Still confused about Hanukkah? Check out this great music video.
This is what Hanukkah is not:
If you don't live in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, you
can always tell the Jewish houses during December. They're the ones
that are dark.
And yet, Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights. So what
OK, let's go back a second. Here is what Hanukkah IS about:
Actually, my Rabbi, Ellen Dreyfus of B'nai Yehuda Beth Shalom in
Homewood, calls Hanukkah a "fourth rate holiday." Especially
compared with Christmas - which is one of the two most important
holidays in the Christian religion.
We celebrate Hanukkah because...well, because it is the darkest
time of year, and as Rabbi Dreyfus points out, "every culture
around the globe has some kind of festival having to do with light
this time of year. That's kind of a human instinct."
The Hanukkah festival is pinned around a victory of the
Maccabees about 165 years before the birth of Jesus Christ (who was
born, for those who think Christmas is only about shopping, on Dec.
25). The Syrian Greek empire, led by Antiochus, had overrun Judea,
and Jews were forced to give up their religion (one of the many
times in history, by the way, when Jews were forced to either
convert or practice their religion underground). Some Jews headed
for the hills, quite literally, living in caves and fighting
battles against Antiochus' forces under the leadership of Judah
About three years later, they won, and as the victors strode
into the city temple to take back their religion, they found it
desecrated: the Torah (which is referred to as the Old Testament by
non-Jews) was destroyed; there was a statue of Antiochus (as Zeus);
and a pig had been slaughtered and offered up as a sacrifice to the
statue. These are big no-nos. Jews explicitly do not worship graven
images, and to be Kosher is to not eat pork, which was (and still
is by many) considered unclean.
So they cleaned it up, in ritual fashion, according to religious
law. Part of that ritual was the lighting of the candelabra, or
Menorah, which was lit with oil. The Maccabees found enough oil to
last one night, but it would take at least a week to get more. In
the spirit of a people whose unofficial motto is, "What the hell,
it's worth a shot," they lit the menorah anyway and - here's the
miracle - it lasted for eight days, until the oil stores were
Because of this, we light the menorah, or hanukkiah as it's
called in Hebrew, for eight nights sometime in December, according
to the Jewish calendar (we are in the year 5772 in case you were
wondering). And we give gifts each night. This year, Hannukah
starts on the night of Dec. 20.
And, not surprisingly, oil is a huge part of the symbolism of
the holiday. We soak potatoes in it and make latkes. We throw dough
in it and make doughnuts. We fry...well a lot.
But what we don't do is put up lights. Or have trees.
I always thought that the tree thing was part of the not having
graven images in your house. But a tree isn't exactly engraved.
It's a natural, living thing.
Rabbi Dreyfus points out that it's also a very important thing
to religious Christians. It has to do with Jesus' resurrection. For
many, the ornaments have specific references to specific passages
in the New Testament.
"When Jews take on those decorations, not only are they dissing
their own traditions, they're insulting the religious traditions of
Christians," says Rabbi Dreyfus, who just ended a term as the
president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
But decorating isn't restricted. Jews often make elaborate
decorations indoors, and have multiple menorahs around the house.
And we are told that we should light a menorah and put it in our
windows. So Jewish houses aren't exactly dark, they're
just...well...not as bright as Christmas decorations.
Here's my thing, though. Hanukkah is a holiday about the triumph
of a minority over a majority. We're still celebrating it about
2,100 years later. And the reason we're still celebrating is that
Jews throughout history have not done what the majority culture
have told them to do. And that's something worth celebrating.
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