Hanukkah (pronounced variously with an h or a soft kh) is the Jewish festival also known as the Festival of lights. It is usually celebrated around the time of Christmas. This year, however, the Jewish calendar makes it early and at the time of writing (9 December), I will be lighting the third candle out of 8.
Like many religions, Jewish festivals celebrate a significant event in history. Most describe a defiance in the face of oppression, a determination to survive, for Jews to maintain their identity, and practise their religion freely.
Hanukkah is an interesting festival as it is not included in the Hebrew bible. We know about the events it describes because they appear in the Catholic bible. There are various explanations for this but the most common story tells of the military victory of Judah Maccabee over the Seleucid Empire. This is in itself unusual as it is the only Jewish celebration of a war. Its origin lies in the story leading to the rebellion.
In 334BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the known world, including the land of Israel which lay between Egypt and Syria. The land and the Jews who lived there belonged alternatively to Egypt and Syria.
In 168BCE, the Jews had been autonomous in Jerusalem for some time when the Syrian Greeks, led by King Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire, conquered the land, including the Temple in Jerusalem where the Jews worshipped. He was determined to end both Jewish rule and the religion. The high priest, Mattathias tried to stand up to the Syrians, but resisted outright rebellion until he realised that this was the only route to survival. So, in 167BCE, the Jews, led by Mattathias’ eldest son Judah Maccabee, rose up against the oppression of King Antiochus. In 164BCE, Judah and his army were able to recapture the Temple in Jerusalem and rededicate it to the Jewish God.
The Hebrew word hanukkah means ‘dedication’ and gives its name to the festival. The story goes that once the Temple was rededicated, the Maccabees lit the menora, a seven fingered lamp (one for each day of creation). The menorah was supposed to be an everlasting light, but there was only a small amount of oil left that should have lasted only one day. In the event, it lasted for 8 days, and hence we have the festival of Hanukkah, which is celebrated over 8 days.
Many of the most well-known Hanukkah traditions are universal. Whether you’re in the UK or Zimbabwe, Jews will mark the eight-day festival by lighting a menorah, eating fried foods, playing games and recounting the victorious story of the Maccabees and the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem.
An alternative celebration
Many Jewish women and young girls of Middle Eastern and North African descent celebrate a different aspect at new moon during Hanukkah. In this, they tell the story of Judith, who while flirting with the Greek-Syrian general Holofernes, fed him wine and salty cheese to make him thirsty. When he was drunk, she beheaded him. Without their leader, Holofernes’ army was easily defeated. The women celebrate Judith’s bravery with cheese pancakes and songs.
The ritual of the hanukkiah
Since ancient times, it was considered important to position the hanukkiah (an eight-fingered menorah with an additional finger for the lighting candle) in a public space as an act of defiance, and determined survival. Often, large menoras/hanukkias are placed in a central square of the town and lit by members of the community. Otherwise, it is placed in a window for passes-by to enjoy (or, in the early days of Nazi Germany, as a subversive act of defiance, resistance and moral courage).
Each day, one candle is lit on the hanukkiah. On the first of the eight nights, only two candles are placed in the hanukkiah: the helper candle usually set in front of the main eight fingers, and another candle on the far right of the hanukkiah. Each night an additional candle is placed in the hanukkiah and lit, usually after sunset. The candles are placed from right to left to reflect Hebrew script, but are lit from left to right!
The game I remember from my childhood is ‘spin the dreidl’, a dreidl being a four-sided spinning top. Each side has a Hebrew letter on it: N, G, H, P, the first letter of the four words that mean ‘a great miracle happened here’. All the players start with counters that can be chocolate coins, raisons or nuts and put one into the pot to start the game. A player spins the dreidl and gives or takes coins depending on which letter it falls on: N – the player takes or gives nothing; G – the player takes everything in the pot; H – the player takes half of what is in the pot; P – the player puts a counter into the pot. The game continues until there are no more counters in the pot.
Traditional food for Hanukkah
Because Hanukkah describes the miracle of oil that lasted eight days instead of one, the traditional foods are generally fried or oily. Jews around the world have developed Hanukkah food that is unique to their local community. For example, while jam donuts are a mainstay among many European Jews, in southern India, Jews make a milk-based ball of dough that is deep fried and then drenched in sugar syrup. The sweet treat is also consumed by non-Jewish Indians during Diwali.
I imagine though, wherever there are Jews, there will be latkes, a variety of potato fritters. Here are a couple of basic recipes; for me, latkes are irresistible at any time of year.
Basic latke recipe
Every Jewish person will tell you that their mother’s latkes are the best. My mum’s certainly were. They were most commonly made with potatoes
Ingredients for potato latkes: 3 cups of grated potatoes (peeled); 1 large onion peeled and grated; 2 eggs; 1 tsp salt and pepper. Some people use flour, in which case 3 tbps. (I prefer them without flour.)
Mix the potatoes and onions together and drain out any extra liquid. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well. Drop a spoonful at a time into hot vegetable oil, flatten slightly with the back of a spoon, and fry until crispy, especially round the edges. Place on paper towels to drain excess oil, and serve hot, with yoghurt or sour cream with chives.
As a variation, replace the potatoes with a mix of grated courgette, beetroot and carrot. (Don’t forget to squeeze out or strain away extra liquid), plus the zest of half a lemon. Serve hot, with sour cream or yoghurt with mint. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? Enjoy!
And today …
Since the times of Alexander the Great and King Antiochus, the land now known as Israel has been subjected to strife on countless occasions, changing hands many times over the centuries. And while Hanukkah recalls one such struggle, thousands of Israelis and Jews around the world who are celebrating this festival this year will be feeling it has particular poignancy at this time. But the significance is relevant to both the peoples – the Israelis and the Palestinians – fighting for their survival, for their culture, religion and identity.
The solution surely comes in acknowledging the parity between both nations’ rights. Neither has a greater right than the other; both need surely to respect the other’s fundamental wish to survive with their way of life intact, and to expect a future for their children. Only this can lead to a peaceful solution. All that is needed is leadership on both sides that recognises this and is willing to work steadfastly towards that aim. Clearly, this requires international intervention.