Thursday, December 2, 2010

♫ It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Chanukah! ♪♬

 HaPpY HaNuKaH!!!

Well, it's that time of year again: the holidays are upon us. I have to admit, though, that it's a little weird to be in a country where Christmas decor is not incessantly in my face 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the two or so months leading up to Christmas day. Don't get me wrong, I love the spirit of the holidays. It's one of my favorite times of year: I picture being somewhere cold, like in New York, with the snow falling, drinking warm cocoa, wrapped in a woolly scarf and mittens, watching couples and children ice skating and then enjoying the shopping, lights and decor at every turn. I even spent several Christmas Eve's at friend's houses so that I could partake in the festivities. The thing is, my entire life, I have had to live with the celebration of my winter holiday on the back burner to the more popular Christmas celebrations. I had to sing Christmas music in school shows, see Christmas displays in department store windows and watch my neighbors playing outside with their thousands of new toys on Christmas morning. It is no wonder then that I was the one in my Kindergarten class who told my friends that Santa did not exist. That did not go over so well at school and none of my little classmates believed me. So much for trying to burst their bubbles. Sorry, guys! Needless to say, I often felt left out growing up, as I am sure many Jewish kids do in their younger years. My mom and dad, however, still did a great job of celebrating Hanukkah traditions in our home, despite what was going on in the world outside our doors. Here in Israel, Hanukkah has arrived at long last and there is evidence of it all over the city:

A menorah perched on top of the security entrance at our apartment
Menorahs line the street posts throughout all of Jerusalem
Sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) are showcased in every bakery

Dreidels for sale at a Jerusalem market
Latkes and applesauce, a traditional Chanukah dish

That's our little last minute menorah (oops, I put the candle on the wrong side)

A menorah lighting the first night of Hanukkah at Hebrew University Hillel

Chanukah Goodies (okay, I found it on the Internet, but I couldn't resist)

Ever wonder why we celebrate Chanukah?
The story of Chanukah dates back nearly 2,000 years ago to the time when the Greeks, under the leadership of King Antiochus, began to take over the Syrian empire. At this time, the powerful Syrians forced the Jewish people (and many others) to abandon their religion and bow down instead to Greek gods. The Syrians also ended up overtaking the Jewish temple that belonged to the Jewish people. However, there were a few brave soldiers who would not succumb to this new power. Under the leadership of Judah the Maccabee, a resilient troop fought for years in the Judean Hills until they finally defeated their Syrian enemy. In celebration, Judah and the Maccabees immediately went to rededicate the temple which had been wrongly taken from them years before. As the story goes, they only had enough oil to light a candle for one night during the rededication. However, by some miracle, the oil lasted an entire eight nights, leaving just enough time for a fresh supply of oil to arrive from afar. We celebrate this miracle of light thousands of years later in honor of the brave soldiers who reclaimed the land, the people and the temple for the Jewish people.
Why do play dreidel? And what's with the gelt?
On the dreidel (spinning top) are four sides marked with four different Hebrew letters: "Nun", "Gimel", "Hei", and "Shin" which together stand for: "Ness Gadol Hayah Sham". The translation is English is: "A great miracle happened here". So, basically we use gelt (chocolate money pieces) as betting booty and everyone puts in however much gelt they want to at the start each round. If you want, you can even use real money. Then, you decide on an order and start spinning the dreidel one at a time. If it lands on "nun", you get nothing; if it lands on "gimel", you get everything in the pot; if it lands on "hei", you get half; and if it lands on "shin", you put one in. 
Why do we eat latkes and sufganiyot?
Latkes are deliciously fried potato pancakes (eaten with applesauce) and sufganiyot are scrumptious jelly-filled doughnuts. Both Chanukah items contain a lot of oil, and that is exactly why we eat them, in celebration of the oil that lasted for eight days. Additionally, because it's a joyous occasion, we're supposed to eat delicious and sweet food and not worry about being healthy for once.
Why do we get gifts during Chanukah?
Originally, gifts were not given during Chanukah. Instead, money was given to children in order to teach them to increase in charity and to do good deeds. Over the years, this developed into giving chocolate money and eventually, into giving gifts on each of the eight nights. 

Why does Chanukah start on a different day every year?

Actually, Chanukah does start on the same day every year: the 25th day of the month of Kislev. Jewish tradition follows a lunar calendar and not a gregorian calendar, so that is why it seems like Chanukah starts on different days each year.
Alright, that's it for the Chanukah 101 lesson. Hopefully now you have a better understanding of why we celebrate this annual holiday. There are supposed to be some nice, religious areas of Jerusalem to do "menorah walks" where you can spot hundreds of lit menorahs in the windows of every home (it is normal to put the menorah in the window for all to see). I am hoping to visit these homes towards the end of Hanukkah when the menorahs will be more full of light. Note: the home on the left is not an example of one of them! I am pretty sure that's more of an American style celebration of Chanukah, but I was impressed nonetheless and wanted to include it here. Please now enjoy listening to one of my favorite festive Chanukah songs that puts me in the holiday mood. Enjoy! 

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