Hanukkah, an ancient story, still applies today

Each night of Hanukkah begins with lighting of menorahs. From left: Max Marcus, Jack Crawford, Ali Marcus, Molly Crawford, and Sydney Marcus. — Photo by Sally Cohn

The story of Hanukkah tells the tale of the first documented armed struggle for religious freedom in human history. It begins in the second century B.C.E. when Judea was conquered by the Greco-Persian tyrant Antiochus. Although many urban Jews embraced Hellenistic culture with its emphasis on science, poetry, and athleticism, to rural religious Jews Greek culture smacked of pantheism and idolatry, with its marble statues of gods and deification of the human form. To force them to assimilate, Antiochus outlawed essential Jewish practices. Jews were forbidden to keep their dietary laws, study Torah, or observe the Sabbath. The Temple in Jerusalem was desecrated and the Jews driven out.

A family named Maccabee took refuge in the mountains from where they fought a guerilla war in the face of staggering military odds. The Maccabees became folk heroes, and after three grueling years, recaptured the Temple, and the country. The legend goes that when they reentered the Temple to rekindle the sacred Eternal Light, they found only enough oil for one day. A messenger was sent on the long journey for more holy oil. Miraculously, one tiny cruse of oil burned eight days until he returned. The Hebrew word Hanukkah means “dedication” and refers to the reconsecration of the Temple.

Long considered a “minor” festival, Hanukkah has been celebrated for more than two thousand years. In contemporary times, after the Holocaust decimated the European Jewish population, many Jews found inspiration in the story of the Maccabees. Hanukkah took on even greater emotional significance when the state of Israel was established. In the Diaspora, where Jews live increasingly assimilated lives, the proximity of Hanukkah to Christmas also served to increase the holiday’s prominence. Both observances involve festive lights and gift-giving, but the similarity ends there. This year, due to differences between the solar-based Georgian calendar and the lunar-based Hebrew calendar, Hanukkah will coincide with turkey and football, not Santa Claus and eggnog. Hanukkah actually has far more in common with Thanksgiving, as both commemorate struggles for religious freedom.

The lighting of the candles

Each night of Hanukkah begins with lighting of menorahs, also called chanukiahs. These special candelabras have eight branches, one for each day, and a ninth branch for the shamash, a “servant” candle for lighting the others. Hanukkah candles may not be used for mundane purposes. They are not to be used to light a room, read a book, or accompany dinner. Their sole purpose is to enjoy their beauty and reflect on the miracles of God. Except in times of severest persecution, Hanukkah menorahs are customarily displayed in a window.

After candle-lighting, Jews traditionally eat foods fried in oil, in remembrance of the miracle of the long-burning oil in the Temple. Potato pancakes, called latkes, served with applesauce and sour cream, exemplify the Ashkenazi tradition from Eastern Europe, but there are many other Hanukkah foods. Ljuba Davis of Vineyard Haven keeps alive her family’s Sephardic heritage that reaches back to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the 15th century. She makes burmuelos, deep-fried dough drenched in warm honey, and keftes, fried patties made from leeks, onions, eggs, and pine nuts.

West Tisbury resident Geraldine Brooks and her family plan to serve latkes at Thanksgiving dinner. They have a family custom of betting whose candle in the menorah will last the longest. Asked about Hanukkah customs in her native Australia, she says “like all holidays [there], it’s topsy-turvy. It’s early summer, and there’s no snow for the light to flicker on, but we do all the same things.”

Nicole Cabot of West Tisbury agrees. Like many Islanders, her family also observes with latkes, dreidels, and small gifts. Although some parents feel compelled to match the effusive gift-giving associated with the commercialized aspects of Christmas, traditionally Hanukkah presents are small. They might include gelt, or coins, for playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a four-sided top inscribed with four Hebrew letters: nun, gimel, hey, and shin that stand for the Hebrew phrase “A great miracle happened there.” In Israel, dreidels have one letter changed so the phrase becomes “A great miracle happened here.”

On the other side of the world, Dominique Ariel Hendelman, formerly of Edgartown, is observing both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in Israel. “We are doing a potluck meal that is going to merge the two holidays together,” Dominique reports from Talpiot in eastern Jerusalem, where she is studying Hebrew. “We’ll have a turkey obviously and one of the girls even had cranberries sent from The States because they’re very hard to find here in Israel.” Jelly donuts, called sufganyot, are a traditional Israeli Hanukkah treat. Dominique has a recipe for sweet potato sufganyot to really blend the two celebrations. A freelance writer for the Jerusalem Post, Dominique touches on some deeper political concerns. “We’ll play dreidel and eat stuffing, and try to reconcile the fact that Thanksgiving is not such a nice holiday to celebrate in the first place. Hopefully there will not be any small pox blankets. To me, Thanksgiving is really about over-eating good food and being with family and friends. Hanukkah has a lot of those same elements.”

An act of justice

Acknowledging that humanity still faces many challenges, Judaism teaches that people have a responsibility to participate in tikkun olam — which means “healing the world.” Thus, giving tzedakah is an important part of all Jewish observances including Hanukkah. Loosely translated as “charity,” the word actually is derived from a root meaning righteousness, justice, or fairness. In Judaism, giving charity is not seen as being magnanimous. It is simply an act of justice. Rabbi Caryn Broitman’s family has a tradition of each person choosing a charity to which to donate during Hanukkah and many families encourage their children to place donations in a Tzedakah Box at home or at synagogue. A community Hanukkah celebration is planned at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center on Wednesday, December 4, at 5 pm. Congregants are asked to bring their menorahs from home. In past years there have been more than 30 menorahs, all lit together. Since this year’s party falls on the eighth night, that could mean 270 candles. All are invited to come and enjoy their light, and reflect on miracles.