Happy Chanukah! Here's an Ask a Jew post, devoted to questions I've received about the holiday:
What is the proper spelling of the holiday? Why so many spellings? Does it matter?
This is the most popular question, it seems. "Chanukah" and "Hanukkah" seem to be the most common spellings, and the variations are based on the fact that it's a transliterated Hebrew word. There's absolutely no right or wrong spelling, so just go with whichever you prefer!
Can I have a brief rundown of what the holiday is about? How is the menorah a part of it?
Sure! Chanukah's primary theme -- as has been drilled into my head from kindergarten -- is that of "hidden miracles." (As opposed to big, flashy sea-splitting ones. For instance.) The story itself addresses the Jews being oppressed in ancient times by an evil Greek leader named Antiochus (I'm sorry, Greek friends! I love feta! I love c! I love YOU!), who forbade the practice of Judaism, pushed for complete assimilation, killed a lot of Jews, and took over their Temple. A rebellion by a Jewish resistance group named the Maccabees was successful, and they ultimately regained control of the Temple. At the time of the re-dedication of the Temple, the Jews were preparing to light the menorah, which required pure oil, however, there was only one small flask of pure oil, barely enough to even last one day. Through a HIDDEN MIRACLE, the tiny drop of oil stayed lit for eight days and nights. (Not unlike me in college, but that's a story for another day. Ah, memories. Of tequila.) We celebrate the successful revolt and the miracle of the oil on Chanukah by lighting menorahs of our own for eight nights (adding one additional candle each successive night).
Do you give gifts all eight days? Who do you give gifts to?
This varies from family to family, in terms of size and number of gifts, but it's generally kid-focused. (J and I got new knives and a new stockpot as our gift to ourselves. WE ARE EXCITING.) Growing up, my parents gave one small gift to each of us, each night (there were three of us; it adds up fast), like a Matchbox car, or new markers. Then on the eighth night, we'd get a big present (like a dollhouse in my case, or a trampoline for my brothers). We also always had a few annual family Chanukah parties, where we gave and received a bunch of gifts, too.
J and I do this, essentially, also. We get each of the kids one or two bigger gifts, and smaller things for the other nights. Again, we have family parties at which they -- the resident great-grandchildren, niece/nephew, grandchildren, etc. -- are spoiled beyond comprehension, and OH GOD WHERE SHALL I PUT THIS LITTLE MERMAID VANITY TABLE IN MY APARTMENT. SOMEONE HELP.
Bearing in mind the amazing surplus of gifts, something we've instituted at the end of Chanukah is that they each pick one gift each from their haul, and we go to a toy drop for kids in need. We do a toy cleanup, too, and give away the old stuff to make room for the new stuff, and (I hope) let them learn a little bit about being cognizant and appreciative for what they have, and helping other kids.
What is the significance of playing dreidel?
A dreidel is a small spinning top, and the key component of an eponymous game played on Chanukah. As mentioned above, Jewish practices were outlawed during the time of the Chanukah story, so in order to secretly carry on Jewish teachings, kids would get together to learn, and bring the dreidels with them. If a Greek officer came by, they'd whip out the dreidels and start playing, pretending they'd been doing that the whole time. It has since been turned into a cute game that a lot of families play on Chanukah.
We have a laser dreidel that plays "Axel F," which is, I'm pretty sure, exactly what the Macabees were envisioning for the future when they were fighting for our right to continue as a people.
What is the percentage of families that almost set their hair on fire with the candles?
Minutes after J captured this Norman Rockwell-esque tableau last year, I -- no joke -- nearly singed the back of my head while turning around. It happens EVERY YEAR, at least a few times. To us, anyway. Well. Me.
Are there special foods/eating rules for Hanukkah, like there seem to be with some other Jewish holidays?
