Chanukah, The Festival of Lights
In a world of Christmas trees and decorative lights, carolers and Santa Claus, stocking stuffers and "T'was-the-night-before" tales, the Jewish celebration of Chanukah in December might seem to some just a conveniently timed occasion to borrow trappings from the Christian holiday.
After all, it is not uncommon for Jewish children to be asked how they manage without participating in Christmas: What? No Santa? No stockings? No tree?
Although the story of Chanukah is not taken from the scriptures and is not even one of the major Jewish celebrations, the holiday has all the drama, action, and suspense anyone could want - complete with good guys and bad guys and, most importantly, a miracle.
Known as "The Festival of Lights," the holiday is observed between the end of November and the end of December (the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev). This year, Chanukah begins tomorrow, Friday, Dec. 11. It is celebrated for eight days, includes traditional foods and gifts, although the gifts are in fact just a response to Christmas presents and usually only apply to children.
It is a good story. Chanukah began more than 2,300 years ago in Judea, now Israel. After Alexander the Great conquered Syria, Egypt, and Palestine, Jews were allowed to observe their religion's traditions and become assimilated into the Hellenistic culture, language, customs and the dress of the Greeks. Things went well for about a century.
But then came the oppressive King Antiochus IV, who wanted Jews to reject their religion, customs, and beliefs. Under Antiochus's rule, the Temple in Jerusalem was desecrated, Jews massacred, and Jewish observance forbidden. Jews were forced to worship the Greek gods.
Ah, but King Antiochus was not prepared for the small dedicated band led by Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his son Judah Maccabee, who with his four brothers, staged a revolt. They formed an army, the Maccabees, and in 165 BC, after three years of fighting, drove the forces of Antiochus out of Israel. Then began the process of reclaiming the Temple in Jerusalem, removing Greek symbols and statues and cleaning out all that had defiled it.
When all was ready, it was discovered that the Eternal Light, the lamp that in every synagogue is constantly kept lit over the ark that holds the holy Torahs (scriptures), only had enough oil to burn for one day.
And that's when the miracle occurred. The lamp, with just enough oil to last a single day, burned for eight days - the time needed to obtain a new supply of oil. An eight-day festival was declared to commemorate the miracle of the Eternal Light.
On the 25th day of the Kislev, the reclamation was finished, and the temple was rededicated. (Chanukah means "rededication.")
The religious observance of the holiday is the lighting of candles in a menorah (candelabra), one candle added to the others one day at a time, for eight days. The menorah holds nine candles, the highest one, the "shamus," is used to light the others. And each night as one candle is added to the others, a blessing is offered as a prayer thanking God for performing the miracle and for allowing the Jewish people to celebrate together.
How to make latkes (potato pancakes)
Latkes (lat-keys) are a traditional part of the Chanukah celebration. They are easy to make and delicious, and other ingredients can be incorporated to taste.
5 large potatoes, peeled and grated
1 medium onion grated
2 eggs well beaten
2 heaping tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
pinch of pepper
pinch of cinnamon
vegetable oil for frying
Strain liquid out of potatoes, place in cold water. Drain well. Mix the grated potatoes and onions with eggs, flour, and seasonings. Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Add the batter to the oil in large spoonfuls. Flatten with spatula. Fry until golden brown. Serve immediately with apple sauce and sour cream or keep warm (and crispy) in a 250-degree oven.