Tuesday, December 4, 2007

First night of Hanukkah, er, Chanukah, er, the Festival of Lights

At sundown tonight, the eight-day Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah begins. Hanukkah (or Chanukah, or however you choose to spell it) marks the
re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the forces of Antiochus IV (around 165 B.C.). It commemorates the "miracle of the container of oil." According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil. Each evening during Hanukkah, another candle is lit on the menorah until, on the final day, the entire menorah is lit.

The dreidel, a four-sided top, is used for a game played during Hanukkah. Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ (Nun), ג (Gimel), ה (Hei), and ש (Shin), which together form the acronym for the Hebrew phrase
"נס גדול היה שם" (Nes Gadol Haya Sham) which means "a great miracle happened there." [Note. Most of the information in the preceding two paragraphs was taken from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia.]

No matter what anyone might have told you, Hanukkah is not "the Jewish Christmas."

In the interest of full disclosure, my mother was Jewish (non-practicing) and my father was Christian (lapsed Methodist). I was raised Christian and have never attended a synagogue, but for years I struggled with my own identity. I wondered whether I was Christian or Jewish or half-Jewish, whatever that meant, and whether there could even be such a thing as "half-Jewish." In 1962, Mrs. Lydia Buksbazen of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, whose husband Victor headed the Friends of Israel missionary organization, told me, "Hitler would have considered you Jewish." So basically, if my great-grandfather Max Silberman had not left Germany and come to America in the 1860's, we might not be having this conversation.

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