There are, thankfully, no eating rules, like on Passover, but there are most definitely special foods. In order to commemorate the miracle with the oil, we -- no joke -- eat stuff that's been fried in oil. O, HEAVENS. THIS RELIGION. SUCH HARDSHIP! THE TORTURE! Common "oil" foods include fried jelly-filled (or caramel cream-filled) donuts, and latkes (potato pancakes).
What is your latke recipe?
Here you go, adapted from Kosher By Design:
2 lbs. peeled potatoes (the recipe calls for Yukon gold or russet, but it work fine with regular potatoes)
1 medium onion, quartered
4 medium scallions
1 large egg
1.5 teaspoons salt
black pepper to taste
1 cup oil (recipe recommends peanut oiil; I used canola to no ill effects)
~NOTE: You really need a food processor for this recipe~
Grate potatoes in food processor, using that top...disc thing. Remove half of the grated potatoes to a large bowl. Remove top...disc thing, and replace with the fitted blade, the one that goes in the bottom and can sever your digits. Add the onions and scallions, and process until smooth.
Smoosh out any liquid that has gathered in the bowl of grated potatoes, and then add the smooth potato/scallion/onion mixture, and toss with the egg, salt and pepper until well blended.
Heat the oil in a large pan until hot, but not smoking. While it's heating up, line a tin/large plate with paper towels. Carefully add the mixture in heaping tablespoons to the pan, frying until golden, and then flipping until the other side is golden as well. Remove latkes to drain on paper towel-lined tin.
How do we merge Christmas and Chanukah without offending anyone?Our family is mixed and everyone goes to FIL on Christmas morning. I'd like to incorporate something Chanukah-y but have absolutely no idea what would be appropriate.
Is it disrespectful to have a menorah in your home if you are not Jewish?
These two questions are from different people, but are kind of related, so I will do my best to answer them together. Also: although I consider myself an Orthodox Jew, I tend to skew pretty modern in my views. With that in mind, let me attempt to answer these.
I hope (HOPE) I've given a basic overview of the basics of the holiday. In terms of the overarching respect issue, and how to incorporate the holiday, to me, it all depends on the dynamic in your family. Some families are rigid about not melding the two holidays, and some families have open, relaxed "Chrismukkah" get-togethers. Without knowing the details of your family, I would err wayyyyy on the side of caution, so as not to offend, but that's just me. My suggestion would be to -- rather than attempt to involve any tangible Chanukah objects, which might seem like an actual, physical imposition to someone who's not expecting it -- maybe see if you can talk about some of its messages, in a casual way. Perhaps something about standing up for what you believe is right, and the concept of small miracles. While they're Chanukah hallmarks, they're also universal themes, I think, and ones that I would hope wouldn't cause any stress/offense.
In terms of bringing a menorah into one's own home if they're not Jewish, my feeling is this: the menorah isn't a sacred object, per se, and it's more of a symbol, embodying the aforementioned concepts of the holiday. If you like what the holiday (and thereby the menorah) represents, then do whatever makes you and your family happy and comfortable.
(Did I answer that stuff okay? OH GOD I HOPE SO. By all means, weigh in in the comments. I (and, I'm sure, the question-askers) would love to hear your experiences and thoughts.
Oh! And as always. let me give some form of my standard “Ask a Jew” disclaimer: I am not an expert in Judaism, nor do I claim to be perfect in my observance. This is my understanding and my interpretation. Yours may be different, and we can all learn something from each other and be right, in our own ways. In fact, I’d LOVE to hear if you know of a different explanation for anything I've addressed above, but please, please be courteous.
Happy Holidays to all!
Earlier Ask a Jew posts:
1. The Original (miscellaneous questions)
2. Ask a Jew: Episode 2 (more miscellaneous questions)
3. Ask a Jew Episode 3: Jewish Weddings (One of my favorite posts I've written. Am I allowed to say that?)
4. Ask a Jew 4: Sabbath edition
5. Ask a Jew 5: Totally Random Questions Edition
6. Ask a Jew: UNLEAVENED (Passover questions)