Presents and time off from school or work can often become our main focus when holidays roll around. Though I was raised Jewish, the Christmas celebrations always took center stage in my family this time of year. Long-lasting traditions in my family like decorating the Christmas tree together, leaving milk and cookies out for Santa, and then waking up to a pillowcase full of presents at the foot of our bed, left Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that falls around the same time, a bit outshined, to say the least. Only as I got older did I begin to appreciate what Hanukkah, too, has to offer.
See, despite the excitement and joy that holidays bring us, it’s important to also take the time to reflect on why we celebrate these holidays in the first place. Every holiday or tradition has its origins and with those, its own story to tell. Hanukkah’s story goes back more than 2,000 years, and its lessons are well worth remembering.
The story goes something like this:
Over 2,000 years ago, Israel was part of the ancient Greek Seleucid Empire. Not long before, Alexander the Great established the largest empire the world had ever seen, and Hellenistic (or Greek) culture had been spreading across East Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa ever since. Not unlike the challenges brought about by multiculturalism in the modern era, this radical restructuring of the land and influx of new people, languages, and cultures created tensions and rifts within communities. Many ancient peoples were forced to abandon their former way of life in favor of the political, religious, and cultural laws imposed by the Greeks.
In Jerusalem, a schism emerged within the Jewish community, dividing it into the “conservative” Jews who wanted to preserve their ancient way of life and the “reformed” Jews who adopted Hellenistic culture and traditions, either by choice or by force. It is against this backdrop that the story of Hanukkah begins. The Greek army took over the city’s holy Second Temple and erected an altar to the Pagan God, Zeus. A group of conservative Jews known as the Maccabees led a revolt to reclaim the area for the Jewish people. After two years of fighting, the Greeks were driven out of Jerusalem, but the Holy Temple had been decimated. They embarked on a new mission to restore the Temple, rebuild its altar and lights it’s menorah: the gold candelabrum that has come to symbolize the celebration of Hanukkah. Though the menorah is meant to be kept burning every night, there was only enough oil left in the wreckage to keep it alive for one night. Miraculously, the candles continued to burn for eight full nights.
How do we celebrate?
To honor the miracle of Hanukkah, each night a new candle is lit and added to the menorah during prayer for a total of 8 nights. The shamash, the ninth candle that sits in the middle, is used to light the others. In Hebrew, shamash means “helper” and its purpose is exactly that, to help light the candles and be ready to serve should a candle burn out.
After the candles are lit, the rest of the evening is celebrated with food, games, and gifts. To many guests’ delight, Hanukkah dishes consist of delicious fried foods, like latkes. We fry the food with oil to honor the miracle that took place when the oil in the temple continued to burn. We also play the dreidel, which is a spinning top marked with four different Hebrew letters. The letters on the dreidel, נ (nun), ג (gimel), ה (hei), ש (shin), are the first letters in a phrase that means “A Great Miracle Happened There”.
Did you know?
Today, the dreidels you find in Israel have replaced the letter ש (shin) with פ (peh) for the word po meaning “here.” For centuries the widely held religious belief was that Jewish diaspora would one day return to its homeland. Dreidels in Israel commemorate that reality. We are “here,” in the homeland, where it all happened so many centuries ago.
According to the Torah, Jews around the world were considered to be living in exile from their ancient homeland to which they would one day return to.
How to play the dreidel:
- A large pile of Hanukkah gelt, chocolate wrapped in gold foil resembling money, is placed in the middle
- Each player begins with the same amount of gelt in their own pile: usually 10-15 pieces
- Players take turns spinning the dreidel that will determine their fate.
- If the top lands on:
If you lose all your gelt you are out. The last player left standing wins all the gelt!
