditional menorah for eight nights to commemorate the miracle of the oil. We kindle each candle with the ninth candle, the shamos, which we affectionately refer to as the "head light." Menorahs range from the very simple to the very ornate and have often served as a beacon during some of the most trying times for Jews. Stories abound, for instance, about Jews in ghettos or in homes during the Holocaust who kept hope alive during Hanukkah. In their own way, they hoped for their own miracle and held on to their dreams in the flickering lights.
My wife and I have collected menorahs for years now, seeking the most unusual ones we can find. We probably have 15 or 16 of them. Among our favorites are a "womenora,' which has the faces of nine women; a blown glass menorah in incredible colors; a miniature one that our children brought back from Europe; and a very unusual and tall wooden one.
This last one, which we bought at the Wave, an amazing boutique up in New Canaan (there is also a store in New Haven) stands above all the others and just above the pedestal are carved words like Live Life, Eat, Drink, Dance and Play. We treasure it and surely plan to pass it on to our children and perhaps grandchildren.
There is no tree or Hanukkah bush. That is a tradition reserved for Christmas. But a lot of blended families decide on a tree anyway and that's fine. It's just not Hanukkah.
There are some wonderful delicacies and a lot of dairy foods that are part of the Hanukkah tradition, but the two signature foods, because they are cooked in oil, are jelly-filled doughnuts -- sufganiyot -- and fried or grilled potato pancakes, called latkes, which are made with traditional potatoes and yams. Both are wonderful treats.
The tradition of gift giving, from what I was told by a religious school principal friend of mine, evolved in the Middle Ages when Jews celebrating Hanukkah wanted to add to the festivities with presents. The most popular gift is gelt (money). I'll never forget when I was growing up and my maternal grandfather gave each of my brothers and me two shiny silver dollars. I treasured those each year.
And in my family, we never gave one gift a day. Frankly we couldn't afford much more than a small check to brighten up the holiday for younger members of our family.
We certainly have no intention of buying I-Pads for our daughters, but my wife did treat herself to a Cruze reading pad from Borders the other night. That was her Hanukkah gift to herself.
The most fun at Hanukkah is to put together a traditional party, complete with a ton of good food, wonderful holiday songs and lots of dreidels, which resemble a boxy-looking top with a pointed bottom. Four Hebrew letters are printed on each side of the dreidel and in Hebrew they read, Ness Gadol Haya Sham -- A Great Miracle Happened There. Children love to play dreidel games where one spins the dreidel and depending on which of the four letters faces up, wins or loses.
Our daughters never felt deprived because we didn't consider Hanukkah the Jewish Christmas. Living in various cities and towns around the country, the girls always were invited to friends' houses, which were filled with decorated trees, Christmas cookies and wrapped gifts. And we always end up buying plenty of Christmas gifts for friends to support the local economy.
But we celebrate and love Hanukkah because of its history, symbols and meaning. In these difficult times for so many, this holiday reminds all of us how important rededication and courage is on so many levels. And, as always, the light from the menorah remains a beacon of hope and optimism.
Steve Gaynes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org