Chanukah is the Jewish, eight-day, wintertime ‘festival of lights,’ celebrated with a nightly menorah lighting, special prayers, family and friends.
Sunday night at sundown began this year’s celebration, and although all of my immediate biological New York family is gone, my beautiful California children put on a wonderful dinner and fun evening for me and my special holiday. Each year is based on the Jewish calendar, so the dates may change from year to year. I am always happy when it is separate from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so I can thoroughly enjoy them both.
Several people ask me each year about the history and meaning, and I explain what it is about and the history of this joyous occasion as best I can. In our home, we celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas with gusto, and I share stories of how I celebrated Chanukah as a child.
The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication” and is named because it celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple. It is spelled in various ways, but the guttural sound reflects the Chanukah spelling as phonetically correct.
In the second century BC, the Holy Land was ruled by the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks), who tried to force the people of Israel to accept Greek culture and beliefs, instead of mitzvah observance and their own belief in God. Against all odds, a small band of faithful Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, drove the Greeks from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of God.
When they sought to light the temple’s menorah, they found only a single cruse of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks. Miraculously, they lit the menorah and the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days, until new oil could be prepared under conditions of ritual purity. To commemorate and publicize these miracles, the sages instituted the festival of Chanukah. That’s the history part.
The traditional part started in Brooklyn, where my grandparents always hosted the first night of Chanukah celebration at their house. There were presents and wonderful, home-cooked food and a lot of laughter. My grandmother cooked everything from scratch. Even though she had one small stove, a tiny oven and no counter space at all, she managed to cook enough food for an army of us!
I remember wrapped boxes of board games like Candyland, Monopoly and Chutes and Ladders stacked up in their little bedroom, as the children patiently waited for the go-ahead to open them. My grandfather used to tell me every year that he was going to buy me a monkey, and it always made me laugh. He never did, but I kept an open mind and hopeful heart.
Glee filled the apartment as we tore into the gifts and began to play with one or two of the games. The dreidel was also always played.
The traditional top-like toys are given to each player. Usually wooden or now plastic, the dreidel has four sides with a letter on each. They are the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hei and shin, an acronym for ‘a great miracle happened there.’ The game is usually played for a pot of coins, nuts or other little things, which is won or lost based on which letter the dreidel lands.
My grandfather would give us each a small bag of gold coins that were actually foil-covered milk chocolates to bet with. This ‘gelt,’ or money, was just as much fun to play for as the pennies he also gave us. Little did he know that someday I would teach this to my grandchildren. It was very entertaining since of course we had no cell phones, tablets or computers then. We talked and played. Pretty unique!
As I grew into my preteen years, my parents enjoyed both Chanukah and Christmas with friends and family. We had the best of both worlds as we ate and laughed our way through the month of December.
It was customary to get a gift for each night of the eight days of Chanukah, so the first night was usually a wonderful doll or toy I really wanted, and then each night thereafter I got a small treasure like socks or an umbrella or gloves. I cherished all of them and felt lucky. These memories fill my heart each year as I look back on them.
This past Sunday created a new memory and sharing it with my grandchildren was extra special. As I lit the first candle and said the prayer on Sunday night, I felt a warm and loving connection to my past and high hopes for the future.
Marla Luckhardt is a Brentwood resident who works with senior care and advocacy groups. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.