Winter has arrived in Winnipeg, and with it, a season of festivals. While parades, decorations, and mall wonderlands herald the coming of Christmas, it is easy to overlook Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights.
Chanukah is now upon us. This year, the holiday falls particularly early – from sunset, Wednesday, November 27 to nightfall, December 5.
In the United States, this is inspiring some Jews to celebrate “Thanksgivukkah“, an extremely infrequent intersect of holidays. The next time one of the eight days of Chanukah falls on American Thanksgiving will be 2070, and it won’t be for another 70,000 years when the first full day of Chanukah coincides with Thanksgiving (as it does this year).
So what’s Chanukah all about?
Chanukah, which starts on the eve of the 25th day of the Hebrew (lunar) month of Kislev, commemorates a great miracle that happened in the Second Temple in Jerusalem around 165 BCE.
In 332 BCE, the Jewish kingdom of Judea was conquered by Alexander the Great. Alexander’s reign encouraged many subjects to adopt Greek (Hellenistic) language and customs. But Jews were still allowed to practice their own religion.
Then in 175 BCE, King Antiochus IV, a successor to Alexander, had ideas of his own: Jews should give up their religion and become Greek. So he put a Hellenistic Priest in the Temple, massacred Jews, banned Jewish traditions and rites, erected an altar to Zeus, and desecrated the place by allowing pigs to be sacrificed.
The Jews mounted a revolt, led by a priest and his five sons. The most famous of the sons was Judah, who became known as Yehuda HaMakabi (“Judah the Hammer”). Against overwhelming odds, the small, untrained, ill-equipped army, known collectively as “the Maccabees“, was able to fight off the Hellenistic invaders.
When the Maccabees recaptured the temple in 165 BCE, they discovered that the holy oil had been contaminated. There was only one small unopened vessel — enough oil to light the ritual lamp for one day.
Then a great miracle happened.
This small amount of olive oil, which should only have lasted one day, kept the light burning for eight days – long enough for a new supply to be pressed.
Chanukah is all about this miracle of light. That’s why Jews light a branched lamp known as a menorah or chanukkiah. That’s also why we are encouraged to place the menorah/chanukiah in a window, for all to publicly commemorate the miracle.
There are spots for eight candles on a menorah/chanukiah, plus a ninth candle called the “shammash” or “attendant”. Each night one additional candle is lit, using the shammash, and prayers are sung.
Chanukah is also all about the oil. This is a dream for the palate, as greasy, fried foods are on the A-list.
Latkes, or potato pancakes, are the stars of the season. Everyone has their own recipe, but if one is strapped for time, there’s always the mix from the grocery store. Add a little shredded potato, and you’re good to go.
Kids and adults alike play a game with a spinning top, called a dreidel. Some say this is because in Antiochus IV’s time when studying Torah (scripture) was outlawed, Jews would cover up their true activities by pulling out spinning tops. Gambling was acceptable under Hellenistic law.The dreidel has four sides on it, each bearing a Hebrew letter. The letters – “nun”, “gimmel”, “hey”, and “shin” – stand for the Hebrew phrase “Ness Gadol Hayah Sham”, which means “A great miracle happened there.”
Everyone starts with a bit of money, a.k.a. gelt – pennies, chocolate money, M&Ms, or whatever is convenient – and takes turns spinning the dreidel. Will you lose all your money or come out ahead? Your fate hangs on which letter comes up.
Winnipeggers on Chanukah
“Chanukah is about the Divine light from the very beginning of Creation shining into our world. As usual I will be celebrating with my family, lighting our large collection of menorahs each night (we have 24, two of them burning oil and the rest candles.)”
– Justin Jaron Lewis
“Chanukah celebrates fighting for the right to be Jewish and the right to put G-d in the center of our lives. I’m planning to light menorahs with my family every night, to make sufganiyot, which are Israeli jelly donuts, and on attending several Chanukah parties, including one [the night of Nov. 27] at our shul [synagogue], at the Herzlia. My favourite part of Chanukah is lighting the menorah with my husband and kids.”
– Tikvah Ellis
“I like to give kids the idea of the inner light, the hidden light, that you can see better when it’s dark. They love to tell stories and sing the songs, and their enthusiasm is my inspiration.”
– Willow Aster
“For me Chanukah is about shining our particular lights strong at a dark time, resisting conformity and celebrating uniqueness and diversity. This year I plan to try new latke recipes out with new root veggies, like turnips or rutabagas, in addition to potatoes and yams, and I hope to steadily write the rest of my 100 page thesis, one night of light at a time. Oh, and mobilizing against Quebec’s charter of bigotry and assyrian conformity.”
– Alon Weinberg
“As a secular humanist Jew, Chanukah, as with all the holidays, serves as a time to reflect on the story, and how I can take the message/moral and incorporate it into my life. How I can use it to help guide me in my actions as a father/partner/citizen. I will celebrate it twice, first with my siblings. That gathering will include the traditional fried offers of latkes and sufganiyot, and playing dreidel. The second will be with the Sholem Aleichem Community, and will include the above plus some discussion about the meaning and purpose of the holiday and how it can influence us, as a community of secular humanist Jews.”
– Harold Shuster
“A few of the many things I like about (minimally) celebrating Chanukah (in addition to Christmas, by the way) are family bonds & gatherings & the traditional food – I look forward to latkes as much as I look forward to egg nog.”
– Jeri Stern, who celebrates both Christmas and Chanukah