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Jews gather to celebrate a miracle

“Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas. It never has been and was never intended to be.”

That was said by Bonnie Deutsch Burdman with the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation, but its prominence as a holiday rose, she surmises, because the eight-day celebration often falls around the same time as the Christian holiday season of Christmas.

This year, Hanukkah begins at sundown today and it runs through sundown Dec. 26. The first day always falls on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev.

“The story of Hanukkah is remarkable in that it is the first moment in recorded history of a religious uprising against oppressors who were prohibiting free expression of religion. That is literally the crux of the Hanukkah story,” said Burdman, executive director, community relations / government affairs for the federation.

THE STORY

Hanukkah commemorates the rededication in the second century B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) of the second ancient temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish people rose up against their oppressors, the Syrian-Greeks, who forbid Jews from practicing their religion, in the Maccabean Revolt.

“The problem was the temple was desecrated and it was no longer fit to worship, so they had to clean it, and the word ‘hanukkah’ means rededication, so they had to clean and rededicate it and make it holy,” Burdman said.

After the temple was restored and cleansed, the eternal sacred flame needed relit, but because the temple was desecrated, there was just enough oil found to last one day. But it was going to take eight days to make and get new oil.

“The miracle of Hanukkah is that one day’s worth of oil lasted eight days,” Burdman said.

TRADITIONS

Some of Hanukkah’s traditions trace back to people’s attempts to worship in secret while under the Syrian-Greek rule.

“They would meet, they would say prayers, they would discuss liturgy in secret, but if they were about to get caught, they would pretend they were playing a game and they played something that is akin to what the game of dreidel looks like today,” Burdman said.

Dreidel is a four-sided top used in a betting game. Bets typically are placed with chocolate coins or candy, like jelly beans. On the top are letters that correspond to “a great miracle happened there,” referring to the miracle of Hanukkah.

These are found across the world except in Israel. Dreidels there, Burdman said, also have four letters, but rather than “there,” the last letter corresponds to the word “here.”

Hanukkah is a communal holiday where families gather nightly to light a menorah, or nine-pronged candelabra. It’s lit at sundown each night, from right to left with a shamash, the candle used to light the eight other candles. Prayers are said. Each of the candles represents one day of the eight days the oil lasted.

“Families get together to eat fried foods, and the traditional foods we eat are the potato latkes, the fried potato pancakes, and jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot. Why do we eat fried foods? Because we remember the miracle of the oil,” Burdman said.

Hanukkah is not traditionally a gift-giving holiday, but that came about, Burdman believes, because of the holiday falling around Christmas. Also, it is not one of the more religious or observant holidays in Judaism, meaning work is permitted during the period.

MISCONCEPTIONS

Getting past the belief that Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas can be “very difficult,” said Burdman, who tries to educate any time she can about the holiday and about Judaism.

“Not a year has gone by in my 26 years in this job when I haven’t gotten at least one call from a parent who is concerned their kid is being told they have to sing a Christmas song, and not just ‘Jingle Bells’, but it’s ‘O Holy Night’ where there is some real religion to it, and the choir director says we have a Hanukkah song,” Burdman said.

Also, this is a point in time in Jewish history and in public discourse “where there has been an alarming rise in antisemitism over the last several years. It did not start with the horrific massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in October 2018 in Pittsburgh,” she said. “It has been going on for a while.”

Burdman said Jewish people around the world and in the U.S. don’t feel secure, causing them to feel like public celebrations around holidays like Hanukkah should not be held over concern about expressing Judaism.

Data from the Anti-Defamation League shows antisemitic incidents that targeted Jewish institutions jumped 61 percent from 2020 to 2021, and the ADL expects something similar for 2022.

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