Put on your yarmulke – it’s time to ask a Jew about Chanukah!

Chanukah starts this evening, so we thought it only appropriate to give all you non-Chosen people a little religious schooling on what this holiday is all about.

I know, the Adam Sandler reference in the title is a little cheesy, but you have no idea how often that song gets sung to me around this time each year. Along with that also come a pretty standard set of questions about Chanukah. Since this happens so often, I thought it might be helpful to address these, for all of you non-Chosen People out there.

Um, so what’s the point of Chanukah? It’s the most important Jewish holiday, right?

Wrong! It’s actually a minor Jewish holiday; the practice of giving gifts for each of the eight nights and the big deal that everyone makes of it only came about because the holiday falls so close to Christmas. Chanukah is an eight day long holiday that commemorates the miracle at the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The story is that after the Maccabees (ancient Hebrew warriors) reclaimed the Temple, they went to light the menorah (a special religious candelabra), and found there was only enough oil in it for it to burn for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, enough time for them to create new oil for the menorah. And that miracle is why the Jews celebrate Chanukah!

What is that thingy you light for Chanukah?

That “thingy” is called a menorah and it’s a special candelabra that Jews only use for Chanukah. It has nine branches. One light (called the shamesh) is lit each night and used to light the other candles. It’s also somewhat separated from the other candles; in a traditional menorah it’s the one in the middle that’s higher than all the others. As for the other candles, you add one each night, so that by the final night of Chanukah, all nine branches are lit. It symbolizes the menorah in Jerusalem that was lit by the Macabees when they reclaimed the Second Temple. On the first night the menorah is lit, there are three blessings said over it, on all the other nights two blessings are said. It’s also traditional while growing up Jewish to fight with your sibling over who gets to light the menorah each night, until one of you is smart enough to figure out if you alternate nights and take the second night, you end up getting to light like four more candles than your sibling. Totally worth the time and effort of that fight. Trust me.

I wish I celebrated Chanukah, you guys must get soooooo many presents.

Ok, so that’s not really a question, but I feel the need to address it anyway. As one website I checked with said about the practice of gift-giving, “It has been added in places where Jews have a lot of contact with Christians, as a way of dealing with the children’s jealousy of their Christian friends.” As someone who grew up Jewish, I feel no shame in completely agreeing with this statement. I mean, how else was I going to con my parents into buying me that American Girl Doll I’d been eying for the past three months? In all seriousness though, I think the amount of gifts varies in each family, just like at Christmas. I know my family didn’t give a gift every night, but some do. If yours is one of those families that do, how do you feel about having a new daughter this Chanukah season?

I’ve seen Chanukah spelled all these different ways. What’s the right way?

There’s a saying in Judaism, that if you put five Jews in a room together, you’ll end up with six opinions. Such is the case with Chanukah (Hannukah? Channukah? Hanukah?). From what I’ve read, and people I’ve talked to, there isn’t a right way to spell it. It’s the transliteration of a Hebrew word, which basically translates into a free-for-all when it comes to the English spelling of it.

Latkes? Dreidel? Gelt? What do these words mean?

Latkes are just fried potato pancakes. Delicious. And calorie free because you’re only eating them for religious purposes. Dreidel is a game that is played on Chanukah with a four-sided top, called a dreidel. On each of the sides is one letter that together spell out a Hebrew acronym for “A Great Miracle Happened There,” referring to the oil that burned for eight days. You play dreidel with gelt, which are fake gold coins (chocolate wrapped in gold, also calorie free). The object of the game is to win all the gelt, and the letters on the side of the dreidel dictate whether you get to take coins from the pot, have to put coins in, or win them all. I won’t go into a longer explanation, but that’s really just because I don’t want you to be able to beat me at my own game.

I think that’s probably enough Chanukah primer to be able to impress your Jewish friends. Just please don’t sing me the Chanukah Song if you see me out. “OJ Simpson… not a Jew.” Yeah, yeah, I know!

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Talia Miller

Talia Miller is a Richmond transplant who is keeping the faith by working at a local synagogue. When she’s not being a good little Jewish girl, you can find her DJing with Cherry Bomb, Richmond’s all-lady DJ collective, road-tripping around Virginia, going for long runs, or dining out because she hates to cook.

11 comments on Put on your yarmulke – it’s time to ask a Jew about Chanukah!

  1. I like to think of myself as Chosen by the Chosen People. So, Chosen nonetheless. Also I’ma take all your calorie-free gelt again this year.

  2. Way to make the Google News front page (7:12 a.m. CST)! Chanukah was always so cool and mysterious when I was a kid. Our neighbors from New York (not a lot of chosen people in WI) had the prettiest mehorah. We were Catholic so candles = cool, just like midnight mass (long, dull… but with fire!).

  3. Great article! Thanks for confirming that latkes and gelt are calorie free; just in time for this year’s Hanukkah fress (fress=eating freely)! Hey- yet another spelling of Hanukkah!

  4. Brooke on said:

    What an incredibly informative yet quite humorous article! Also nice Bio, those long runs may be aiding you in this “calorie free” claim, although I am definitely willing to take your word for it.

  5. I would also add that most Jews do not have a Christmas tree or “Chanukkah bush”. Even though a tree doesn’t have an explicitly religious meaning, it still is very closely associated with the Christian holiday and so the idea feels anathema to most Jews who wish to keep our own identity separate. (Which isn’t to say we don’t enjoy a good eggnog or gingerbread cookie!)

  6. Mazeltov! And nice writing.

  7. Cousin Brenda of San Diego on said:

    Nice writing Talia! Very funny.

  8. charbatkin on said:

    Of course, the chocolate coins are just a chocolatification of Hanukkah gelt, which is actually real coins. So they do have calories.

    The latkes, however, are significant because they are cooked up in oil, so they do not have calories.

  9. Amy, in VT on said:

    עבודה תרגום נחמד! מאוד מצחיק! בראבו.

  10. Anthony Martino on said:

    Hi There,

    I am an Italian Catholic who went to a predominantly jewish school in my youth. I must say that I was included in every jewish holiday and conversation…and a lot of my friends were and still are jewish. Good people. Your article was amazing, enjoyed it very much!

    Anthony

  11. Great article. Makes me wish I was chosen. But I’m not…now I’m sad.

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