The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (or Chanukah) celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Though considered a “minor” Jewish festival according to custom, it has blossomed into a beloved and widely recognized holiday. The history of Hanukkah goes back to the year 168 BCE when the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes had his soldiers desecrate the Temple in Jerusalem. He abolished Judaism and banned the observance of Jewish law and festivals. On Jewish altars, he built idols to Greek gods.
The Jewish people rebelled against this hatred and fought back. The Maccabee family, led by priest Mattathias and his five sons, guided the fight. Mattathias’ son Judah was heavily involved as a strategist and military leader; he and his soldiers won two significant battles against the much larger Syrian army. Following the victories, Judah and his men cleansed the Temple, rebuilt its altar, and lit the menorah. The word “Hanukkah” means “dedication” – and the festival to celebrate this victory was created. This story is written in the Books of the Maccabees, religious texts that are not part of the Hebrew Bible (though they are in the Apocrypha and the Catholic Church considers them to be deuterocanonical books).
It was centuries later that the miracle of the oil first appeared as part of the Talmud. When the Maccabees entered the Temple, they relit the ner tamid, a lamp that perpetually burns in Jewish synagogues and temples. They found one small jar of oil, which should have only lasted a single day. It took eight days for a messenger to return with more oil, but, miraculously, that single jar lasted all eight days.
The historic celebration of Hanukkah was mostly low-key as it is not considered a major holiday in the faith or a High Holy Day like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While it is similar to Sukkot in that it is a multi-day festival, there are no work restrictions with Hanukkah. Given its role as a minor holiday, it is not surprising that finding history of the holiday’s celebration is somewhat difficult. The Mahoning Valley Historical Society’s Archives contains notes from a 1959 Sisterhood meeting at Congregation Rodef Sholom. The minutes reference a “Gift Shop Korner” with a “Fabulous Chanukah Selection” along with a Chanukah luncheon. Sisterhood Chairwoman Sylvia Gluck had recently returned from New York City and brought back items for the Gift Shop. “Special decorations and gift wrappings will make this Chanukah very festive indeed.” The luncheon featured a Chanukah card exchange.
Rabbi Paula Winnig of Youngstown’s Congregation Rodef Sholom, noted that Hanukkah celebrates religious freedom and Jewish rights. She refers to Hanukkah as a “home holiday,” meant to be spent inwardly with family while also publicizing the miracle. She also spoke about some of the most popular traditions being tied to food, mostly fried foods. Latkes, or potato pancakes, have their roots in the 14th century Italy but were initially made of cheese.
Of course we associate potato latkes with Hanukkah, but in reality latkes descends from Italian pancakes that were made with ricotta cheese. The first connection between Hanukkah and pancakes was made by a rabbi in Italy named Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus (c. 1286-1328). According to The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks, the Rabbi “included pancakes in a list of dishes to serve at an idealized Purim feast, as well as a poem about Hanukkah. After the Spanish expelled the Jews from Sicily in 1492, the exiles introduced their ricotta cheese pancakes, which were called cassola in Rome, to the Jews of northern Italy. Consequently, cheese pancakes, because they combined the two traditional types of foods–fried and dairy–became a natural Hanukkah dish.”
-Tori Avey, author of the food blog, “The Shiksa in the Kitchen.”
So how did the cheese come into the story? This was based on the story of Judith. Writer Yoni Appelbaum tells the story: “she seduced a general named Holofernes, who came at the head of an invading army, by feeding him and plying him with wine. As he slipped into an alcoholic stupor, she seized his hair and hacked off his head with a sword. Then she tucked it in with her picnic provisions, left his camp, and presented it to the people of her town to mount on the wall. The terrified invaders fled, and the land was saved.” The cheese, you ask? Well, in one version of the story Judith feeds Holofernes two pancakes, which were salted and mixed with cheese. The connection between Judith and the Maccabees, though, is hundreds of years apart. Appelbaum continues:
So what’s a latke? It’s a shredded Andean tuber, fried like a buckwheat pancake, which was substituted for Italian cheeses, once eaten to honor a mistaken reading of obscure variants of an apocryphal text.
But it’s crispy, and delicious.
