It’s Not All Latkes & Dreidels

1215chesterHanukkah is more than eating a bounty of latkes and donuts, spinning dreidels, and watching cartoon Adam Sandler sing 8 Crazy Nights. Each year friends whip out the “Ugly Hanukkah Sweaters,” double-fisting gelt and gefilte into their mouths while lighting candles, unsure if the menorah should ignite from the left or the right. Last minute gift purchases are shipped to relatives, and Netflix is substituted for quality time once spent with family.

Yet, traditions aside, many of us struggle annually in our search for deeper meaning within the holiday. Certainly, reminiscing about Tommy and Angelica Pickles in the Rugrats version of Hanukkah undoubtedly elucidates memories of the beautiful themes around the miracle of light. However, after gifts are given and fried-food consumed, memories return of sitting around the family room waiting for parents to bring down presents. Thoughts of singing Hanukkah songs, holding hands, and dancing the Horah (which wasn’t cool as a teenager) are all we really want.

So how do we find meaning in a tradition that as children means presents, and as adults, mirrors the theme of elongated holiday parties?

Hanukkah was only popularized in American Jewry as a commercialized holiday in the mid-1800’s, as Jews looked for ways to adapt to American life, celebrating Hanukkah alongside Christmas. Widely observing Hanukkah in the manner it’s celebrated today began in the 1970’s, when Rabbi Menachem Schneerson (The Renowned Lubavitcher Rebbe) called for public awareness of the festival, encouraging public lighting of menorahs. From a religious point of view, Hanukkah is an important, albeit minor holiday. There are no restrictions on working or fasting, and it’s one of the few Jewish holidays not mentioned in the Torah.

So where did Hanukkah gain significance? Before modern day traditions, and preceding the Rebbe’s call for public recognition and practice, Hanukkah was about celebrating history.

After the Greeks had destroyed the Second Temple and massacred thousands of people, the Maccabees, led by Matisyahu and his 5 sons, defeated the Greeks. The Jews then reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem and lit the menorah, the basis of the famous story of the jar of oil that miraculously burned for eight days. Hanukah, literally translating to “dedication,” is a rededication to the Second Temple.

As modern-day Israelis protect themselves against attacks, they can connect with the ancient Maccabee fighters who stood their ground in the same place. Hanukkah’s positive portrayal of the Jewish fighter speaks to the reality of early Zionists and modern Jews who feel particularly connected to the message of freedom and liberty.

Today, if seeking to deeply connect with Hanukkah, start by recognizing the issues raised by it’s history: oppression, religious freedom, and fighting for independence. Hanukkah has developed into a holiday rich with historical significance, miraculous narratives, and a deep-rooted dedication to Judaism.

Think of what “dedication” means. To whom or what can you dedicate yourself? How might you dedicate yourself? Hopefully, as the Festival of Lights approaches this year, a deeper connection can be established, and a renewed dialogue with Jewish history can be made.

Adam Chester graduated from UCSD with a degree in Psychology and is the NextGen Outreach & Engagement Coordinator at JFFS.

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