Hanukkah for Beginners

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Like most Jewish celebrations, there is a bevy of traditional food, games and cultural touch points to mark the holiday. Here is our Hanukkah for Beginners, a guide to help you out with any questions.

Hanukkah is the Jewish festival of lights. For religious Jews it's a minor holiday that celebrates the miracle of light. Because of its timing, the holiday has been amplified into a gift-giving frenzy to compete with that other winter holiday.

How do you pronounce it?

Officially it’s a hard ‘H’ (a guttural letter from Hebrew), although many North American secular Jews call it HU-NOO-kah. not HON-ukah.  And definitely not Hannah-kah. The first U is short, like in hug. It is not an O like in hog.

When does it start?

Jewish holidays go by a lunar calendar, which means it starts a different day in December each year. This year Hanukkah starts on Wednesday, Dec. 17, but — and here’s the thing — Jewish holidays always start the night before at sundown, so the first night in 2014 is Tuesday, Dec. 16. It lasts for eight nights in total.

What exactly does Hanukkah celebrate?

Here’s the story: In the year 167 BCE, the Syrian King Antiochos made it illegal to observe Jewish customs and forced the Jews to worship the Hellenic gods. A small group of Jews, including a family of eight brothers called the Maccabees, fought against the Syrians for three years and were finally successful. But the temple was in rough shape, and had been badly desecrated. They rededicated the Temple (Hanukkah means rededication) and went to light the the menorah which burns day and night to symbolize the light of God’s presence. They only found enough oil for one day, but the small amount burned for eight days, which was enough time for the Jews to get more oil. It was proclaimed a miracle and Hanukkah is now celebrated by lighting a candle each night.

What do you do when you light the candles?

Lighting the candles is a brief ceremony at sunset. A Hanukkah menorah is called a Hanukkiah. You light the Shamash (the helper candle) first and then use it to light a candle per night so that at the end of the holiday, the entire Hannukiah is filled with burning candles. There are three blessings to recite over the menorah, thanking God for the miracle of light (though many families only say one). Children are encouraged to be part of the candle-lighting and often have their own menorahs. The Hannukiah is supposed to be put in the window to celebrate the holiday.

Do you really get a present every day?

Each family has a different tradition. In our family, the kids do receive a gift every day. Some of the days they receive gifts from other family members like grandparents, some of the days they get small gifts like pajamas and books – similar to stockings. In our family we break up the week so that there is a night for each of my three kids to give gifts to their siblings (and maybe to me).

What’s with all the fried food?

Hanukkah parties are filled with delicious fried food that celebrates the miracle of oil. Latkes are the most famous Hanukkah food and are made by grating potatoes and frying them in oil. They are traditionally served with applesauce and/or sour cream. Some people like giant cakey, pancake-like latkes. They are wrong. Those latkes have too much flour, egg and maybe even matzoh meal which acts like a sponge. The best latkes are lacy and crispy, with the potato shreds barely being held together by a small amount of flour and one egg. 

Word to the wise: if you are going to a Hanukkah party, leave your coat in the car. The smell of frying latkes tends to permeate winter coats in a lasting way.

Get the recipe of Zane Caplansky's latkes here»

For dessert, jelly donuts called sufganiyot are traditional,  but Timbits do just fine in a pinch.

Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel, I made it out of clay. And when it’s good and ready. Dreidel I will play. But how do you play?

The song Dreidel, Dreidel Dreidel is the one Hanukkah song that everyone knows. It’s like our Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. But instead of clay, most dreidels are made of plastic. They are spinning tops with a different Hebrew letter on each of the four sides. The letters – Nun, Gimel, Hay, and Shin symbolize the Hebrew phrase – “A great miracle happened there”.

The game is a simple game of chance. Players sit in a circle and have a pile of tokens – which can be pennies, raisins or most likely chocolate-covered coins called gelt. Each player adds a token to the pot. When it’s their turn, the player spins the dreidel and the letter that faces up when the dreidel stops tells you if you win some or all of the pot, or if you have to put some more tokens in. Full directions with pictures are here »  

It seems like everyone spells Hanukkah differently. What’s the right way?

There is a joke about the two last Jews living in a small town and they both go to separate synagogues because they don’t want to go where the other guy goes. It’s kind of the same with the spelling of Hanukkah. Hanukkah is a Hebrew word, so there is no definitive correct spelling in English. Chanukah implies the rolling “Ch” sound at the beginning but that spelling has fallen out of favour, and Hanukkah has become more popular over the last few years. I don’t know why. There are about 14 technically-correct ways to spell it

Will my Jewish friends be offended if I say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays"?

No. We understand Merry Christmas is a generic, seasonal greeting at this point. I would much rather you said Merry Christmas with intention than stumble over your words, get embarrassed and come out with a Happy HONukah. Happy Holidays is nice, too, and somewhat more inclusive.

What should I get my Jewish friends for Hanukkah?

Whatever you would give your friends who celebrate Christmas is a perfect Hanukkah gift too. But really, you shouldn’t have.

Is there Hanukkah music?

Although there are a few traditional Hebrew songs and prayers, there isn’t Hanukkah music the way there are Christmas carols. There is the classic Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song. But this year there are acouple new songs that explain Hanukkah in a fun way are circulating. Check out “All About the Neis” by the accapella Maccabeats. And this one by Six13, which is a parody of Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off:

Hanukkah can be a lot of fun, but unlike Christmas for Christians, it's not such a big event in the Jewish calendar. Our big holidays are Passover and Rosh Hashana, when we gather our families together, eat big meals and tell stories of survival while we try to survive our family dynamics (some truths transcend religion, right?). Until then, Happy Hanukkah! May your holiday be filled with light.


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