Oftentimes, with the unwavering spirit and bright lights of the Christmas holiday, the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah is overshadowed. Hanukkah is usually referred to as “the Jewish Christmas,” but this is not necessarily true. Followers of Judaism still celebrate the holiday, but there are more important holidays within the religion other than Hanukkah such as Yom Kippur.
Hanukkah is the Jewish festival of rededication, which is also known as the festival of lights. It is an eight-day celebration beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. This is the ninth month of the Jewish calendar, which is around November or December. Hanukkah is the most well-known holiday in the Jewish religion to non-Jewish people, but its significance is not as great as that of other Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or Sukkot.
The holiday of Hanukkah is not even mentioned in Jewish scripture; instead, it is in the book of Maccabees, which is not accepted as Jewish scripture. Around the time of the spread of Hellenism in the Middle East and Europe, Jewish people were being massacred by Europeans who wanted to assimilate all of the Jews into the dominant culture. Non-Kosher animals (pigs) were being slaughtered within the Jewish temples and eventually groups were formed to revolt against the Greeks. The rebel groups succeeded and managed to rededicate the temple that was seized from them. Overall, the holiday is meant to preserve the religion and the culture of the Jewish people to be passed on to the next generation.
Typical customs of Hanukkah include eating foods fried in oil, such as latkes, or potato pancakes, and sufganiot, which are doughnuts. Playing with the dreidel is also a Hanukkah custom. A dreidel is a small, four-sided spinning top with a Hebrew letter on each side and is often used with gambling. Dreidels date back to the Greek and Syrian rule over Israel when it was outlawed to study the Torah. Students would hide in caves and if someone were to pass by, they would pretend to be playing with the dreidel. The menorah is an important part of the holiday as well. It is a candelabrum with eight branches, and each branch is lighted over the course of eight days. With the lighting of each candle, three blessings are recited thanking God for performing miracles and allowing the Jewish people to reach this year’s Hanukkah. The candles must be lit after dark, but not after midnight. Candles are always lit from the left to the right because you pay honor to the newer things first. On the eighth night, all the candles are lit at once. The original menorah has seven branches and rabbis forbade the use of replicas of the original. People call the eight-branch menorah “Hanukiyah.”
Giving and receiving gifts on Hanukkah was not a part of the religion until around the 1920s. Now children receive money and gifts, which is the reason many people compare Hanukkah to the Christian celebration of Christmas. North American Jews view the holiday as a way to display their culture and religion in a place that is dominantly Christian, which is significant to the people who emigrate from a different country to America.
Within our western celebrity culture, there are numerous Jewish stars such as Drake, Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, and Jerry Seinfeld. All of them celebrate Hanukkah during the season and many of them make their religious beliefs apparent through activism, comedy, or interviews. Comedian Adam Sandler even went so far as to write his own “Hanukkah Song,” which he premiered in the Saturday Night Live skit “Weekend Update.” The song has had three different edits within the past 22 years. In order to stay current with more recent Jewish celebrities, he name drops them within the song. For example, “Joseph Gordon-Levitt enjoys eating kugel, so does Stan Lee, Jake Gyllenhaal, and the two guys who founded Google.” The importance of displaying one’s culture through media outlets rings true when Jewish children feel like they have a place in a culture dominated by Christmas trees, stockings, and lavish gifts. It lets children know there are others out there like them, even if there are not many Jewish people living around them.
With the strong spirit of Christmas in the air, it is always important to recognize the diversity within our communities and cherish everyone around us since that is what the holiday spirit is all about.
By Hunter Green, student reporter
Thomas County Central High School
*Most background information taken from the website www.jewfaq.org.