Hanukkah in Western MA
One way we celebrate is by displaying all our menorahs, from the fancy one we received as a wedding gift to the ones made by our children in preschool and kindergarten, and lighting at least two each night. (Photo credit: Amy Meltzer)
If you aren’t Jewish, Hanukkah may be the only Jewish holiday you’ve ever heard of. But in fact, it’s a relatively minor holiday. It falls into the surprisingly large category of Jewish holidays which can be neatly summarized as follows: someone tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.
In this case, the “someone” refers to Antiochus, a ruler in ancient Israel who prohibited the practice of Judaism. A small and unlikely group of Jewish rebels, known as the Maccabees, stood up to the tyrant and ultimately defeated Antiochus in battle. When they retook possession of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life at the time, they discovered that it had been defiled with idols and pigs. According to tradition, when the Maccabees sought to rededicate the Temple (the word Hanukkah means dedication) they could only find one day’s worth of pure oil to light the menorah, the everlasting light in the Temple. Miraculously, that oil burnt for eight days, long enough for new oil to be prepared. (Looking for a good picture book version of the story? Try David Adler’s new book The Story of Hanukkah.)
Most Hanukkah traditions are connected in some way to the story of the miracle of the oil. In the United States we eat latkes, or potato pancakes fried in oil; in Israel, families make sufagniyot, or jelly doughnuts, also fried in oil. The menorah, or chanukiyyah, is lit each night for eight consecutive nights with candles or, more traditionally, olive oil. And the presents? Well, they don’t really have much to do with the story of Hanukkah. In fact, exchanging presents is a relatively recent phenomenon, most likely popularized because of the holiday’s proximity to another, slightly more well known, solstice-time celebration. One that typically features lots of presents.
Our family’s observance of Hanukkah is fairly modest. Don’t get me wrong – we’re really into holidays, but we make a much bigger fuss over Sukkot and Passover, which are traditionally more significant holidays. We celebrate by displaying all our menorahs, from the fancy one we received as a wedding gift to the ones made by our children in preschool and kindergarten, and lighting at least two each night (the girls choose which ones). We make these potato latkes (usually only once – way too messy and well, too oily) and play dreidel with M&M’s. We also borrow and bend some traditions from our non-Jewish neighbors, decorating our house with blue lights and homemade decorations and decorating star-shaped cookies (Jewish stars, that is). The kids receive one present each night, with a few annual traditions – one night of puzzles and/or games that we can do as a family, and one night of art supplies to share. The other nights’ gifts are small items like books and socks.
Some Jewish families feel a little threatened by the enormous appeal of Christmas, and find the need to sell Hanukkah to their children as being as-good-as-or-even-better-than Christmas. I understand the sentiment, but I’m not in favor of the “we get eight days and they only get one!” refrain. From my perspective, Hanukkah can’t possibly compete with Christmas, for the simple reason that Christmas is a major Christian holiday (what could be bigger than the birth of Jesus?) and Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday. Rather than trying to turn our holiday into something that it isn’t, we take time to enjoy the beauty of our friends, community’s and extended family’s Christmas festivities. We ooh and ahh over the holiday lights, watch the Christmas specials, and attend the Nutcracker. And with a non-Jewish set of grandparents, the girls even get a chance to do something I always wanted to do as a child – help decorate a Christmas tree. Of course, we also invite others to join in our Hanukkah celebrations. After all, what could be better for all of us than more opportunities to add light to our dark winter days? (The answer: more opportunities to add light AND a chance to learn about other cultures.)
There are a lot of wonderful pre-Hanukkah and Hanukkah events this month, including puppet shows, menorah lightings and festive meals. I’m especially looking forward to the conversation about Christmas and Hanukkah with award winning author Anita Diamant (see the December 4 listing below.) This month I’d also like to personally invite you to a party to celebrate the release of my new-(ish) picture book, The Shabbat Princess. Scroll down to December 10th for more details.
UPCOMING HANUKKAH EVENTS IN WESTERN MA (Dec 2nd-23rd, 2011): Read the rest of this entry »