I have more memories about Hanukkah than I realized when I started contemplating how to write a column about Hanukkah for this year. But first, let’s start with a few facts about Hanukkah for those who don’t really know what Hanukkah is.
Hanukkah starts on December 1 of this year.
The holiday really has so many of the elements I find interesting in Jewish history and observance.
Precipitating event: “More than twenty-one centuries ago, the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who sought to forcefully Hellenize the people of Israel.”
To Hellenize the Jew basically meant to force them to believe in the prevailing religion and life ways of their oppressors at that time. In this case, the oppressors were the Syrian/Greeks.
The oppressors/enemies: As mentioned, the Seleucid, which were the Syrian/Greeks.
The heroes: The Maccabees, aka “a small band of faithful Jews.”
There is a slight twist to this event, which, I suppose, is why it’s a Jewish holiday, albeit a minor one on our calendar. The Greeks were driven from the Temple, and the land and the Temple was rededicated.
“Once the Maccabees had regained control, they returned to the Temple in Jerusalem. By this time, it had been spiritually defiled by being used for the worship of foreign gods and also by practices such as sacrificing swine. Jewish troops were determined to purify the Temple by burning ritual oil in the Temple’s menorah for eight days. But to their dismay, they discovered that there was only one day’s worth of oil left in the Temple. They lit the menorah anyway and to their surprise the small amount of oil lasted the full eight days.”
Hanukkah is considered the festival of lights because “when they (the Jews) sought to light the Temple’s menorah, they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks; miraculously the one-day supply burned for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity.”
So the Jewish people and Judaism were preserved yet again. See, as mentioned above, Hanukkah is considered a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar but is made much larger in the public eye because of the holiday’s close proximity to Christmas. Jews have subtly adapted to Hanukkah in American society. I remember giving and receiving gifts to Jewish family for the 8 days of Hanukkah. It was fun and we celebrated Jewish aspects of Hanukkah by giving gelt (Yiddish word for money), which is usually chocolate candy coins given to Jewish children.
There is more to Hanukkah... including personal memories that each Jew holds in his or her heart. My first Hanukkah celebration was especially sweet because it was one of my first experiences with Jewish food! Latkes are potato pancakes eaten especially during Hanukkah. My first Hanukkah was spent learning more about Hanukkah, and observing how Jews dealt with Hanukkah and its closeness to Christmas.
I am reminded of a story about a Jewish woman I never met but learned of her from another Jewish woman that I’d like to share. I learned about her in the fall of 2005 before I left my ex-husband. My friend Pat told me the story of a friend (Jewish) of hers living in Florida when she met her husband (non-Jewish). The Jewish lady was fairly observant in Jewish practice as she lit her Sabbath candles each week and her menorah during Hanukkah. Her husband was Christian but very non-practicing until they moved back to his home state of Iowa at some point after they got married.
Her husband fell in with the church and evangelical people of his youth and he became a Christian minister. With this change in vocation, he tapped into the anti-Judaism that can be prevalent among fundamentalist Christians. He began to persecute her with the tired old lines used against Jews historically and she resorted to becoming a closet Jew. She lit her candles and did her prayers in the basement of their house. From what I gather, she stayed with him because they had children together.
My friend concluded the telling of this woman’s difficult life by stating that the lady reminded her husband that she was Jewish from the beginning. But this didn’t prevent her husband from being the way he was. A sad conclusion I could identify with far more than I cared to. I would go on to learn that it’s against Jewish law for a Jewish woman to be under the headship of a non-Jewish man.
So I got away from a man who persecuted me for wanting to practice Judaism and recovered my freedom. This is the personal message of Hanukkah for me. Hanukkah is the celebration of freedom from religious persecution, a very Jewish story and, to some extent, a human story, as we all seek to be free to be ourselves and worship as we believe best for us.