Sunday, December 6, 2015

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

At sundown tonight -- or, for some of you, at sundown last night -- the eight-day Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah began. 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" that held enough oil to last one day but burned for eight. 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 re-dedication of the temple is described in the book of First Maccabees in the Apocrypha, which writings are accepted as canon by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, but not by Protestant churches. (Your trivia fact for the day: Protestant Bibles contain 66 books; Catholic and Orthodox Bibles contain 73 books.) The "miracle" itself is not mentioned in First Maccabees, but the eight days are.

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, reading from right to left, of course) which means "a great miracle happened there."

I am indebted to Wikipedia for much of the information in the preceding paragraphs.

(Photo by Roland Scheicher, 1 August 2006)

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 and my great-grandmother Sarah Nusbaum had not left Germany with their respective families and come to America in the mid-nineteenth century, we might not be having this conversation.

This year, the eight days of Hanukkah run from sundown Sunday, December 6th through Monday, December 14th. Therefore, please do not wish your Jewish friends a “Happy Hanukkah” around December 25th, long after it has ended. They will certainly appreciate the thought but they may look at you strangely.

[Editor's note. Parts of this post were previously published on this blog in 2007, 2008, and 2011. --RWP]

2 comments:

Elephant's Child said...

Hitler would certainly have considered you Jewish, and all of your children and their children too. Labels. Which often don't fit at all well.

Yorkshire Pudding said...

Any chance of you doing a Yemenite dance and posting it on YouTube? It would give me and many others enormous pleasure. Thoughts of Fagin dancing in the musical "Oliver" would surely spring to mind and it would be excellent exercise for you. I'm just sayin'...