Happy Chanukah, Docudharma!

The Jewish festival of Chanukah begins this evening at sundown and lasts for 8 days.  It is not a major religious holiday.  But because it falls near Christmas, it’s often looked at as the “Jewish Christmas”, which it isn’t.  In fact, gift giving, traditionally, was not a part of the holiday, though it is now.

Join me across the border for the historical basis of the holiday, a holiday recipe and the “rules” for playing dreidel.

The details:

The story of Chanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks, in much the same way that Jews in America today blend into the secular American society.

More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar. Two groups opposed Antiochus: a basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim, the forerunners of the Pharisees (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidism). They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Seleucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.

According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. Note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not glorify war.

The only religious celebration of the holiday is lighting candles:

The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah (or sometimes called a chanukkiah) that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shammus (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three berakhot (blessings) are recited: l’hadlik neir (a general prayer over candles), she-asah nisim (a prayer thanking G-d for performing miracles for our ancestors at this time), and she-hekhianu (a general prayer thanking G-d for allowing us to reach this time of year). … After reciting the blessings, the first candle is then lit using the shammus candle, and the shammus candle is placed in its holder. The candles are allowed to burn out on their own after a minimum of 1/2 hour.

Each night, another candle is added from right to left (like the Hebrew language). Candles are lit from left to right (because you pay honor to the newer thing first). On the eighth night, all nine candles (the 8 Chanukkah candles and the shammus) are lit. … On nights after the first, only the first two blessings are recited; the third blessing, she-hekhianu is only recited on the first night of holidays.

So (a Jewish way to begin a paragraph) how is the holiday celebrated?  Mostly with food and games.  The traditional food is “Latkes”, which are potato pancakes:

This recipe is originally from the cookbook Jewish Cooking in America. Nathan says she makes them “very thin,” but those who want thicker latkes can add matzo meal or flour.

2 pounds russet (baking) or Yukon Gold Potatoes

1 medium onion

1-1/2 cups chopped scallions, including the green part

1 large egg, beaten

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Vegetable oil for frying

1. Peel the potatoes and put in cold water. Using a grater or a food processor, coarsely grate the potatoes and onions. Place together in a fine-mesh strainer or tea towel and squeeze out all the water over a bowl. The potato starch will settle to the bottom: reserve that after you have carefully poured off the water.

2. Mix the potato and onion with the potato starch. Add the scallions, egg, and salt and pepper.

3. Heat a griddle or non-stick pan and coat with a thin film of vegetable oil. Take about 2 tablespoons of the potato mixture in the palm of your hand and flatten as best you can. Place the potato mixture on the griddle, flatten with a large spatula, and fry for a few minutes until golden. Flip the pancake over and brown the other side. Remove to paper towels to drain. Serve immediately. (The latkes also can be frozen to be served at a later time, after crisping in a 350-degree oven.)

Yield: about 2 dozen latkes

And the favorite game is dreidel.

Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, M&Ms or chocolate coins. The traditional explanation of this game is that during the time of Antiochus’ oppression, those who wanted to study Torah (an illegal activity) would conceal their activity by playing gambling games with a top (a common and legal activity) 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”, 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), which are the rules of the game! There are some variations in the way people play the game, but the way I learned it, everyone puts in one coin. A person spins the dreidel. If it lands on Nun, nothing happens; on Gimel (or, as we called it as kids, “gimme!”), you get the whole pot; on Hei, you get half of the pot; and on Shin, you put one in. When the pot is empty, everybody puts one in. Keep playing until one person has everything. Then redivide it, because nobody likes a poor winner.

There you have it.  The details.

I wish you all a Happy and joyous Chanukah!


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  1. Also available in orange.

    • documel on December 4, 2007 at 22:55

    “In fact, gift giving, traditionally, was not a part of the holiday, though it is now”

    I always though gelt was traditional–not paper money–but a precious metal.  My parents gave me dimes each night–my grandparents gave quarters.  Also, grandma made latkes and kugle with greiben–always my favorite holiday.  Since they lived in a “goyish” neighborhood, all the empty nesters would wait for me to help them decorate the Christmas tree.  They were so nice –and their cookies were good also.

