November 22, 2022


A collection of traditional chanukiahs and elaborate menorahs. The candle holders are perhaps one of the most recognizable symbols of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights celebrated every year in the winter time. This year, Hanukkah begins December 18. Brigid Cooley photo

A collection of traditional chanukiahs and elaborate menorahs. The candle holders are perhaps one of the most recognizable symbols of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights celebrated every year in the winter time. This year, Hanukkah begins December 18. Brigid Cooley photo

 

Hanukkah highlights Jewish traditions

By BRIGID COOLEY 

Lenora Hausman, a Sun City resident and member of Congregation Havurah Shalom, likes putting a modern twist on her latkes, the fried Jewish potato pancakes are served with sour cream or jelly. 

“Everybody makes latkes differently,” Ms. Hausman said. “It’s traditionally the potato and the oil. But I do them with zucchini and potatoes. I [also] always put carrots in them because it lightens them up. Otherwise, it can be very heavy.”

Preparing and eating latkes is one of the traditions used to celebrate Hanukkah, the yearly Jewish festival of lights, which runs from December 18-26 this year. 

Hanukkah — also spelled Chanukah — is an eight day celebration commemorating a Jewish victory during the Maccabean Revolt, which took place in the second century B.C. During the revolt, Jewish people reclaimed their Holy Temple from Syrian-Greeks occupying Judea at the time. 

“When the Israelites came back into the temple, it was defiled and they wanted to rebuild it,” explained Ellen Silverman, another Sun City resident and member of the Congregation Havurah Shalom. “They had a lamp and they had oil for one day, but the story says the oil lasted for eight days. That was the miracle of Hanukkah.”

The holiday begins each year on the 25th day of Kislev, a month in the Hebrew calendar that corresponds with November and December. Since the Jewish religion does not follow the Gregorian calendar, its dates change from year to year, Ms. Hausman said. This year, the celebration begins at nightfall on Sunday, December 18, and concludes at the end of the day on Monday, December 26. 

While it’s not a major holiday like Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah is celebrated annually during the holiday season around the world by Jewish people and those practicing the religion. 

Hanukkah traditions 

Perhaps the most widely recognized tradition surrounding the Jewish holiday is the lighting of nine candles placed in a free standing candle holder.

While often referred to as a menorah — the Hebrew word for candelabra — candle holders used specifically for Hanukkah are called chanukiahs, Ms. Hausman said. In order to be kosher, candles must be arranged in a chanukiah so that the middle candle — called the shammash — sits a bit higher than the others. This candle is always the first to be lit and is used to light all the others. 

“You put [the candles] in from right to left, but you light them from left to right,” Ms. Hausman said. “By eight nights, you have all of them lit. When I grew up, [chanukiahs] were all traditional. But then, they became much more contemporary and you can find them metal and glass, wood and ceramics. Every metal and material that you want.”

They also can be found in different themes, Ms. Silverman added, noting ones based on Noah’s Ark or Disney characters.  

While the chanukiah is perhaps the most well-known symbol of Hanukkah, there are other traditions surrounding the holiday. One example is a game called dreidel, which is played by spinning a four sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side. 

Players spin the dreidel and must add a certain amount of Hanukkah gilt, the Hebrew word for money, into the game pot. Although traditionally played with real money, dreidel is commonly played with chocolates made to look like coins and covered in colorful foil. The player whose spin lands on the letter Gimel wins and takes all the gilt for themselves. 

And while the game is fun for the entire family, its origins run much deeper, explained Ron Mendelzon, the 2023 ritual chair for Congregation Havurah Shalom. 

Dreidel was originally created as a way of secretly studying the Torah, which was forbidden when Judea was ruled by the Syrian-Greeks. Instead of just representing how much gilt should be added in from each player, the Hebrew lettering on the dreidel used to correspond to different parts of the Torah and helped players memorize their faith.

“When the Syrians saw [the Jews] doing it, they thought they were playing a game, but in essence, they were actually studying the Torah,” Mr. Mendelzon said. 

The holiday also includes traditional foods, such as potato latkes and jelly donuts, all with symbolic origins. 

“Oil is symbolic of the miracle of the holiday, so everything is related to the oil,” Mr. Mendelzon said. “It was also popular for Jews to eat goose, which people don’t [always] do, but they take some of that fat and they render it and that’s what they’re supposed to use for the latkes.” 

Modern celebrations of long-held traditions 

For Jewish people, Hanukkah is a religious celebration of continued faith amidst oppression, Mr. Medelzon said. Traditions are rich and steeped in a long history which spans the entire world. 

As time has passed, however, the holiday celebration has been modernized. While gift giving was not traditionally a part of the ancient holiday, it is common for families to give their children eight gifts during the celebration.

“When our kids were young, we actually did eight gifts,” Ms. Hausman said. “Now, it’s not like eight big gifts. They’re small. You know, grandma and grandpa could give a gift that would count as one. We always had eight smaller gifts, like books and puzzles.” 

As families combine with one another, the Hanukkah traditions are sometimes mixed in with other holidays that fall close by, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving.

“My son is Jewish, but his wife is not and they have one son,” Ms. Silverman said. “They have the Christmas tree in the living room and the menorah in the dining room. Each family does it differently based on what they’re comfortable with doing.

“When I first moved here, Hanukkah fell on Thanksgiving night. I had all my neighbors out who didn’t have family for Thanksgiving. With one of the Jewish couples on my block, we lit the Hanukkah candles and everybody stood around and went ‘Tell us the story of hanukkah!’ It was a lot of fun.” 

This year, Congregation Havurah Shalom — Sun City’s Jewish congregation of roughly 300 members — will celebrate Hanukkah together by gathering for the lighting of the chanukiah and socializing while snacking on traditional foods. 

For more information about the congregation, visit www.chstx.org.