December is usually known as the month when families celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah. Well, I celebrate “Chrismakah.”
Growing up with a Catholic parent and a Jewish parent, I had the luxury of being known as the kid on the block who got “so many presents!” In reality, I probably got just as much as any other little boy or girl in my neighborhood — they were just jealous that I was receiving one a night for eight nights, typically when they were still counting down the days until Dec. 25.
As I got older, just like many other children, I started to look at the real meaning behind the holidays. For the most part, I think many of you know why we celebrate Christmas, but how many of you know why Jews celebrate Hanukkah (or Chanukkah or Channukah or Hannukah — you choose how you prefer to spell it.)
According to Rabbi Barry Krieger of Portsmouth’s Temple Israel, the holiday is about the victory of the Maccabees 2,200 years ago in Israel over a larger and stronger Syrian and Greek army.
“We continue to be, as Jews, a small minority in the world,” Krieger said. “Two percent of our U.S. population is Jewish. Point-two-percent of our world population is Jewish. The reality is, we are a small minority that has made a significant contribution to our world history and to our knowledge base in terms of medicine, science and technology. Israel continues to do that and so have American Jews because of our ability as a minority group to affirm who we are.”
As accurate as this is, I started to sweat and my heart started to race a bit as he was speaking to me.
“Rabbi Krieger?” I interrupted. “I thought Hanukkah was a holiday to celebrate how the oil found after the war burned for eight nights when it was only expected to burn for one night?”
Sure, I knew about the victory over the Syrian and Greek army. I knew the Maccabees went to war because of forbiddance by a Greek-Syrian ruler to continue studying the Torah. I also knew that the Maccabees were significantly outnumbered. But again, I saw more of the celebration in relation to after three years of fighting, they only found enough oil to last them one night in the temple they reclaimed on Jerusalem’s Mount Moriah, which ended up lasting them eight nights.
He told me that this is recorded as part of the story for Hanukkah, but that sometimes stories are not historically true.
“There is a myth of Hanukkah,” he said. “A small vial of our oil was found in Jerusalem by the Maccabees. It is recorded in the book of Apocrypha. This vial lasted for eight days, so we, too, continue to light a candle on each day of Hanukkah, in the evening, lighting one candle the first night and eight candles on the final night.”
So, my parents did not have me believing a myth, but perhaps, were focusing too much on the story and not so much on the meaning of Hanukkah that Rabbi Krieger celebrates.
“In the biggest context, Hanukkah is about affirming our own unique identities as individuals, all of us, who we are as individuals and trying our best in society,” he said. “We strive on Hanukkah to remember the importance of our individuality and of remaining different, remaining who we are.”
Each night of Hanukkah, which this year is Saturday, Dec. 8 through Saturday, Dec. 15, candles on menorahs will be lighted, symbolizing the oil burned to produce light in the temple, but also to mark the celebration of the eight days of Hanukkah. After speaking with Rabbi Krieger, I also realize the lighting is to continue to celebrate the freedom of Jews won by the Maccabees and the incredible accomplishments and achievements that Jewish people have accomplished over thousands of years.
“We light a candle to maintain the tradition. Whether that story is true or not, what is true is the historical battle that took place by the Maccabees years ago,” Krieger said. “Our desire to remain attached to our history and to continue to celebrate the victory of the small and the victory of maintaining our unique identity regarding who we are.”
Celebrating in my family, always consisted of me tying my family members shoes together under the table and sneaking a couple extra potato latkes with applesauce on them while my Grandfather read the prayers — until my parents realized I was not paying attention.
Throughout my childhood, on the first night of Hanukkah, my brother, sister, mother, father and I would drive to my grandparents house in Newton, Mass., and light the candles, eat a delicious meal with my aunts, uncles and cousins, that always started with my Grandma’s famous chicken soup. It ended with my Grandfather’s homemade baked goods from recipes he made himself during years and years of owning a bakery in town after immigrating to the U.S. after surviving the Holocaust. To this day, I’ve never had an apple pie that tastes better than my Grandfather’s.
Whenever I spent time with my grandparents, I knew I would learn something. As much as my Grandfather barely spoke about his time in concentration camps, I always knew he was my hero, along with other people’s hero, because of his incredible courage, bravery and strength to survive such a terrible part of our world’s history. My Grandfather was a kind, generous, intelligent and sweet man.
When I light the candles on the menorah this coming week, each candle will be lit in honor of the accomplishments of my own Grandfather, and in his memory, as he passed away just seven months ago. The holiday will not only celebrate the victory years ago, but the victory of my family members, living and deceased, and will keep me motivated to continue to succeed myself.
Aside from lighting the menorah, my family, along with other Jewish families, will also gamble by spinning a top, called a dreidel, that has four sides on it. Depending on what side the top lands on, depends on whether you put money in or take money out from the pot.
To top the holiday off, some families will also distribute gifts. Over the years, my family has gone from piles and piles of presents in my Grandparent’s living room to doing gift swaps. According to Rabbi Krieger, not every family celebrates with gifts, but many do, as the holiday competes with Christmas, which is celebrated with presents.
One of the tastiest parts of the holiday, for me, are the latkes that I used to steal extras of (OK, I’ll admit it, I still do) during dinner. Latkes are like potato pancakes. These latkes are eaten on Hanukkah to go along with the celebrating of the oil candles. We light these candles and also eat oily foods.
“In Israel, it is very common for people to eat doughnuts because they are also boiled in oil,” Krieger said.
Temple Israel in Dover and Portsmouth will host a number of events and candle lighting ceremonies throughout the week.
Rabbi Krieger said Temple Israel in Portsmouth will light a candle during each night of Hanukkah in the temple’s courtyard at 5:15 p.m. On Friday, Dec. 14, it will be lit at 4 p.m.
“The biggest highlight is the concluding night, the 8th night, December 15,” Krieger said. “We will be having a Hanukkah party with some music and latkes.”
In Dover, Rabbi Sam Seicol, of Temple Israel, said they will host celebrations on Thursday, Dec. 13, Friday, Dec. 14 and Sunday, Dec. 16.
On Thursday, at 4 p.m., there will be latkes and sufganiots (they taste a lot better than they sound, trust me. Think, deep-fried doughnuts with jelly!), Hanukkah decoration making, games and more.
On Friday, Dec. 14, at 7 p.m., there will be a lighting of the menorah, open to all.
On Sunday, Dec. 16, at 10 a.m., they will host the annual Latke Making Party.
Wondering where I’ll be during these eight crazy nights? I’ll be at home lighting the candles on the menorah, gambling with the dreidel (winning money), stealing latkes off my Dad’s plate, and most importantly, thinking of my Grandfather and the rest of my family and other Jews who have sacrificed to keep me blessed and fortunate.
Distributed by MCT Information Services