    Brooklyn in the 1950s was the best place to live–I had technicolor friends–and Jackie Robinson.

    • Armando on December 4, 2007 at 23:00

    bring you many dreidels . . .  

  2. Because that’s my (at least,my Dad’s) secret ingredient.

    A tip: skip the paper towels in favor of a wire rack.

  3. … for Chanukah:

    Secret Ingredient

    Latkes, potato pancakes, made during Chanukah, Festival of the Lights, holiday for frying, oh mercy, well it’s because of the oil, of course, the miracle of finding oil to keep the eternal flame burning in the Temple, the one that got destroyed, oh yes it did.

    Smashed, looted, desecrated, no more big splendor in the House of God, all for naught, despair so thick you could cut it with a knife, all gone, lost, forsaken, what dread, what terrible fears and glooms manifested among the newly dispossessed!

    Who was it, I wonder, who saw the flame, the eternal flame symbol of indestructibility of light of the spirit, who saw and thought to keep it alive amid such devastation, such destruction? What would be the point? Surely judgment of fate was so evident as to overshadow any higher decree, what was there to save?

    Why, I wonder, why did that person do it, why put the oil in the lamp, knowing there was not enough, not enough to last until further supply could be obtained, seems sort of cruel to build up hope only to have it crashing down, yet again, crashing and crushing the small spark of humanity flickering in the assembly, oh perhaps the fellow was mad with grief and simply holding on to habit, in some daze of horror, not even realizing what he was doing.

    And yet it lasted, the fuel lasted far beyond the time it should have, as fate warred with spirit, oh a mighty battle, offering made, such trust, a naked plea to make the fates themselves weep and perhaps soften just a little, oh there would be hard times, hard times ahead, but for now, yes, now let the light continue, feed the spirit once again, and so it was and so the miracle of the lights.

    And so the tradition of using oil in cooking during this Festival, and of course traditional food such as latkes, potato pancakes, a festive food, have it with applesauce or sour cream (and caviar if you wanna get fancy), or just with salt, heaped high on a big plate, whoo!

    Carrots. That’s the secret ingredient. Just a little, grated along with the potatoes and onions. Cuts the grease, gives a little sweetness, a little tiny kick, oh those are good eating.

    It’s all about the latkes.

    • pfiore8 on December 4, 2007 at 23:41

    i draws me back to ritual and tradition and a vision of light instead of dark

    tonight, my dutchman and I have been writing poems and wrapping gifts for Sinterklaas, which will be celebrated tomorrow in The Netherlands.

    The gifts are small and with each gift, there is a poem. The lovely thing is that most of the effort is spent on the poems.

    it’s a nice convergence, drawing families together, celebrating generations, and the very good things in our lives.

    btw, this dude, Sint, spends his time in Madrid and takes a big black steamer here to the Netherlands. Sint is accompanied by Black Piet. His cuz, Santa Claus, does his duty in the North Pole with elves. Interesting… the Madrid aspect I mean.

    cheers… pf8

    • robodd on December 5, 2007 at 00:06

    with a dab of apple sauce.  Now that’s living.

  4. Happy Chanukah to all!

  5. We should only hope that the “light” might flicker yet longer for our democracy!

    • kj on December 5, 2007 at 02:36

    right back!

    According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks.

    This sentence struck me as possibly not just a description of the past, but of the future.

    Lit candle for all here.

    • Valtin on December 5, 2007 at 04:48

    from an unrepentent athiest Jew, who still loves the bright colors on the candles (especially blue, red and green!), secretly hopes for a miracle to happen… and this world, that may never happen, but then, the real miracle is still have hope.

    And the damn holiday’s eight days long, too…

  6. One of these days, I will assemble a menorah from pickles. I don’t think it will emit for eight days, though.

    • RiaD on December 5, 2007 at 16:10

    This essay sent me on a search… the result I’ve just put up.

    Thank you for this davidseth… explains so much I didn’t know… and explains how come we did certain things in my home that other people (also christians) never did… like eating potato pancakes!

  7. Will make sure not to allow the potatoes to retain water.  I bought a cat menorah last year for a cat loving friend and this year I received a catalog in the mail with everything Jewish in it.  It’s fascinating, have no idea what Chi is or a Hamsa hand 😉

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