Quick! What the Hell is Hanukkah?

By Wendy Thomas Russell | December 19, 2011 | 8 comments

These are the things I’m ever able to remember about Hanukkah:

— It rhymes with Monica.
— It last for eight days.
— The colors are blue and white.
— Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.
— And something about a candlestick.

Listen, I’m not proud. I’ve already admitted that my brain, as Thomas Dolby so eloquently put it in the year 1988, is like a sieve. It’s no use coming down on me now. But in my own defense, what I do remember is factual — only the candlestick is called a menorah (rhymes with fedora) and “Dreidel” is not just a song but a game — and not some Kick-the-Can alley game, but a full-on poker game. Like craps. And do you know how much I like craps? Because the answer to that question is really, really a lot.

Of course there’s a bit more to Hanukkah than that — and my friend Mira (who teaches Judaism and speaks fluent Hebrew) was able to tell me all about it. (And she only laughed at my ignorance a couple-few times. Thanks, Mira.) So here it is: your friendly Holiday Cheat Sheet, Episode 4.

Holiday: Hanukkah

Pronounced: HON-i-kuh

AKA: ”Festival of Lights”

Religion Represented: Judaism

Date: Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days and nights, starting on the 25th day of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar. In 2012, the dates will be Dec. 8-16. In 2013, they will be Nov. 27-Dec. 5.

Celebrates: The rededication of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple in the 2nd Century BCE.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Hanukkah is a 1. Yep, a measly old 1. Synagogues don’t offer Hannukah services or instruct congregations on what to do for the holiday. HOWEVER: Jewish kids never seem to get the memo on the insignificance of Hanukkah. Every year, they go ape-shit for it — largely because it’s the only Jewish holiday that involves presents. (As you all know, Presents = Ape-shit).

Star of the Show: Judah Maccabee

Back Story: While under Assyrian rule, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was taken from the Jewish people as part of a larger effort at Hellenization (i.e. colonization into ancient Greek culture). But when the ruler at the time issued an outright ban on Jewish religious practices — punishable by death — and placed a statue of Zeus on the alter of the Holy Temple, the Jewish people formed a rebel army and fought back. It took 20 years, but the army, led by Judah Maccabee, took back the Holy Temple, purged it of its “pagan” statue and restored it to its former glory. According to my friend Mira Smeltzer, this was, very likely, the world’s first holy war.

Associated Literary Passages: Books of the Maccabees

Why a Menorah?: As the story goes, the rebels knew it would take many days and nights to clean, repair and restore the temple, but they had only enough lamp oil to last one night. Miraculously, the lamp kept burning, and burning, and burning — for eight days and nights — allowing the temple to be restored quickly and thoroughly. Today, each candle on the menorah represents one of these days, plus there’s always one extra to light the rest.

The Food: Traditional eats are fried in oil — a nod to the lamp oil. They include yummy potato pancakes called latkes and jelly-filled donuts.

The Fun: Hannukah is celebrated at sundown each night by lighting the menorah; listening to Hanukkah music, eating, opening presents (one present per night per kid) and, of course, playing the Dreidel game. Parties are commonly held on the Friday during Hanukkah.

Conveying Meaning to Kids: The story of Hanukkah is easily accessible to children. When my daughter heard the lamp-oil story at school, she repeated it back to me at least six times. “There was only this much oil!” she told me, holding her thumb and forefinger an inch apart. “And it lasted for EIGHT DAYS!” In addition to telling the tale, you might listen to some Hanukkah music; cook up some latkes, play some Dreidel and maybe even light a menorah. (I bought a vintage menorah on Etsy and love it so much I may never take it down.) Click here for my how-to’s on lighting a menorah, playing Dreidel and making latkes.

And now for my Hanukkah Playlist:

1. Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah by Barenaked Ladies

2. Ocho Kandelikas by Flory Jagoda

3. I Have a Little Dreidel by The Hit Crew

4. Honeyky Hanuka by The Klezmatics

5. (I’m Spending) Hanukkah In Santa Monica by Tom Lehrer

6. World Hanukkah Blessings by Barenaked Ladies

7. Hanu-Calypso by Kenny Ellis

8. The Dreidel Song by Debbie Freedman

9. Latke Clan by The LeeVees

10. The Chanukah Song by Adam Sandler

(By the way, I’m making a few extra music CDs. Let me know if you’d like one!)


8 comments

  1. Jenny says:

    Wait. Hold up. Did I hear you correctly? Are you saying there will be no “What the hell is Christmas” post?! Give the people what they want, Russell!!!

    (Also, I nearly lost it when I got to the Presents = Ape shit line.)

  2. Gillie says:

    Oh man; I wanted a CD! Great primer! Sometimes I wish somebody would do one on Christmas. All the ones I see are either from a purely Christian perspective or from an angry atheist perspective. I want something truthful and without woo-woo that my kids can watch/see/listen to (i.e. no profanity or sarcasm).

    • Thanks, Gillie! Send me your address, and I’ll send you a CD: writingdays09@gmail.com. And I’m totally in agreement: I think we take it for granted that talking bout Christian holidays is easy, when oftentimes we know little of why they exist. A common question: Is Santa (St. Nick) a Christian symbol? It’s a great question! (And the answer is no.)

  3. Jody says:

    I would love a CD. Thanks for the post. I enjoy reading them, even if my comments are few and far between.

  4. Nice post.

    First Eid al-Adha, the Hanukkah, now looking forward to the “What the Hell is Christmas” post.

    Nice music selection – I hope the RIAA doesn’t see your offer to give away music :)

    • Christmas… Christmas… Doesn’t ring a bell. Oh wait! Is that the one where people give their small children to strange, bearded men and then laugh while their children cry?

      Seriously thought about doing a tongue-in-cheek Christmas post but decided to do Kwanzaa instead. Because, seriously, what the hell is Kwanzaa?

      Great point about the CD. Lucky no one is taking me up on it. The upside to writing an unpopular blog.

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