Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Happy Hanukkah or Chanukah
No matter how you spell it, Hanukkah, or Chanukah, the Jewish holiday that falls somewhere in the month of December has always been overwhelmed by the omnipresence of Christmas. When I spent a year in Israel, the elementary school where I worked held a holiday assembly. The students lit a Chanukah menorah, recited blessings and sang songs. I didn't recognize any of them. If they'd been Christmas songs, I probably would have known them all.
One of the things I loved about being in Israel was being able to tell which holiday was coming up by walking into the supermarket. For Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, it was apples and honey. For Chanukah, it was boxes of candles, jelly doughnuts and milk chocolate coins. I was looking forward to having Chanukah take center stage.
One Saturday night, after the Sabbath ended and the mall near my home in Tel Aviv reopened for the evening, I headed out, shopping list in hand, with great anticipation. I wanted to buy a card, a gift and some wrapping paper. For once, I thought, I won't be out of synch with the rest of society.
First, I went straight to the greeting card store. I figured there would be rows of cards, not stuck in a back corner but up near the front. Visions of wrapping paper decorated with dreidels danced in my head.
I made my way down the narrow aisles, past the birthday cards, the bar mitzvah cards, even a display of Christmas cards, tiny Santas and ornaments. (I wasn't surprised to see the Christmas decorations. There are many Arab Christians, Asian workers and recent Russian immigrants who celebrate the holiday). But there was nary a Chanukah card in sight. Surely I had somehow overlooked them.
I asked a sales clerk for help. At first, she had no idea what I was talking about. I realized I was pronouncing the name of the holiday with an "h" instead of the correct Hebrew, with a guttural "ch" that sounds like you're bringing up phlegm. Eventually she just shook her head, bewildered, and said, "A greeting card? For Chanukah?" She suggested I try another store. Several stores later, I finally found a Chanukah card. It was in English, of course, since only American Jews send Chanukah cards.
I went to the next item on my list, a dreidel, the four-sided top that children play with during Chanukah. They come in wood, plastic, metal or a variety of other materials and have four Hebrew letters imprinted on the sides that stand for the phrase "A great miracle happened there." But in Israel, the miracle didn't occur "there." So the phrase is changed to "A great miracle happened here." The last letter is changed from a "shin," for the Hebrew word "sham," meaning there, to a "peh," for the word "po," or here. I knew the one I wanted: a wooden model with colorful scenes of Jerusalem painted on each side. Unfortunately, it had the wrong letter. I was so disappointed. I really wanted an Israeli dreidel.
I didn't even ask about the wrapping paper. I couldn't take any more disappointment. I was beginning to learn that in Israel, the food, the customs, even the message of Chanukah is different.
Chanukah commemorates the recapture of Jerusalem from the Syrian Greeks in 165 B.C.E. by Judah Maccabee and his followers. They cleansed the Temple and relighted the great Menorah, or candelabrum. A tiny bottle of oil was found with only enough to light the Menorah for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. Chanukah, which means "dedication," is celebrated for eight days. Each night, another candle is lit on the chanukiah, or Chanukah menorah, and a prayer is recited.
Chanukah menorahs are supposed to be placed in the window or outside the home, so that the miracle is known far and wide. But throughout Jewish history, it was considered too dangerous for Jews to call attention to themselves by hanging menorahs in public view. In Israel today, it's common to walk through the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem and see chanukah menorahs displayed in glass cases next to the front door of homes.
It's traditional during the holiday to eat foods made with oil. Latkes, the fried potato pancakes that are a staple of American Jewish Chanukah celebrations, are replaced by sufganiot, jelly doughnuts, in Israel. Trays of them start appearing in every supermarket, bakery and corner store about a month beforehand, and they'll disappear by the end of the week.
Chanukah is one of those holidays that unites all Jews in Israel, secular and religious. I remember walking downtown one evening, right around sunset. Many stores and restaurants displayed lit Chanukah menorahs in their windows. I walked into a record store and the clerk, with dyed blond hair, a nose ring and a paper yarmulke on his head, was lighting a menorah. Down the street, in the city's main square, a group of ultra-Orthodox were lighting a giant menorah.
In Israel, Chanukah seems to be mainly a holiday for children, who get some money from their parents or grandparents. When the Maccabees returned to Jerusaelm, they struck coins to show that they were a free people. So for Chanukah, children receive chocolate coins wrapped in gold-colored paper. Adults might hold parties, but it's not a big time to exchange gifts.
I remember a lecture given by a professor from Tel Aviv University who talked about the different way holidays are approached by Jews in the United States and in Israel.
In the United States, he said, the emphasis is on the miracle, how a tiny amount of oil lasted for eight days. When I was in Israel, the yearlong celebration marking the country's 50th anniversary of independence began on the first night of Chanukah. It probably wasn't a coincidence. In Israel, children learn that Chanukah is most importantly about heroism, about how a small band of people struggled against tyranny and kept their faith alive.