As the days grow shorter and the sunlight pales, Hanukkah brings light and reflection into the homes of Jewish families throughout Central Washington.
Also known as the “Festival of Lights,” Hanukkah occurs this year from the evening of December 2 to December 10. It features the lighting of the nine-candle menorah, enjoying special foods such as potato latkes and jelly donuts, and reflecting upon the significant historical events that ensured the continuation of Judaism.
Hanukkah is an age-old celebration that is based partly on history and partly on legend, explained Paula Vornbrock, a member of Temple Shalom in Yakima. A small band of Maccabees fought a large Syrian army in the second century B.C., standing up for the right to preserve their religious beliefs and to reclaim their desecrated “second temple” in Jerusalem. The Hebrew word Hanukkah means “dedication.” Part of the temple rededication ceremony involved the continuous burning of an oil lamp for eight days. Legend says that, although there was only enough oil to last one day, the oil miraculously lasted for a full eight days, making the rededication possible.
The modern Hanukkah celebration is a very minor holiday in the Jewish calendar,” said a Temple Shalom member named Karen. “It’s an opportunity to be festive and to light a candle every night. Hanukkah is all about family, light and happiness.” The dates for the annual celebration are based upon the lunar calendar and usually fall in December, though sometimes they begin in late November.
Other special days in the Jewish calendar, like Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and Passover (a commemoration of liberation from slavery and freedom as a nation) rank much higher in importance, according to members of Temple Shalom. The festival is not a “Jewish Christmas,” they added with smiles.
The lighting of the menorah is perhaps the most common custom practiced during Hanukkah.
Families gather the first evening of the festival to light the “helper” candle on a special candelabra. It’s a candle which is set apart from the others, typically slightly higher than the rest. Then, also on that first night, a second candle is lit. The second night, you will have three candles burning, and so on, Vornbrock explained.
“The lighting of the candles is accompanied by prayers “thanking God for life and for bringing us to this season and blessing God who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in this season,” Vornbrock added. Songs may also be sung, ranging from the Peter, Paul and Mary classic, Light One Candle, to the children’s Hanukkah song, I Have a Little Dreidel.
In Karen’s home, there are four menorahs, she noted. There can be thousands of different designs, often in metal but sometimes made of different materials such as children’s creations in clay. Once lit, the candles are allowed to burn out on their own, instead of being extinguished by someone, she said.
Gideon Schwartz said that his family also has numerous menorahs. They plan to put three in the window of their home this year. He recalled the adorable moment last year when he and his wife, Amanda, helped their then one-year-old son, Zhev, light a candle on a third-generation menorah.
His family also plays Hanukkah games, spinning a small, four-sided top called a dreidel (pronounced dray-dell) with a different Hebrew letter on each side, and doing simple puppet shows. “We’re beginning to teach him the history of the holiday,” Schwartz said.
And what would any family celebration be without food? For Hanukkah, some of the most popular dishes, in keeping with the festival theme, are prepared in oil. They include latkes, a cross between potato pancakes and hash browns, and jelly donuts called sufganiyot. Some attempt to make the donuts from scratch, although Karen freely admits that she buys hers from the grocery store.
Finally, there is often a gift exchange associated with Hanukkah. Especially on the first night of the festival, a larger item such as a pair of pajamas or even jewelry might be given to an adult and a special toy to a child. Items ranging from little toys for children to small trinkets for adults also may be exchanged on succeeding nights.
John, another Temple Shalom member, said that his family enjoys an added tradition known as Mensch on a Bench, a takeoff of Elf on the Shelf. Here, a small stuffed rabbi with a cloth candle sits on the table and “watches” the family lighting candles on the menorah. The mensch is symbolic of the person who “watched the menorah to make sure the flame didn’t go out,” John explained. “It’s a fun little thing that you do.”
“The thing that makes Hanukkah so special for us is getting together and enjoying time together that we only have because of the great sacrifice that our forefathers made,” Schwartz observed. John agreed. “Hanukkah is a wonderful occasion to have friends over, to spend time with the Jewish community,” he said. “I really like the interpretation — that it’s a push to do more good deeds in the world and fill the world with light by acts of love and kindness.”
The Festival of Lights is now bringing a little of that brightness to our community!