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This Chanukah

            We bought a new chanukiah (a candle holder with nine branches) for Chanukah, as a step up from the one we’ve used for the past two years: a tiny supermarket trinket with mini candles that burned down in minutes. That one replaced what we’d had for many years, which was nothing. It seems strange, given how much Judaism means to me, that I still struggle so much with the symbols and rituals of being Jewish. I still don’t light Shabbat candles on Friday nights, or bake or buy a challah, or say blessings over wine (or even grape juice). I take great joy in singing the prayers and in the sense of community and I love teaching the kids in synagogue school. But. There are still so many glitches.

The new Chanukiah in it’s place of honor next to Miss Butterfly

            One of the glitches is the story behind the holiday of Chanukah. The traditional story is that the Jews rose up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the second century before the Common Era. King Antiochus IV had outlawed the Jewish religion, ordering the Jews to worship Greek gods, and his soldiers attacked the city, killing thousands and desecrating the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews rebelled, under Judah the Maccabee, and retook the city and the Temple, and when they went to rededicate the Temple, and light the seven branched Menorah, they could only find enough consecrated oil to last one day, but, miracle of miracles, the oil lasted eight days.

Miracles shmiracles.

            Except. The war started as a civil war between those Jews, led by the Maccabees, who were determined to impose Jewish law on all of the Jews, even by force, and those Jews who had adopted Greek customs; the entrance of the Greek soldiers came later. The Maccabees won the war, killing Greek soldiers and their fellow Jews, and took control of the land of Israel for more than a century. Oh, and the oil that lasted eight days? It wasn’t in the original telling of the story. The miracle of the oil came up later, when the Rabbis needed an excuse for a festival of light to replace the pagan festivals of light the Jewish people loved so much.

            So, how do I celebrate a miracle (eight days of oil) that I know didn’t actually happen? And how do I celebrate a holiday that honors the killing of Jews like me who just wanted to have a foot in both the religious and the secular worlds?

            I struggle with the story behind this holiday just like I struggle with the story of Purim (punishing the man who planned the mass murder of the Jews by killing him and his whole family), but I can also see the value of a holiday that helps us find a way to feel hopeful during a dark time, be it a time of oppression or a time of literal darkness.

            The fact is, even though in America we tend to look at Chanukah as the sort of third cousin twice removed of the big winter holiday of Christmas, it turns out that many cultures have a festival of light around this time of year. Each one has its own story – whether it’s about the birth of Jesus, or the rebirth of the Sun, or honoring ancestors; the Hindus have a whole epic among the Gods for Diwali (celebrated mid-November this year) that ends in the triumph of good over evil.

            What all of these holidays have in common is the celebration of light. As the days get shorter and colder, and the nights get longer and darker, we all need something to remind us that light and heat and harvests and joy will return. We light candles, or clay lamps, or bonfires, or firecrackers, and we make a point of celebrating with our loved ones and eating special foods, all so that we can make it through the winter with our hope intact. We’ve gotten so good at this that, at least in America, we call this “the most wonderful time of the year!”

“The MOST wonderful?!”

            We still crave the symbols of our own cultures when we celebrate, though, just like we want to spend time with our own families and friends at this time of year. So for Christmas there’s Santa Claus, and mistletoe, yule logs (originally from a druid custom of rolling a flaming wheel down a hill to remind the sun how to rise), and of course Christmas trees (fun fact, people used to light up their Christmas trees with candles, before electric light came along, so Christmas tree fires were very common); and for Chanukah, we light our Chanukiyot and spin dreidels and eat potato latkes and chocolate gelt (coins); and for Yalda Night, a Zoroastrian Winter Solstice celebration in Iran on the longest night of the year, there are red fruits (like pomegranates and watermelons) to symbolize the crimson colors of dawn, and dried fruit and nuts and Persian sweets and poetry; and on St. Lucia’s Day in Sweden, the eldest daughter dresses in a long white gown, tied with red ribbons, and wears a crown of candles and lingonberry greens, and brings sweet rolls called Lussekatter to her family; and for the Chinese Lunar New Year lanterns are lit to celebrate the light of the moon, and dumplings and fish and rice cakes and noodles are eaten for good luck in the coming year; and for Diwali, clay lamps called Diyas are lit to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil, and there are candles and firecrackers and intricate patterns of colored powders, and sweet and savory foods; and for Kwanzaa, an African American holiday to commemorate African Winter Solstice festivals, a Kinara (a candle holder with seven branches) is lit with candles in red, black and green, and gifts are given, and harvest foods of Africa are eaten, and the values of African village traditions are celebrated.

