Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights celebrates the revolt of the Maccabees in 165 BCE against the Syrian-Greek forces that had been occupying the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. After chasing the invading forces out, the victors found only enough oil in the desecrated temple to last one day, but miraculously the flame survived for eight days. This lay the foundation for the eight- day celebration of the holiday and the importance of oil in the menu planning for this period. The other important food item is dairy because, according to tradition, one of the factors contributing to the success of the Jews was that a brave woman named Judith fed salty cheese to the Syrian general, causing him to be so thirsty he drank wine until passing out. After he fell asleep she decapitated him, and his head was used to demoralize the rest of the army.
During this festival children look forward to playing the dreidl game, or s'vivon in Hebrew. The dreidl is a spinning top with Hebrew letters around it. It was originally used as a way to teach Hebrew to children under the guise of a game so that their captors would not realize what they were doing.
The most important symbol for the holiday is the menorah, the eight-branched candelabra. On each night of the celebration one extra candle is lit, until all eight are glowing on the last evening. Prayers and singing accompany the candle lighting.
Although Hanukkah was originally a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, it has gained much greater prominence in America. The custom of giving presents to children during this holiday was adopted in the U.S., and generally children receive a gift for each night of the celebration. Children also receive foil wrapped chocolate coins called gelt, either as gifts or prizes for winning at the dreidl game.
But the most important part of the celebration is sharing time with family and friends, passing along the story of the Maccabee success to children, and sharing a piece of Jewish history with non-Jewish friends. With eight nights to party, Jewish families can plan a variety of activities to amuse young and old. Consider some of the following ideas to create traditions of your own:
- Make one night " grandparent night" where the focus is on grandparents sharing the holiday with their children and grandchildren.
- Another night can be " book night" where books are exchanged with one another, and special stories are read aloud.
- Dedicate one night to sharing the story of Hanukkah and traditions with non-Jewish friends and neighbors.
- Join in the celebration at your family's synagogue.
- Take the family on a cultural outing another night such as a trip to the theater, symphony, or ballet.
Here are other links for creating Hanukkah traditions and menus for your own family.
With special thanks to my friend Judi Levine for background and suggestions. Judi is the wife of Rabbi Richard Levine, and she and her wonderful family have hosted many Hanukkah celebrations over the years.