My friend told me Jews bought the moon," my friend Shane said a few months ago, "in a timeshare with the Russians. Is it true?"
"Oh, yeah," I replied incredulously, "yeah, it's true."
"Can you go bring me back some moon lobster?"
This solicited an awkward silence. "How do you propose I go about that?" I asked.
"Well, you're Jewish, right?"
"I'm only theoretically Jewish."
Growing up, I lived in a household with parents of different faiths—who had, in their own way, moved on from the traditional Judeo-Christian environments in which they'd been raised—who didn't really enforce either one. Come December, the three of us would join the holiday rush to pick out a Christmas tree and bring it home. Out came the boxes of ornaments—baubles, trinkets and glass globes that had come from my father's side of the family. Out came my mother's menorah, which was set up beside the Advent calendar on the kitchen counter opposite the tree.
I never stopped to question the strangeness of this: iconography of different faiths sitting side-by-side in what was essentially a secular home. All it meant, in my materialistic child's eyes, was a double-dose of presents—first, from my grandfather, whom I was required to call each night after we lit the menorah; second, from my parents, who set out cookies for Santa and filled the treasure trove beneath the Christmas tree.
The household would rise on Christmas morning, my mother would make French toast and I'd rip into the colorful parcels with the kind of casual disregard for good wrapping that only a grade-school kid can muster.
And yet, for eight nights every winter, we'd light candles.
The story of Hanukkah, or Chanukah (both spellings are correct), dates back to the fourth century BC when, following the death of Alexander the Great, civil war tore his empire apart. The Macedonian king's four chief generals—Antigonus, Cassander, Ptolemy and Seleucus—divided the territories among themselves.
In the third century BC, following an uprising of Jews in the city of Jerusalem, Seleucus' descendent Antiochus IV—who ruled over the region—outlawed Jewish traditions and forced the Jews to worship pagan gods. Lead by the priestly Maccabees family, the Jews revolted and defeated Antiochus' vastly superior army.
"At its core, [Hanukkah] is a celebration of a military victory," Temple Beth Shalom Rabbi Marvin Schwab says. "It's a holiday that celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the remnants of Alexander the Great's empire."
It also commemorates a miracle, Schwab says—or, according to Chabad Jewish Center Rabbi Berel Levertov, two.
"The Jews, at that time, were up against a massive army," Levertov says, "and, by all accounts, they didn't even stand a chance. But because they were dedicated to what they believed in, a miracle was performed, and they won over the massive Greek army."
Following Jerusalem's recapture, the Jews removed the foreign idols from the temple and rededicated it. However, when the rabbis went to relight the eternal lamp that had burned in the temple until its occupation, they discovered that the oil had been contaminated. Only one vial, enough for a single day, remained, the story goes. Yet the lamp stayed lit for eight days, long enough for the rabbis to prepare new oil.
"According to logic and the laws of nature," Levertov says, "the lights shouldn't have lasted. That's the second miracle."
Initially, Hanukkah was a spiritually significant but relatively minor holiday, which grew in popularity due to similar practices in other winter solstice celebrations.
"[Hanukkah] falls within a basic definition of Jewish holidays," Schwab says. "They tried to kill us; we won; let's eat."
It's all very festive, but everything is significant. Fried Hanukkah foods such as latkes and jelly donuts aren't just celebratory; they serve as reminders of the miracle of oil. The dreidel originates from the Greek occupation period, when children would play with tops to hide their illegal Torah studies. When the rabbis established Hanukkah as a holiday, the dreidel game was adopted as a way to engage children and, Schwab jokes, "let them win some money from their grandparents."
A Hebrew letter is written on each of the four sides of the dreidel. Taken together, they form an initialism for "A great miracle happened there." In Israel, however, the writing is slightly different: "A great miracle happened here."
Most symbolic, of course, is the menorah. Schwab says that one can tell certain things about the stability and security of a Jewish community by the effort and inventiveness that go into creating its menorahs. An important part of Hanukkah, according to Levertov, is the idea of spreading the miracle, so Jews often light menorahs in public places or open windows in the home.
"The universal message is about freedom of religion," Levertov says. "We should enable people to practice freely and not be subjected to specific religions."
As of this writing, it has been many years since I lit a menorah at home. When I ask Schwab what suggestions he has for people like me to start observing the holiday, his answer is simple: Start by getting a simple Hanukkah menorah, and try lighting the candles each night.
"Try to invest the candle…with particular significance in your own life," he says, "to make it a spiritual and reflective moment about: What are the blessings that fill your life? What gifts would you want to share each night based on those candles? What gifts would you want to share with others? And then, given the dual piece of the military victory and the rededication of the temple, think about the battles that you fight in your own life…Where would you like some strength to be added to make your life better?"
Also, he adds, "Make sure you have some potato latkes."
CHABAD JEWISH CENTER
Shabbat Chanukah Dinner
6 pm Friday, Dec. 3
Santa Fe Jewish Womens Circle Chanukah Party
6:30 pm Wednesday, Dec. 8
Chabad Jewish Center
242 W. San Mateo Road
Annual Menorah Lighting
3-5 pm Sunday, Dec. 5
Annual Chanukah on Ice
4-6 pm Tuesday, Dec. 7
Free admission, $3 skate rental
Genoveva Chavez Community Center
3221 Rodeo Road
TEMPLE BETH SHALOM
Chanukah Art and Gift Fair
9:30 am-3 pm Sunday, Nov. 21
Chabad Chanukah and Chanukah Potluck
5:30 pm Friday, Dec. 3
Noon-1:30 pmSunday, Dec. 5
$5-$8 per person, max $25 per family
Temple Beth Shalom
205 E. Barcelona Road