Hanukkah, the annual Jewish festival celebrated on eight successive days beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, the third month of the Jewish calendar, roughly corresponding to December in the Gregorian calendar, is also known as the Festival of Lights, Feast of Dedication, and Feast of the Maccabees.
Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem by Judas Maccabee in 165 BC after the Temple had been profaned by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, king of Syria and overlord of Palestine.
Key among Hanukkah traditions are the lighting the menorah, the giving of gelt (Yiddish for money), which often includes gold-foil wrapped chocolate coins; potato pancakes called latkes; and games using the spinning tops known as dreidels. Each item helps contribute to making Hanukkah a fun, and not-too-serious holiday among the roster of Jewish holy days, lending itself to themes of family togetherness, the triumph of religious freedom, light and miracles.
First, the menorah (Hebrew: ?????), which is a seven branched candelabrum lit by olive oil in the Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem. The menorah is one of the oldest symbols of the Jewish people and is said to symbolize the burning bush as seen by Moses on Mount Sinai. It is also inextricably linked to Hanukkah. According to the Talmud, after the desecration of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, there was only enough sealed (and therefore not desecrated by idolatry) consecrated olive oil left to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days which was enough time to get new oil as well as to finish rebuilding the Temple. The Hanukkah menorah therefore has not seven, but nine candle holders. The eight side branches represent the eight-day celebration of the miracle of oil, while the central branch, called the "Shamash", is used to light the others.
The act of passing out gelt to the children gelt allows adults an opportunity to offer positive reinforcement for exemplary behavior, such as diligence in their schoolwork and acts of charity. The distribution of gelt generally occurs after lighting the menorah. Foil wrapped chocolate gelt is often used to play a customary dreidel game.
Spinning the dreidel is essentially a gambling game, with players competing for matchsticks, pennies, M&Ms, and especially, chocolate coins. The traditional explanation of this game is that during the time of Antiochus' oppression, those who wanted to study Torah, then an illegal activity, would conceal what they were doing by gambling games with a spinning top whenever an official or inspector was within sight. A dreidel is marked with four Hebrew letters, Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin. These letters stand for the Hebrew phrase "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham", or, ‘A great miracle happened there’, referring to the miracle of the oil.
The letters also stand for the Yiddish words nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half) and shtell (put), and this is origin of the game. There are some variations in the way the game is played, but the most common calls for everyone to put in one coin. A person spins the dreidel, and if it lands on Nun, nothing happens; on Gimel, they’ll get the whole pot; on Hei, they’ll get half of the pot; and on Shin, they are required to put one in. When the pot is empty, everybody puts one in.
Like all Jewish holidays, Hanukkah comes with its own special food traditions and recipes. Soofganiot (doughnuts) and latkes (potato pancakes) are popular Hanukkah treats. Traditionally, fried food and dairy food are eaten during Hanukkah, reminding the room of the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days when the Maccabees purified and rededicated the holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Some rabbis draw further significance to the use of oil at Hanukkah, suggesting that using oil is like studying the Torah. Oil is not a food generally eaten alone and not necessary for out daily existence. It simply adds pleasure to life, as does the study of Torah. Also, oil has the potential to illuminate the world, as does study of Torah.
HANUKKAH AT THE GOLDBERGS
Thanks to our friend Carolyn Krieger-Cohen, public relations specialist, we were extended a warm and intimate invitation to join her family’s 11th annual Hanukkah gathering at the home of her cousins, Carol and Glen Goldberg.
The gathering, which in early years was held at various area club houses in order to accommodate the size of the group, upwards of forty, but these days, the comfortable Huntington Woods setting has proven to be the ‘right’ location for the gathering, which focuses on family and the strength of relationships as the years roll by.
The idea for the Hanukkah gathering, says Carolyn, followed the death of her grandmother Pearl ‘Nana’ Goldberg, to whom the extended family had previously turned to learn details about siblings and cousins, many of whom live out of town. “Everybody told Nana everything,” Carolyn smiles. “Once we lost that marvelous resource, we needed a way to keep up with each other’s lives. So the idea for an annual gathering was born, and what better occasion than Hanukkah, which centers on family and happiness.”
Spiritual and physical reminders of Nana and her late husband Israel adorn the Goldberg’s house, including placemats boasting a collage of family photographs which were made for Nana’s 90th, and last, birthday. But the true legacy of this wonderful couple is the array of faces gathering around the Menorah, spinning dreidels, sharing traditional Hanukkah latkes and deli delights, and laughing-to-tears at the annual tradition of passing out gag gifts and awards to commemorate various family member anecdotes which occurred over the past year. The range in age is from 1 years old (Nana’s great, great granddaughter Maya) to Uncle Leo at 94.
Among the gathering, there’s Uncle Leo Goldberg, who at ninety-four is the reigning patriarch; a former wrestler and former owner of a floor covering business and who retains a wit as sharp as ever, and who scoffs ailments inherent to his time in life with an always-cheerful “I’m great!” Rumor has it that this hale fellow, in an earlier era, walked the stairwells of Detroit’s landmark buildings… on his hands.
And there’s Winnie Krieger, Carolyn’s mother, who is the ‘baby’ among Israel and Pearl’s seven children, five of whom are still alive. After 54 years of marriage, Winnie retains a positive outlook on all aspects of life.
“That’s what this is all about,” says Carolyn, eyes sparkling. “Reconnecting. It’s about a poignant sense of who we are, individually and collectively.”
Always done on a Sunday afternoon, another tradition is watching a Detroit Lions game on television, which they invariably seem to lose. “That may be,” laughs Carolyn. “But the family always wins.”