12/9/12

My 10 Favorite Things about Hanukkah? . . .

I got a great e-mail from an Twitter friend yesterday saying that they have always "known" about Hanukkah but do not know what, exactly, it is - particularly in the context of Christmas and/or other Jewish holidays/tradition. They said a quick Google had a million theories and ideas and reasons - many of which conflicted with the others.

I'm no Jewish scholar (I know, I know - take a minute - let it sink in. Truth is pain. Pain is love.) but I've been obsessed with Hanukkah since 1994 and here's a few things I've learned that I BELIEVE are actual FACTS that might make the Festival of Lights a little brighter for you:

1) The finding of one jar of ceremonial oil in tact after the desecration of the temple and the bravery of re-dedicating the temple and the LIGHTING of the oil is the miracle of and reason for Hanukkah. It is as simple as that. All the other stories and lore is just flavor and coloring on top of the basics. Sort of like Christmas is about the birth of Christ. Boil it back, right?

2) Dreidel is a lot of fun. It is simple to learn and you can play for hours and hours if you start with enough things to put in and out of the proverbial pot. If you don't like to play games in person (how very 2012 of you) you can click on this link and play online. Ava and I played for an hour last night. Then we went to see The Nutcracker at Friends University for the 5th consecutive year.

3) It IS a menorah but, more accurately, it is a hanukkiah. Menorahs have seven candles or oil lamps. The one in the middle, typically elevated, is for the Sabbath (called Shabbat when being celebrated). Jewish tradition states that Shabbat is the 7th day (when G-d rested) but it is the CENTER of the week. We spend three days preparing for Shabbat, one day honoring it, and three days reflecting on it. Rinse, repeat. The hanukkiah has NINE prongs. One for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah and a ninth (typically elevated, offset, centered, or all of the above) that is used as the "servant" candle that is used to light the other candles. Hanukkiah candles are NOT to be used to light each other. That is "doing work" and the light of Hanukkah is not for working. You only place candles in your hanukkiah for the number of the day. You place them right to left but then light them left to right. You let them burn all the way out vs. blow them out (so 11" pillar candles are probably not ideal).

4) Hanukkah is not a major Jewish holiday. It is in no way tied to Christmas or a competitor to it. The potential mimicking of giving gifts to children during the Festival of Lights is largely a reflection of their friends at school having Christmas to look forward to. Hanukkah does begin on the 25th of Chislev (the Jewish calendar is lunar so that is why the start date changes on our calendar but always stays constant on other calendars), but that is just random co-inky-dink (as my mother says).

5) You are under no obligation to be Jewish or even know a Jew to celebrate Hanukkah. You can slap up a hanukkiah and get your Festival of Lights on no matter your mindset or religious bent. Just remember that the lights of the candles are only for observation and reflection. They are not intended to illuminate or do work by so you should not eat dinner or decorate your Christmas tree by them.

6) The duration of Hanukkah is eight days long because it mimics the length and tradition of Sukkot. While the harvest festival is a lesser occasion in the current Jewish calendar - at the time of the re-dedication of the temple, it was THE High Holiday. Sukkot and Hanukkah, I might also point out, are two of the HAPPIEST celebrations in the Jewish year. Both celebrate survival of the culture, faith, and people.

7) Gelt does not taste good. At least not the traditional stuff that is wrapped in gold paper and sold in orange, mesh bags. I'm eating the sugar free stuff but Ava tells me the "real thing" is not much better. Use Hershey kisses, miniature peanut butter cups, peanuts, or anything else instead. Seriously. And shame on YOU, gelt makers of the world.

8) The Maccabees, who re-dedicated the temple and got the Hanukkah ball rolling, were some bad-assed-muh-fuckahs. Not only did they not take the occupation of Judea as something they had to accept - they LITERALLY fought their enemies with hammers. And won. I am not a violent person but, at heart, I may be a Maccabee.

9) Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is a great book. It's like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas without the annoying, made up words (no disrespect, Seuss fans) and, like the holiday itself, you don't need to be Jewish or be raising Jewish kids to enjoy the read together. Also a good one Ava and I just started? Lemony Snicket's The Latke That Couldn't Stop Screaming that puts Hanukkah in the context of Christmas (something Ava seems to appreciate).

10) Latkes (potatoe (shout out to Dan Quayle) and Sufganiyot (jelly donuts, shout out to donut lovers) are traditional foods of Hanukkah from the European (latke) and Mediterranean (donut) traditions of the culture that have one thing in common . . . they are both fried. In oil. Making the whole holiday edible.

Chaag Hanukkah sameach!