Culture Share - Celebrating Chanukah

Written by: Beth Cohen-Dorfman

I’m always fascinated by the hype surrounding Chanukah (or Hanukah, or Hanukkah…) because, in terms of Judaism, it’s a pretty minor holiday.  I think it gets a lot of press because of its proximity in the calendar to Christmas and, as Jews assimilated to life in the U.S., especially after WWII, they needed something comparable to make themselves feel more a part of this society.  But how to explain this to my young kids who walk around in December seeing all of the pretty lights and the jolly fat man who brings presents to almost all of their friends?

I started talking to my daughter, who is almost five, about the actual Chanukah Story last year.  For me, one of the best parts of the holiday is that it relates to a historical fact, and I’ve told her that. 

We talk about how a long time ago, a group of people (the Syrians) took over the Jew’s Temple in Israel and told the Jews they couldn’t pray to their G-d anymore.  Some of the Jews listened and prayed to the new gods, but others refused.  A very brave man named Judah Maccabee and his brothers formed an army to fight back.  They called themselves the Maccabees which means “hammer.”  It took a long time (three years!), but the Maccabees won back the Temple and their rights to pray to their own G-d.  After that, they wanted to clean the Temple and light the Eternal Flame.  The oil used to light that flame came from a city far away and they only found a small amount left in the Temple.  The Jews decided to use the little oil they had and light the Eternal Flame while people went to get more and a miracle happened: that oil which should have only lasted one day lasted for eight days, when more oil arrived! 

To commemorate this miracle, Jews around the world light special nine-candled Menorahs, called Chanukiot (singular: Chaunkiah) for the eight nights of Chanukah.  Chanukiot come in many shapes and sizes but all have one candle holder that is higher than the others called the “shamash” which is used to light all of the other candles.  We also eat foods fried in oil to remember the miracle, most notably latkes, or potato pancakes and special donuts called “sufganiot.”  Most families give children a gift for each of the eight nights.  Some lore claims that we give gifts to children because it was a child who found the oil that caused the miracle; others give gifts because it is just nice to do. 

In our house we each light our own Chanukiah though, in many houses, families use just one.  We also have a large family Chanukah party where we enjoy spending time together and exchanging gifts.

Happy Chanukah Chicago!

Posted on December 19, 2011 at 9:41 PM