8 Things You Need to Know About Chanukah

In my last post, I spoke about the uncomfortable reality of being a non-Christian in a country that mistakenly believes its religious identity (which doesn’t exist) is synonymous with its civic identity. I also alluded to a conversation with a friend who assumed Chanukah is a much bigger deal than it is–but instead of making my misconception corrections then, I decided to make them their own post.

So before the candles burn low, here I go.

The fundamental facts everyone needs to know about Chanukah!

1. It’s spelled in many ways, and yes, the date changes each year. Chanukah. Hanukah. Hannukkah. Channukah. The list goes on–and they’re all right. Because Jews are adept at holding multiple, conflicting opinions at the same time. And because Hebrew isn’t written with English letters, so transliteration an injective map does not make (which means it’s not one-to-one). That aside, my preference is Chanukah–and yes, please scratch the back of your throat while you start it off, chanukah. The dates also change from year to year: the Jewish calendar is lunar, and since it doesn’t sync with the number of days in the solar calender, all holidays wobble back and forth. Sometimes Chanukah comes over Thanksgiving; sometimes over Christmas. It’s just a fact of life: Jewish holidays wander. Because, you know, Jews wander.

2. We light candles–for a reason. Chanukah commemorates the rededication of the second Temple–in fact, the name Chanukah means rededication. To remember the long, tiring process of restoring the Temple, we light an additional candle each night, showing both renewal and a return to light. We do this for eight days because one cruse of oil, only enough for one night, lasted eight days while new oil could be made. And this is where it gets fun: we light 44 candles throughout the entire holiday. But can you figure out how to sum the numbers one through eight without adding them?*

But Chanukah isn’t everything.

3. There are more important Jewish holidays to celebrate. Chanukah is actually a minor Jewish holiday. The big ones are far more important, but provide little media incentive to follow, so people remain ignorant about them. Rosh HaShanah is the new year–it’s a celebration of the world’s birth and the promise of individual rebirth. Yom Kippur–the day of atonement–immediately follows Rosh HaShanah, and although a solemn holiday, it gives us a chance to reflect on our shortcomings, to set them aside, and be renewed–we are reborn each year to try again, freed of our past transgressions. And it’s wonderful. There’s also a “big three” of major festivals: Passover celebrates freedom and reminds us that once we were slaves, to be humble even though today we are free. Sukkot remembers our wandering in the desert and the food, shelter, and guidance that God provided for us–it reminds us to welcome guests into our homes and have faith that God will meet our basic needs. And finally, Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah, the moment when God provided his words to us and finally made us his people. Each of these holidays define our world and our religion–but Chanukah is not one of them.

4. It’s not as material as people think. I might be wrong, but I believe the materialism of Chanukah is an infection from the commercialization of Christmas: gift-giving is not a traditional observation of Chanukah, and is most likely an outgrowth of Christmas gift-giving (because what parent wants to leave their children empty-handed when all their Christian friends start bragging about what Santa brought them?). It’s also a great way for stores to pull in more money: Give your kids presents, BUT FIRST buy them from us. In reality, Chanukah celebrates virtues and values: gratitude for miracles, bravery to stand up against oppressors, undaunted faith to restore what’s been broken. You need presents for none of these.

5. It’s also fattening. Since we’re celebrating the miracle of oil lasting longer than it should have, and because every Jewish holiday is wrapped up in some culinary tradition, it’s customary to eat oily, greasy, fried food during Chanukah–such as potato pancakes (called latkes) and doughnuts. As if we, as U.S.ers, need any reason to eat more unhealthy food. Where’s the deep fried Oreos? Snickers? Twinkies? Twinkies are kinda candle-shaped, that’ll catch on soon enough, and fried Oreas look like gold coins–those’ll catch on, too. But thankfully, we’re not mandated to eat fried food the whole holiday, so we can feast in moderation and still be healthy.

6. It encourages gambling. Yes, you read that right. Back in the days of the Greeks, King Antiochus (sounds like tuchus) didn’t like Judaism so much and outlawed it. But Jews are rebellious at heart, and we won’t bow down to any others or turn away from our god, so we kept practicing in secret. We opened Torah scrolls and studied, and when the Greek soldiers came by to spy, we hid the scrolls and pulled out spinning tops–suddenly we were not studying, we were gambling. And since gambling was okay, so were we. Today we spin dreidles, each inscribed with the moniker Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, “a great miracle happened there,” and while we’re just exchanging candy–normally in the shape of gold coins to commemorate when real money was used in the days of Antiochus–who knows what sort of damage its doing to our children.

And, yes, that last part was a joke. Just to be clear.

And yet, Chanukah really is all that.

7. Chanukah celebrates miracles and light. And when is it ever bad to celebrate miracles and light–especially in the dark, cold winter? There are a number of miracles to remember: the oil burned for eight days, so the eternal flame in the Temple never went out; the bravery of the Maccabees, a small band of heroes, overthrew the Greeks and reclaimed our Temple; and that Temple, once destroyed, was restored. Not to mention the myriad miracles that have followed us throughout history, or the plethora of miracles we experience every day–it’s a wonderful cause to celebrate, and at the end of the year, when we’re worn down and need something uplifting, Chanukah is here to make us remember there is still light in the world–and every day, that light grows and grows whether we see the candles burning or not.

8. Chanukah brings us together. Long ago, in those days of Antiochus, the oppression of the Jews brought them together–their bravery, cunning, and hardwork as a community brought down an empire and freed our people. This is a story that is still being written today–maybe the oppressor is systemic, maybe the community is nationwide or global, but we can still come together and relieve ourselves from those ties that tether us down–whether on LGBT issues, race, environmental concerns, classism, sexism, or any other form of oppression that exists in the world–together, we can topple it and, together, we can restore the world to light. And while we’re working toward that goal, in the moment, today, tonight, this week, Chanukah brings us together to light candles, exchange gifts, play games, share food and stories, and remember how important each of these things are–and then how much more important they are when we do them together with family and friends.

So, yes, Chanukah is often blown out of proportion by the media, and often it comes at the lessening of more important matters, but Chanukah is still an amazing holiday and no matter its faults (because, honestly, we all have faults), it’s still a staple of Jewish culture–and I love every moment of it.


* How to sum consecutive numbers without adding them: Let n be the number you’re adding to. Then compute n*(n+1) and divide this sum by two. To count the number of Chanukah candles we use, we let n=8, so 8*9=72, and dividing this by two, we obtain 36. Which is wrong, because I tricked you: we don’t light one candle each night–we start with two, always using a shamash (helper candle) to light the others: thus we’re really counting from two to nine. We can use the same formula above to get started: 9*10=90, and dividing by two, we obtain 45. Then, since we now counted one but need to remove it, we subtract one to obtain 44. And there we have it.

Alternatively, if we count the sum from one to eight and obtain 36, all we need to do is add eight more to count for the extra candle each night: 36+8=44. The beautiful thing about math is that there’s always more than one way to the right answer, the ultimate sum, the destination we’re journeying toward. Just the same, no matter our goals–great or small–the challenge isn’t whether or not we can get there, but what path we’ll take–and it’s that path, that choice, that decides whether we’ll be remembered as rioters or protestors, oppressors or liberators, rebels or Maccabees.

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