Last night marked the beginning of Channukah, the festival of lights.
Like pretty much all Jewish holidays, the gist of Channukah is, "They tried to kill us, they failed, let's eat."
A lot of people are under the mistaken impression that Channukah is a sort of Jewish Christmas- it's not! It's actually a relatively minor holiday, but because of all the excitement of Christmas, American Jews have pumped up Channukah quite a bit. So Jewish kids don't feel so left out, so Jewish adults can capitalize on the free time and shopping related perks of the season, and because, really, the Jewish people are always up for a party.
|Our family's gingerbread menorah|
Back in 165 BCE, Jews lived in Jerusalem, despite the land being essentially run by the Greek empire. Greeks and Jews lived side by side, peacefully for the most part, until a new king, Antiochus the Fourth, took the throne. Antiochus was not a very nice guy. He decreed that the people of Jerusalem were no longer allowed to worship their own gods, and decreed that their most holy temple (that's the temple that now stands as the Western Wall), should be turned into a temple for Dionysus- the Greek god of wine.
The Jews were not happy. Mattathias Maccabee was particular unhappy. When Greek soldiers stormed into the city, forcing Jews to bow before idols, Mattathias snapped. He killed not only a handful of soldiers forcing Jews to pray to Greek gods, but also a Jewish man who knelt to the idol. Then, he took to the hills.
His son, Judah Maccabee, became the leader of a small gang of rebels, determined to drive the Greek army away from the temple and from Jerusalem. In a very early lesson on guerrilla warfare, the Maccabees managed to defeat the Greeks, who outnumbered them by orders of magnitude. The Jews communicated to each other in code, passing off dreidles as harmless toys when really the lettering on the side contained details of assaults and ambushes.
Despite the phenomenal odds, the Maccabees beat the Greeks. The Greco-Syrian army retreated, and the Jews returned to their temple, which had been housing Dionysian rites.
|From the Arch of Titus- the Greeks ransacking the temple after losing the war|
The Jews rededicated the temple- which meant washing it inside and out, making it holy again. Part of this was keeping the eternal flame lit- a flame meant to represent the eternal presence of God. But the Dionysian priests had ransacked the place on the way out, taking the expensive oil with them.
The legend is that there was only enough oil to burn for one day. The Maccabees sent their fastest runner to fetch more sanctified oil, but it was a journey of many days. Yet, the oil burned until he returned. For eight days and nights.
To celebrate Channukah, the Jewish people eat foods fried in oil- latkes and sufganyot (jelly doughnuts), although in my family we'll take any excuse to have falafel as well. We light candles for eight nights, and play with the dreidle, a top with four letters inscribed on the sides- a code.
The letters on the dreidle are Nun, Gimmel, Hay, and Shin. They stand for the words, Nes gadol hayah sham, which means, "A great miracle happened there."
The word "Channukah," means "rededication." It refers to how the Jews reclaimed their temple after beating the Greek army.
Technically, a menorah is any Jewish candelabra, and the Channukah menorah is a Channukiah. What makes it special is that it holds nine candles. One for each day of Channukah, and one for lighting the other candles- the shamash, or helper candle.
A kosher Channukiah has the eight candles for the eight days of Channukah at the same height- because no day is more important than any other.
Jewish families play with dreidles, for peanuts, pennies, or Channukah gelt. The rules of dreidle are that at the beginning of each round, each player antes up. If your dreidle lands on a shin, you add one to the pot. If it lands on a nun, you neither add nor take away. If it lands on a hay, you win half the pot, and if it lands on a gimmel, you win the whole pot.
|My family playing dreidle on Grandmommy's kitchen floor|
My personal favorite part of Channukah is singing songs with my family. Poppa and I rarely get to sing together, and it's always a joy. In particular, I love singing rounds with him, and it's a tradition I look forward to passing on to my kids as they get old enough to keep tempo all on their own. So I will leave you with a few of my favorite Channnukah songs.