Monday, December 7, 2015

Light One Candle

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

             Today is the first day of Chanukah.  We Jews like to joke that all of our holidays are about survival in the face of religious oppression and food, and Chanukah is no exception.   The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BC following years of religious oppression by Syrian invaders.  After the temple was looted and the Jewish religion outlawed, a group of religious insurgents lead by the Maccabee family fought a bloody two-year war to drive the Syrians out.  As part of re-consecrating the temple, the Maccabees light the Eternal Light but only had enough holy oil to keep it burning one day.  By some miracle it lasted the full eight days until more oil could be made. 

Book of Chanukah prayers published by Temple B'Nai Israel, ca. 1990s
Prayer for lighting the candles from Temple B'Nai Israel prayer book

            While the traditions associated with the holiday vary based on denomination and nationality, all Jews celebrate by saying certain prayers and lighting and displaying candles in a special holder called a menorah for each night of the 8-night celebration.   Some families also exchange gifts.  Eating foods fried in oil is also an important aspect.  Potato pancakes called latkes are my personal favorite (and specialty) but jelly-filled donuts called sufganiyot are also popular.  Hungarian Jews also make fried cheese pancakes and Spanish Jews make sweet fritters.  The whole holiday is basically a heart attack waiting to happen.

My menorah.  They are supposed to be placed by your front door or a window facing the street to draw attention to the miracle and holiday.

            Jews usually play gambling game using a 4-sided top called a dreidel.  The dreidel is inscribed with 4 Hebrew letters (Nun, Gimel, Hey & Shin) which form an acronym for the Hebrew phrase Nes Gadol Haya Sham ("A great miracle happened there").   Each player starts with an equal amount of something, usually chocolate coins called gelt, plus a pot in the middle.  Each person takes a turn spinning the dreidel.  If it lands on a Shin, they add to the pot; on a Hey, they take half the pot; on a Gimel, they take the whole pot; and on a Nun, they get nothing. 

Gelt and dreidel.  It has landed on a Gimel so I win the pot.
   In North America, Chanukah has become a major holiday, mostly to provide Jews with a source of pride at a difficult time.  I know as a child I was often bullied by Christian students who would say I wasn’t getting presents because Santa knew I was bad and that my religion was stupid.  By honoring the Maccabees fight, we could celebrate the strength of our own faith and rest assured with the knowledge that our food was way better. 

            Except for the prayer books, all of the images in this post are of items in my own personal collection.  Sadly, while the museum has an excellent paper collection associated with Chemung County’s Jewish community, it has no objects.  To all my fellow Jews out there, please consider donating some Judaica to the museum this holiday.  It would be a mitzvah. 

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