Like most Jewish mementos, gelt has a more symbolic role in this story than a yummy medium of exchange for children’s games. Gelt is the Yiddish word for “money.” Its use in Hanukkah serves as a an opportunity to teach children about their obligation to give back and help those less fortunate. This is called a mitzvah, which directly translates to “commandment” but is also understood to mean “good deeds.” And this actually brings us to one of the central themes of the holiday. The Hebrew word Hanukkah shares the same root as chinuch, “education.” Although the Greeks were eventually defeated in Jerusalem, they left behind a generation of young Jews who had been forced to grow up as Hellenists. Now free to worship as they choose, elders sought to educate their children so that the Jewish religions, traditions, and cultures could live on. And today, thousands of years later, we can be grateful that they still do. So, the next time you celebrate a holiday, regardless of where you come from or what religion you do or don’t practice, take a moment to think about why you are celebrating and appreciate the effort and sacrifices our ancestors must have made for this moment to exist. Because stories matter, tradition matters, culture matters.
Words to know
Whether you have never spoken Hebrew before or are a bit out of practice and looking for some refreshers!
The Jewish language is as ancient as its stories. The actions we take, the items we use, the food we eat: they are all referred to in Hebrew. This makes Jewish holidays a great opportunity to learn many commonly used Hebrew words.
- Maccabee (מכבי): Maccabee
- Chinuch (חינוך): education
- Shamash (שמש): helper
- Nes gadol hayah sham (נס גדול היה שם): a great miracle happened there
- Mitzvah (מִצְוָה): commandment
- Gelt: money
- Latke: Fried potato pancake
- Dreidel: Spinning Top
- Though the letters on the dreidel correspond to the first letter in the phrase “a great miracle happened there,” they also correspond to the Yiddish words that give the rules to the game: nisht (“nothing”), Hei stands for halb (“half”), Gimel for gants (“all”), and Shin for shtel ayn (“put in”).
How to make latkes
Ingredients and equipment:
- 1 1/2 pounds baking potatoes (3 to 4 potatoes)
- CHEAT TIP: If you don’t have a food processor or are a lazy chef you can buy a packet of ready-shredded hash browns
- 1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and quartered
- 1 large egg
- 2 tablespoons matzo meal or unseasoned dry breadcrumbs
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup canola oil
- Applesauce and sour cream, for serving
- Food processor or large grater
- Cheesecloth or clean, thin kitchen towel
- Mixing bowl
- Knife and cutting board
- Spatula and fork
- Prepare the potatoes. Scrub the potatoes well, but do not peel. Cut each potato in half crosswise.
- Grate potatoes and onion with a food processor. Grate the potatoes and onion using the shredding disk of a food processor or a large hand grater.
- Make a cheesecloth tourniquet and squeeze liquid from potato and onion. Transfer the grated potato and onion onto a large triple layer of cheesecloth. Gather the corners and tie around the handle of a wooden spoon. Dangle the bundle over a large bowl, then twist and squeeze the potatoes and onion as hard as you can until no more liquid comes out of the potatoes and onion shreds. Pour out the water.
- Toss the latke ingredients together with your fingers. Add the potatoes, onion, eggs, matzo meal or breadcrumbs, salt, and pepper and mix together with your hands. Don’t be afraid to get messy!
- Shape your latkes. Pour enough oil into a large pan so that it covers the pan ¼ inch deep. Heat the oil over medium high heat. Scoop out some of your mixture and start making small- to medium-size flat patties. I like mine to be small and thin, extra crispy. But you can make them larger and thicker or however you like them best. Just keep in mind that the larger they are the harder it is to keep them together.
- Fry your latkes. Carefully slide the latkes into the oil with the spatula. You have to do this carefully so that the oil doesn’t splash back at you. Fry each side for roughly 3 to 5 minutes on each side, depending on how thick they are and cooked you like them. When the first side is ready, carefully flip the latkes using a spatula and fork. When both sides are cooked, transfer the latkes onto a cutting board or plate lined with paper towels to soak up the excess oil.
- Serve. I used sour cream, but apple sauce is another popular dipping choice. If you need to reheat them, put them in the oven at 300°F for 5 to 10 minutes to get them crispy again.