            But all of it, however specific the details are to our own cultures, connects us to the overall human need for light, and wisdom, and hope for tomorrow.

            When I think of it like that, Chanukah starts to take on more of a glow for me. And it also makes sense of my love for Christmas movies, which are really all about love and light and miracles, especially the small miracles that help us through each day.

            So maybe this year, even as Mom and I light the candles on the Chanukiah, and sing Chanukah songs to the dogs, we can think about all of the other people around the world celebrating their own festivals of light, and we can remember the creativity and ingenuity of all of our ancestors in finding ways to feel joy at such a dark time of year, instead of each of us hibernating in our own caves. And maybe, along with the obligatory potato latkes, we can celebrate with samosas, or Halwa, or dumplings, or Lussekatter. Maybe we’ll even drink some Swedish Glogg (flaming mulled wine!), though probably not. The dogs would much prefer a traditional Winter Solstice meal, with lots and lots of roasted meat.

“We’re ready to be spoiled for eight days! Or more!!!!”

            I don’t want to erase the history that brought my people to this point, or pretend that my ancestors were any less flawed than they were. I want to find a way to honor the deeper meaning of the holiday, for me, which is that survival is possible, even through the darkest of times, if we are willing to look around and learn from each other.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

104 responses »

  1. 🐶 Pretty Puppies in December 🙂

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  2. The new Chanukiah is lovely. Thanks for mentioning the Glogg. I have a bottle of it somewhere and never knew what to do with it. Happy Holidays.

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  3. How complex history is, never black and white and comes down to us in stories that take on a life of their own. Handel wrote an opera about Judah the Macabbee.This year people are putting their lights up earlier as a symbol of cheering and hope against Covid. Perhaps that will turn into another tradition involving lights! We put chocolate coins in the children’s Christmas stockings.

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  4. I love the various traditions around winter festivals, but I identify as a Christian who loves Advent/Christmas but am conflicted about the birth of Jesus aspect (since he was probably born in the spring, and his birth was moved to winter to absorb the pagan Yule festivals to make forced conversion more palatable). I hear you on loving the symbolism and balancing it with complex real history.

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  5. Amazing. As mentioned earlier, it reminds me that Jesus was probably born in the spring.

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    • But the celebration is still worth having, isn’t it? Even if the story behind it needs work.

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      • As a Christian, I celebrate Christmas with my family. For us, the birth of Jesus is the greatest reminder of God’s love and a season of hope. We also have our own traditions that are very important to us. Especially this year, with Covid affecting our lives in so many ways. I believe traditions help us get through challenging situations. Happy Chanukah to you and your family!

      • You’re welcome! Thank you for following me. My previous blog was hacked and I’m starting over. I missed your blog and Cricket and Ellie.

  6. I personally find difficulty with the commercialism of the Christian Christmas. Without getting into the specifics of my discontent, I’ll just say I wish people a blessed Christmas and let them enjoy the holiday that truly is the prelude to the crucifixion and resurrection, and that, in the Christian sense of the holiday, surely is the gift of the season for the followers of that faith.

    The pups look like they enjoy the holiday regardless! So cute!

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  7. I always learn so much from your posts, Rachel, for which I am grateful. And I love how you have worked through the conflicting, sometimes unsettling, threads of Judaic history along with those of other religions and cultures and have found a positive message to move forward with. Complete with comforting symbolism. Excellent. Happy Chanukah!

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  8. For every one of the holidays there is a complex history. Christmas is a symbolic holiday: the date was selected to match the pagan festivals celebrating the solstice. But, as you point out, it is the meaning behind the meaning. It doesn’t matter if Jesus was born on December 25th or March 19th (totally random date that came to mind), it is the symbolism of believing in the return of the light as we experience the darkest days of winter. This is why we have myths: they aren’t meant to be factual so much as truthful. They speak to something deeper, and, many times, more hopeful than history.

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  9. What a beautifully written statement! As a fellow human, i do find myself overwhlmed by these confusing holiday distinctions involving light that really should be for all of us to enjoy together. So please stay blessed, and thank you for sharing your personal celebrations and dogs! My doggy and cat send their love also. Merry Christmas from my neck of the woods! Happy Chanukah!

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  10. Well done Rachel!

    “But all of it, however specific the details are to our own cultures, connects us to the overall human need for light, and wisdom, and hope for tomorrow.”