Another fried Hanukkah food is the sufganiyah (or the plural sufganiyot). This fried donut is typically filled with jelly, jam, or custard and often sprinkled with powdered sugar. Recorded recipes go back well over 500 years. One of the first recipes was recorded in the 1485 German cookbook Kuchenmeisterie (Mastery of the Kitchen). The recipe calls for jam to be packed between two round slices of bread and fried in lard. The dessert quickly gained popularity and was known throughout Europe by many names like Berliners in Germany and Paczki in Poland. In the 1920s, the Israeli Labor Federation, Histadrut, declared the treat the official food of Hanukkah. Today, more than 18 million sufganiyot are eaten around Hanukkah in Israel alone!
The Dreidel and Gelt are long-time Hanukkah traditions, as well. The Dreidel, a top, is said to have been an ancient secret of Jewish people to fool the Greeks if they were caught studying Torah. Spinning tops were used in several cultures and the modern version of the Hanukkah Dreidel is a combination of many traditions. One story says that the four sides represent four ancient kingdoms that tried, and failed, to destroy the Jewish people.
Nun represents Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian leader who destroyed the first Temple in Jerusalem. Gimel stands for Gog, or Greece, which tried to eradicate the Jewish religion in the time of Hanukkah. Hey stands for Haman, the wicked minister in ancient Persia who wanted to commit genocide and wipe out the Jews and whose defeat is remembered during the Jewish holiday of Purim. Shin stands for Seir, or ancient Rome, which destroyed the second Temple in Jerusalem and ended Jewish rule in ancient Israel for nearly two thousand years.
– Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
Dr. Miller also adds instructions for playing the game:
Playing dreidel is easy and fun. Here’s one popular version. Start by having each player put a coin (or a piece of candy, or a token) into the middle; this is the ‘pot’. Take turns spinning. If your dreidel lands on a Nun, do nothing. For Gimmel, take the entire pot. (Then have everyone place a coin back in to replenish the pot.) If your dreidel lands on Hey, take half the coins in the pot. For Shin or Pey, put one of your coins into the pot.
The game is often played with gelt, or “Hanukkah money”. Today, gelt tends to be chocolate wrapped in gold foil to look like a coin. Historically, though, the gelt was real money and often paid as a type of tip to workers. Over the years the trends shifted and children were given the coins as a small gift. As Hanukkah became a more national holiday in America, that gift-giving shift continued due to its proximity to Christmas.
Some who do not celebrate Hanukkah consider Hanukkah a sort-of “Jewish Christmas” where gifts are shared and families gather around food and lights. That comparison, though, is only made because of the time of year. Hanukkah is celebrated on the 25th day of Kislev, the third month of the Jewish civil year and the ninth month of the Hebrew Calendar. This date typically falls in the Gregorian months of November and December. Given its close proximity in time to the celebration of the Christian holiday of Christmas, many have linked the two holidays. As a result, the secular side of Hanukkah has rapidly grown over the recent decades. One can find Hanukkah decorations near the Christmas decorations in large stores, from lights to Star of David tinsel and even giant outdoor inflatable Menorahs.
Sarah Wilschek, Executive Director at Congregation Rodef Sholom, shared her memories and traditions:
Hanukkah in the Wilschek house is always marked by eight days of family, friends, fun, food, giving, and gifting. Also known as the Festival of Lights, we celebrate the miracle of the holiday by making and eating potato latkes (fried potato pancakes) and many sweets. We also recognize the miracles in our everyday lives- connecting the historical holiday and making it relevant today.
Prior to the beginning of Hanukkah, we begin preparing by creating crafts and memories at our local temples. The children gather as a community and make different items to display in our home during the 8 days. As a community, we gather annually at Congregation Rodef Sholom for the community-wide Hanukkah celebration, which will typically feature a famous Jewish musician or entertainer, exciting everyone and getting the children ready for the holiday season. This event always engages the children, families, and community members- energizing us for the beginning of Hanukkah.
Each day, we recognize the holiday by lighting our own Hanukkah Hanukiahs (ha-nu-key-ahs). We have four people that live in our home, and all four of us have our own. Following our candle lighting and blessings, we then move on to our more unique traditions. We begin the holiday by donating one container of toys/ clothes/ food each- recognizing that while we are lucky to have many things, there are others that are not.
Also, while some children receive multiple gifts each night, we try to spread the gifts from family across all 8 days. Each night is dedicated to opening gifts from parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends. Trust me- the gifts add up!
My children also really like playing dreidel with each other! A dreidel is a special top with four Hebrew letters on it that allow people to play a Hanukkah themed game. Each time it is played, players win chocolate or other small goodies- most popular is the term “gelt” or chocolate coins.
