Note—Our second holiday two-fer!
It is the first night of Chanukah. The innovative folk and roots duo Nefresh Mountain—Doni Zasloff and Eric
Lindberg and friends—has recorded two original Chanukah songs by Woody Guthrie. They were composed in 1942 while Woody was living in
Coney Island and learning Jewish culture and traditions from his mother-in-law and Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. He was also spending a lot of time
playing for neighborhood children.
The songs were resurrected from Woody’s vast
archives by his daughter Nora
Guthrie and arranged by Lindberg. The Hanukkah Dance was recorded in
the Chapel at Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
|Woody Guthrie, home from the Merchant Marine, singing to children in his Coney Island neighborhood in 1944.
marks the First Night of Chanukah—25
Kislev in the year 5780 in the Hebrew Calendar. The date on
many calendars will say December 19, but don’t let that you fool —by tradition the observance begins at sundown the evening before. The festival
will run for eight nights until
December 26 or 2 Tevet. But don’t look for it on these exact dates again anytime soon. Because the Hebrew Calendar is Lunar,
the dates float in relationship to
the Gregorian Calendar anywhere from
late November to late December.
Some Christians think
of Chanukah as the Jewish
Christmas because it occurs around the same time of year and involves gift giving. Hell, a lot of Jews do too. This post is to clear up any confusion. Jews who have been at all attentive will find nothing new in the explanation of the festival and its customs. This one is for my fellow goyim.
A Menorah burns in the window of a family home.
175-163 BC Judea
was under the sway of the Greco-Syrian
Seleucid Empire ruled by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. In
Jerusalem and elsewhere there was split between a cosmopolitan
elite of Hellenized Jews and traditionalists who hewed to
the Law of Moses and the traditions of ritual purity set
forth in their scriptures.
Antiochus, naturally supported the Hellenizers and replaced the “righteous” High Priest of the Temple, Yochanan,
with his brother who
adopted the Hellenized name Jason.
Then Jason was deposed in favor a still more compliant Priest, Menelaus. With the king away making war against the Ptolemy Dynasty in Egypt, the traditionalists rose up, expelled the Hellenizers in
what was essentially a Jewish civil war.
In Egypt Antiochus responded to appeals for support from Hellenizers by sending an army against Jerusalem. Accounts in the First book of Maccabees say the Seleucid army fell upon the city and indiscriminately
slew up to 80,000 “sparing not infants,
virgins, or sages.” The king essentially
banned the practice of traditional Judaism, including keeping
the Sabbath, observing dietary laws, and making required ritual sacrifice at the Temple. He even erected an altar to Zeus in the Temple, profaning it, and ordered the people to
worship it. Resisters were hunted down and killed. The army fanned
out into the countryside and
erected an altar in every village.
In the village of Modin
elderly priest, Mattityahu slew a Hellenizer who attempted to worship at a pagan
altar and his sons rose up and
killed the Syrian officer in
charge. They took to the hills where
others joined them in a guerilla style
rebellion. Eventually military
leadership for the spreading rebellion fell to Judah the Strong and his brothers
who were called the Maccabees meaning
Who is Like You, O God.
some years the Maccabees waged war, gathering to them the people repressed by
the Seleucids. They defeated host after
host until they finally beat an army of 40,000 men under the commanders Nicanor and Gorgiash.
Jerusalem, Judah and his brothers cleared the Temple of the profane altars and
performed ritual cleansing to make
it satisfactory to the Lord for the resumption rituals. They
found that the traditional seven-branched
golden candelabrum called the Menorah
had been looted from the Temple along with the rest of its treasure. They constructed a new Menorah from less
expensive metal but found only enough ritually
purified olive oil to keep the fires
of the lamp burning for one day.
Miraculously, the fire burned
for eight days, long enough to purify more oil.
In commemoration of the miracle Jewish sages decreed an annual festival of thanksgiving in which
lights would be ignited for eight nights in remembrance.
Details of the celebration evolved over time. The Chanukah
Menorah, later called chanukkiyah in Hebrew, differs from the Menorah of the
Temple. It has eight branches of equal height and a ninth shamash
worker candle set higher than the rest and used to light
the others. There was an early dispute about whether it was proper to light all of the candles on
the first night of the festival and one less each night or one candle the first
night and an additional one until all eight blaze on the final
night. That dispute was settled by the great Rabbi Hillel who sided with those
adding a candle each night.
is a home ritual. The fire is to be re-kindled in each Jewish
home, and in some traditions a separate
Menorah is used for each member of the family. In addition
to the ritual lighting there are prayers
and readings from scripture. Chanukah is also one of the few rituals in
which even Orthodox women are allowed to participate because “women, too, were
part of the miracle.”
it is not described in the Torah or prescribed in ancient Law like Passover,
Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah is officially considered a minor
Jewish holiday. But its cultural importance is far greater even than its religious
significance. Because of the many persecutions of Jews through the
centuries and because the ritual could safely
be performed in the privacy of
the home and away from prying eyes, Chanukah became a
celebration of hope for deliverance from oppression as the
Maccabees delivered the Temple from the defilers. Stories about observances even in Nazi extermination camps have added
special significance to the holiday for many.
Outside of the religious ritual, many cultural aspects have been attached to the holiday. Those we
see most commonly in the United States
derive mostly from the Ashkenazi traditions
of Eastern Europe. First is the singing of the hymn Ma’oz Tzur, six stanzas
which praise God for his protection, and which recount the persecutions for the Jews from the time of the Babylonian captivity. Other songs
and Psalms and songs are sung
depending on various traditions.
Traditionally children were given small bags of gelt—toy coins or chocolate coins wrapped in golden foil. In much of the West, and now more frequently in Israel, small gifts are also given children each night.
Children often use their gelt
to play a gambling game with a
traditional toy top—a dreidel, imprinted on each of its four sides with a Hebrew letter. These letters are an acronym for the Hebrew Nes
Gadol Haya Sham—“a great miracle happened there.”
The holiday is also celebrated with special foods. Because oil
is central to the story, foods fried in oil are traditional, most notably latkes—potato pancakes—and sufganiot—deep fried doughnuts. Some
traditions also eat cheese in
commemoration of Judith, a pious widow
who saved her village by plying Holofernes,
an Assyrian general, with cheese and
wine and then cutting off his head. This older story is
associated in some branches of Judaism with Chanukah because Judith is believed
to have been the aunt or great aunt
of Judah Maccabee.