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What is Hanukkah? These kids (and their rabbi) explain
We’ve heard of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, but it’s not actually in the Jewish Torah. So what is Hanukkah, and where does it come from?
To Jewish people, however, Hanukkah isn’t actually all that religious of a holiday –though because of its proximity to Christmas, it’s often assumed the most important Jewish holiday. It’s not. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover, for example, are more religiously observed, though Hanukkah certainly holds cultural significance.
As a child, Hanukkah meant I could get presents just like my predominantly-Christian classmates and not feel left out. It also meant nodding politely (and still doing so) when someone said “Merry Christmas” come mid-to-late December, and trying to remember to say it back.
This year my family and I are figuring out how to celebrate it during the coronavirus pandemic. Hint: We’re doing a family Zoom.
So, if Hanukkah isn’t all that religious, what’s all the fuss about?
Disclaimer: Like any minority, I am but one of many members, and my experiences don’t reflect that of all Jews.
What exactly is Hanukkah and when is it?
Known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C. The event occurred when Jews rose up against Greek-Syrian rulers in the Maccabean Revolt and drove them out of Jerusalem, according to the History Channel.
To mark their victory, Jews wanted to reclaim the temple and light its menorah, but only found enough pure olive oil for one day, according to Chabad.org. That one-day supply lasted eight and is considered a miracle in Jewish faith.
Every year, Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of Kislev, a month in the Hebrew calendar. It lasts eight nights (yes, because of the oil), and this year it’s from Dec. 10 to 18.
Cool project: Storytellers to share joys, disappointments of holidays
Hold up. Did the oil actually last 8 days?
No. Well, maybe. I was sure it was true until my seventh grade Hebrew school class when someone told me it wasn’t.
The story of the oil lasting eight days goes back to ancient rabbis, who seemed to have made up the story while chatting about lighting candles during the holiday, reports The Washington Post. Some staunchly believe the oil story, though others are more inclined to focus on the messages/lessons the holiday teaches.
Also, back up. Is it Hanukkah or Chanukah?
The differences arise because the holiday’s name comes from Hebrew, which doesn’t use the Latin alphabet. According to Merriam-Webster, some sounds in Hebrew don’t have exact matches for Latin letters, creating the multiple spellings.
Today, the most common spelling is Hanukkah, but don’t be surprised if you also see Chanukah or Hanukah, according to the two dictionaries.
Check out this USA TODAY Life feature for a deeper dive on the spellings of Hanukkah.
Is it Hanukkah or Chanukah? Why the Jewish holiday has multiple spellings
What happens during Hanukkah?
To mark the holiday, Jews light one candle each evening on a nine-branched menorah. The ninth candle – the shamash, (“helper” or “attendant”) – is used to light the other eight.
The lit menorahs are displayed prominently, often in windows. Playing with tops called dreidels and exchanging gifts are other Hanukkah traditions to celebrate the holiday. Don’t forget about gelt, chocolate coins adults give to children during Hanukkah (a symbol of the money that Jewish parents would give their children in lieu of gifts; “gelt” means money in Yiddish).
Larger family gatherings during the pandemic are likely not happening this year (and are not recommended), meaning it will be up to individual households to figure out in-person gift exchanges and dreidel spinning. I know I’m hoping for gelt in the mail this season.
Wait, Hanukkah isn’t as big a deal as Christmas?
No, at least not in the traditional religious sense. In fact, if you Google “Hanukkah not big deal,” you’ll find a plethora of articles that can tell you as much.
That said, it’s still meaningful for other reasons. When I asked fellow Jews what makes Hanukkah special on my Twitter feed last year, my followers talked about “latkes,” the potato pancakes typically consumed on the holiday. (People eat doughnuts filled with jelly, or sufganiyot, too. Get it? Fried food.)
Like other Jewish holidays, haunting Hebrew hymns are part of the occasion. “Rugrats,” the Nickelodeon cartoon, aired a Hanukkah-themed episode in 1996 that holds up as educational, endearing and entertaining.
And who can forget about the presents? Growing up it was fun to look forward to a different gift every night – some less expensive like pajamas and art supplies. The best (and probably worst year, for the adults in my family, anyway) was when my grandparents bought each of the dozen or so grandchildren Razor scooters. As I got older, the tradition shifted into one large gift for the period, though we always still light the candles.
I’m looking forward to seeing many different sets of candles on Zoom.
OK, but why do people really make a fuss about Hanukkah?
You can thank (or not thank) American Jews for that. It’s debatable whether it was a direct response to Christmas or an effort to encourage young people to make time for synagogue, reports Vox. The Atlantic notes that the story of Hanukkah isn’t even in the Torah, the Jewish Bible. For comparison’s sake: This is the same bible that included my Torah portion, Bamidbar, which was literally just about counting tribes around a sacred tabernacle.
Like most Jewish teachings, “it underscores one of the most significant themes in Jewish history: the struggle to practice Judaism when powerful forces seek to extinguish it,” writes Lauren Markoe of the Religion News Service. Also: “It serves a particular purpose: an opportunity to negotiate the twin, competing pressures of ethnic tension and assimilation,” writes Emma Green in The Atlantic (i.e. we are Maccabees, hear us roar).
Anti-Semitism has remained more than prevalent, whether it be from celebrity messaging, physical violence and more. The country’s only Anne Frank memorial in Idaho was vandalized just this week. Think about the shooting at the kosher supermarket in 2019 in New Jersey to the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018. President Donald Trump signed an executive order last December designed to cut off aid to colleges that tolerate anti-Semitism, though some critics called it an effort to stifle free speech and criticism of Israel.
I’m not a super religious person, but after re-educating myself about the holiday while researching this article, I will be proud to light the candles to remind myself about the most important part of the holiday to me: fighting for the right to exist.
Hopefully in 2021, that will involve my family and me celebrating (and fighting) together.
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of last year’s Hanukkah story.
Contributing: Ryan W. Miller and David Jackson, USA TODAY
If you’re thinking ahead: How to Passover in quarantine: Everything you need to know about hosting a (virtual) seder
How that went for my family this year: Conversational chaos, prayers and hope: My Passover seder on Zoom in the time of coronavirus