This year, much like the rest of 2020, has changed our plan for Hanukkah. Rather than getting together with family and friends to celebrate and make latkes and sufganiyot (suf-ga-ni-oat)- jelly donuts, we have virtual Hanukkah planned. While it is upsetting to not have our typical traditions, pivoting and adapting to the 2020 style of holiday ‘togetherness’ has enabled us to plan celebrations with our friends and family around the country and world.
This year, I look forward to celebrating with friends in Israel, family around the country, and friends in our area. Most importantly, I am looking forward to another year of celebrating the festival of lights with my children and teaching them the values of family, and always aware of the miracles in their lives.
Rabbi Winnig spoke about growing up with Hanukkah traditions and noted a large Hanukkah menorah that her parents had in their yard. She remembers driving around to look at Christmas lights that time of year to enjoy the art, the same with songs and other Christmas related things. She noted that Hanukkah has become what it is today because of its close proximity to Christmas. “Hanukkah was never a gift-giving holiday,” she said, adding that Purim is the much more traditional Jewish holiday that involves giving gifts.
Hanukkah in popular culture has also seen a steady increase over the last few decades. Comedian Adam Sandler, along with Saturday Night Live writers Lewis Morton and Ian Maxtone-Graham, wrote “The Chanukah Song” for a Weekend Update skit in 1994. “When I was a kid, this time of year always made me feel a little left out because in school there were so many Christmas songs and all us Jewish kids had was the song ‘Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel’. So, I wrote a brand new Chanukah song for you Jewish kids to sing and I hope you like it,” Sandler said just before he premiered the song. The song features a long list of Jewish celebrities and references. It has also inspired three additional versions, each with a new list of celebrity references. Adam Sandler also wrote and starred in an animated Hanukkah movie, “Eight Crazy Nights”.
Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights
Instead of one day of presents we have eight crazy nights!
In 2000, a new Hanukkah mascot wandered into our lives thanks to the TV show Friends. In the episode, Ross Geller wants to surprise his son, Ben, by dressing up as Santa Claus. The problem? He waited too long and the costume shop was out of any holiday related choices. What does he do? He chooses an armadillo costume and creates the Holiday Armadillo, Santa’s Part-Jewish friend. Ross tries to teach Ben about Hanukkah but is overshadowed when his best friend, and brother-in-law, Chandler Bing enters dressed as Santa. Ross tells Chandler that he has to leave, fearing that he will lose his chance to teach Ben about their heritage. After some convincing, Ben sits to hear the story of Hanukkah.
Mensch is a Yiddish word to describe an honorable person who always does the right thing. It’s what we strive to be and embodies the qualities we preach to our children. As a way to create a sense of unity among Jews during the holiday season, the Mensch on a Bench started as a way to bring more Funukkah to Hanukkah. Demonstrating strength, kindness, courage and wisdom, each member of our growing family represents the Jewish values we’re proud to embrace.
Neal Hoffman started another new Hanukkah tradition. Hoffman was working at Hasbro where he worked on all sorts of toys including GI Joe, Tonka Trucks, and Transformers. In 2011, he and his wife Erin moved to Cincinnati with their sons Jacob Maccabee and Alexander Goldwin. Around the Hanukkah season, Jake asked for an “Elf on the Shelf” (a Christmas holiday toy which depicts an Elf who reports behavior back to Santa Claus). Hoffman was inspired and came up with the idea for the “Mensch on a Bench” and he wrote the first draft of his book. Within two years, and thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, Hoffman began to market and sell toys, books, and an entire Mensch family of products.
The influence of popular culture has certainly made Hanukkah a much more mainstream holiday for non-Jewish people. In 1979 President Jimmy Carter lit the first National Menorah, a tradition that continues in Washington, DC. Public Hanukkah Menorahs have been lit all over the world in places like Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, Hong Kong Harbor, Moscow’s Red Square, and at the Eiffel Tower.
This year’s celebration will look a lot different given the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions. Many congregations are hosting virtual events as opposed to the traditional in-person festivities including online services, musical programs, and virtual menorah lightings. Hanukkah Menorahs are meant to be placed where they can be seen, to publicize the miracle, but given the rise of antisemitism many Jewish people have noted a hesitation and increased caution. In these times the light and legacy of those candles is an important message of unity, faith, and freedom.