Hanukkah, Hanukah, Chanukah … what are you? Are you more than just a Christmas consolation prize? The Jews must really be G-d’s Chosen People if they get eight whole days of presents, am I right? The origins of Hanukah date back to those warring days of yore, when the Middle East was a hostile land, and religious fervor was the name of the game. Okay, so not a lot has changed. Back then, Alexander? He was great. His sons, I’m not so sure. He passed on, the sons contested the will, and there was a big to do. They settled out of court and each got a piece of the family business, but then the Seleucids went after Ptolemaic Israel anyways, and tried to force the local Jewish population to be Hellenists already.
So there the Jews were mixed up in Greek politics what with the Bacchanalias and nymphs and pantheon of jealous adulterers (oy vai, what a group they were—they really put the appall in Apollo). The Jews did what they did best and adapted as yet another wave of history washed over them. They didn’t want the world—they just wanted to be left alone to do their thing.
But no. Not under this empire either. The Jews refused to conform, and that’s when the shiksa really hit the fan. A rebellion broke out, led by a small force called the Maccabees (Hebrew for “men who are as strong as hammers”). Like David and Goliath, the rag-tag rebels defeated the sizeable Greek army.
It was like the Jewish Trojan War. Instead of Menelaos, think Maccabees. Ajax? Sandy Koufax. Am I right?
But we haven’t even gotten to the best part: the miracle. Hanukah is known as the Festival of Lights because after the Maccabees’ victory, the Jews wanted to reclaim and rededicate their Temple, which had been totally desecrated by idols and graven images, like most of our houses during a certain Janet-Justin Superbowl halftime.
There was only sacramental oil enough to light the Temple’s menorah for one night. However, that one bottle of oil lasted eight miraculous nights. That is why ever since, beginning every 25th of Kislev, Jewish households around the world light their menorahs for eight straight nights and eat foods fried in oil, especially the famous potato latkes.
There is a ritual to lighting the menorah—eight candles are at the same level, and the shamesh that is taller than the rest. One must light each candle with the shamesh, so every night a Hanukah candle plus the shamesh is lit from right to left, the newest candle always lit first.
Other items of Hanukah heraldry include special prayers said at home while lighting the menorah, dreidels and gelt, and profoundly simple songs that get stuck in your head for days. Oooooh, Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay, and when it’s dry and ready, a dreidel I shall play … The dreidel is a four-sided top, and it’s a gambling game. Each side of the dreidel has one of four Hebrew letters on it. Whichever letter it lands on, that’s what you have to do, like win money or lose money or do nothing. You might be playing with gelt, or chocolate coins, which are a Hanukah must-have. In Israel, the letters on the dreidel are different, because the dreidel’s letters stand for “a great miracle happened here.” But if you are not in Israel, then it must say, “a great miracle happened there.”
Presents? Well, that’s just cultural evolution at its best.
By Stephanie Block