    So true. 🐾

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  11. Talk about glitches…try believing the Virgin Mary conceived the Son of God through Immaculate Conception. Wow.
    Enjoy the holidays, however you choose to celebrate them.
    This year needs a little more light than ususal.

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  12. All religious traditions have needed to incorporate pagan rites connected to the seasons and the agricultural calendar. And all of them have something honoring the elements of life: light and water. Unfortunately any version of fundamentalism asks people to have both feet, head as well as heart in the traditional forms, eschewing complicated grey areas like the one you describe in the Chanukah origin story. I too have one foot in my faith and one in the secular world. (Okay maybe two toes in my faith). The holidays for me tend mostly toward the secular aspect because their origins as you point out are often fabrication. And like the pups, I’m of the school that says if there is special food involved count me in!

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  13. Awesome and informative post. Traditions are such an important part of our lives and it is important that we understand them and not just embrace them blindly. I love the little boy in “The Life of Pi” who finds value in all religions.
    I have read Yeshiva Girl and loved it. There is a teaspoon of Jewish blood from my great grandparents in my blood and this must be the reason why I enjoy stories about Judaism. I love all of Chaim Potok’s books.

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  14. Thank you for sharing your historical insights into the Chanukah holiday and the emotions it engenders in you.

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  15. As I identify as a cultural Jew, (Which my Orthodox grandparents would not be happy about) I love the foods and traditions of my faith. The “stories” give me hesitation. I try to explain to my grandkids the thoughts behind the holiday and then explain that we celebrate to stay connected to our ancestors. I dropped off Hanukkah in a box this morning to my grandkids. I gifted each of them a menorah and candles for the first night. My “requirement” for getting to have the eight gifts was that they took a picture and send it to me of them lighting the candles. I feel that is what I shall miss most this year, Lighting candles as a family is an important tradition to me. I do appreciate that most cultures look for light in the darkness.
    Thank you so much for your post.

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  16. What lovely sentiments!

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  17. Many years ago as a child, Judy Blume taught me a lot about Judaism in the US and the festival of Chanukah. Anyway, those bandanas are fab.

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  18. So interesting and thoughtful. Thank you!

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  19. I wish I was still in contact with my childhood friend Michael Schwartzman. His family celebrated Chanukah and Christmas–but mostly Chanukah. I’m sure Michael would enjoy your story today.

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  20. Thank-you for naming your particular “glitch.” I suspect most of us have glitches when we stop to think about our own or our families’ religious holidays or practices.

    Light and wisdom and hope. Fundamental needs no matter where we live, what religion we do or don’t practice.

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  21. Rachel, I love your posts and learn so much from them, always things to think about, to ponder. What you wrote about, it does unite the entire world. If only everyone would/could see things that way.

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  22. Thank you Rachel, your insight is always appreciated. I see it that we are coming to a place of harmony and light. We are all in our own houses celibrating this light each in our own special, unique ways. History taught us to know who God is and the consequences of us mixing what isn’t God with God. We can live in a world that is a mixture of good and bad but all we have to know are where the boundaries are : )

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  23. I love the new menorah, the reaching branches, tree and bird. I have my grandmother’s old, very simple one and don’t use it now that the kids are gone, but I do take it out for the holiday season.

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  24. The holidays are so far away from what they used to be. I think your conclusion on honoring the light chasing away the dark is a good one. But yes, we need to reconsider what the holidays are and how to best celebrate them.

    Enjoy the time with your family and pups!

    Nancy

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  25. Very interesting history, Rachel. Thanks for filling in a lot of facts I didn’t know.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  26. So interesting and informative. Thank you, Rachel. Happy Chanukah.

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  27. Love your new menorah. Thank you for another great post on Jewish history and customs. Hannukah for me brings back memories of my childhood. That’s what I focus on. I’m hoping to get both my girls on Zoom this year to light candles. I miss them.

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  28. This was so informational and thank you for educating those of us who aren’t Jewish. You have a gift for teaching. Something that occurred to me when you wrote about the oil ‘miracle’ is that this time of year is about faith (my opinion obviously, nobody has to agree with that). We may logically know certain traditions or stories aren’t strictly ‘true’, but (again to me – opinion only) it’s a gift to God at one time of year to suspend our secular selves and embrace our spiritual ones. Traditions are based on that sort of thinking I believe. Believing in miracles once a year isn’t too much to ask really. Happy Chanukah!

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  29. Happy Hanukkah, Rachel! ❤

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  30. If you write jokes about a menorah, would you call that a candle schtick? I’ll show myself out.

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  31. Symbols. One of the things I’ve always thought so similar in the Catholic and Jewish tradition–both rich in symbols. And while I don’t take them literally, I still marvel at a Christmas Eve Mass in which the incense, the music, the candles, and more unite to bring me to tears:). Wishing you a wonderful holiday . . .

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  32. This was very interesting. I had no idea of the truth about Hanukkah: that it involved the persecution of non-Orthodox Jews.

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  33. That menorah is so cute, I would choose the same one! I always enjoy all the lights this time of year, we need them to lift our spirits on these cold dark winter nights.

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  34. I struggle too when reading my Bible, especially about the wars and battles. I try to transport myself to a different time and context, where they’re coming from, why they had to make those choices, the strategies and approaches they used. And even to this day, wars are fought, people are displaced, annihilated. When things don’t make sense, we can always remember that “G-d is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all”.

    Wishing you a lovely season, Rachel. May we all find the meaning of light. ☘️ “And God said, ‘Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.” ✨

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  35. I find no surprise in story modification occurring over time. The miracle is in iits comfort for many millennia of people and many more to come. Ever replenishing oil is an insignificant maybe-not when compared. The Chanukiah you chose is very graceful.

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  36. And then there is the Southern Hemisphere! It is so challenging to read about the days getting to be their longest in some blogs as we get darker and darker! OK. Off topic. I love lights, especially the tradition in New England of putting candles in each window. Now it is mostly battery operated fake candles, but the light they put out is very comforting as I drive around our area. Somehow all this talk about holidays is reminding me of Seinfeld and “Festivus for the rest of us.” Couldn’t resist. Peace to your home, your mom and your beloved dogs.

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  37. Really interesting reading about all the different traditions and may I wish you a happy Chanukah

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  38. Another great post. The traditional Christmas & many of it’s symbols (Easter as well) were taken from pagan holidays, I believe for similar reasons. I’ve also been told, that back in the day, the Papacy changed the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday, in order to attract “sun worshipers” to their church instead.

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  39. I found this really interesting as my knowledge of the celebration was very limited, so thank you for this. We are all affected and influenced by our environment and the long northern winter has certainly been influention in the development of many cultural and religeous practices. Your menorah is beautiful as are your pups with their very chic neckerchiefs. Have a peace filled Chanukah and be let’s be optimistic for the year ahead.

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  40. I agree with what you have said. I struggle with Hanukkah, Purim, etc. For me, the meaning of exaggerated dogma regarding certain Jewish holidays, and Jewish modes of daily life, is a turn off. I am embraced more by the light, the illumination of the kindness, gratitude and love, of family, friends, home, community, country, and the entire planet. My soul lies in the envelopment of goodness, joy, warmth, and light, for everyone.

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  41. Happy Chanukah to you and the lovely puppies. I enjoyed the post and the ideas you present. As we bribe our animals with food and treats, so are we humans seduced to embrace new ideas and traditions by treats, drinks, and presents. (Yeah, I’m not complaining about that at all.) What I like best about embracing something different at the holidays is learning the real story behind them. They’re so often wrapped in labyrinths of myths, legend, fact, and fantasy, though, it usually takes some time. Cheers, with a smile.

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  42. Pingback: Lighting Chanukah Candles With Electric Bulbs – Immanuel Verbondskind – עמנואל קאָווענאַנט קינד

  43. I think we are all weary of the lonliness, sickness, and dread of the past 8 months. Many have begun holiday celebrations early just to bring a little much-needed joy into life. I celebrate Chalica, a 7-day Unitarian Universalist holiday, but it ended yesterday. As you said, it involves the lighting of candles. I also usually celebrate Christmas, but not so much this year as we cannot get together with friends or family. We drove around last evening to look at all the Christmas lights and have something to do that is safe. At least hope is on the horizon now. Wishing you the blessings of Chanukah.

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  44. DWTD! Dancing With The Dogs!

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  45. Late to read this, but I love this post!

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  46. Christmas celebrates an eternal Event, so it matters not that the, Birth of Jesus was not Dec. 25th. Reflect on the eternal themes of the season.

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  47. What a beautiful and thoughtful post, Rachel! And informative: I did not know the origin for the yule log but I have memories of searching in the woods for one as a Girl Scout when I was young. I think. The memory is drenched in images half-remembered but still very sweet. Wishing you a peaceful and happy new year!!

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  48. I could do with some potato latkes right now, even in the dark. I will be leaving a review on Amazon for Yeshiva Girl before long and, don’t worry, it will be 5 stars.

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