Dredel, Dredel: Hanukkah in a Nutshell

by Sarah Goldstein

December, a month flooded with connotations of the joy and warmth that come along with the winter season. Many people look forward to December all year round as it brings hot chocolate nights and sweater weather days. But most commonly, people tend to associate the month of December with Christmas. A beautiful pine wreath hangs from the door, bearing the traditional colors of red and green, while inside the cozy home, a giant tree stands in the den, adorned with twinkle lights and endless ornaments, each decoration a different memory, the whole house smelling like a rather enticing mix of pine and fresh baked cookies. However, in the midst of all of this winter wonder, there is another holiday that often goes overlooked or just gets lost in the all dominating isles of Christmas decorations in almost any store. There are 8 days for the kids who don’t have a christmas tree in their home. 8 days for the kids who don’t have a wreath hanging from their doors, and a complete other set of unique traditions and interesting stories and legends that go with it. Hanukkah is an extremely important Jewish Holiday that, this year, begins on the sundown of December second and lasts until sundown of December tenth.

The history of Hanukkah is a rather interesting and complicated affair.  Most people who are not familiar with the holiday are often surprised to find that it celebrates the freedom that was won through immense struggle against oppression. Because Christmas has a warm and happy origin story, it might seem like a strange contrast, especially since the two occur in close such proximity with one and other. What needs to be understood about Hanukkah is that although it has sprung from a bloody beginning, it has a sweet ending. It began when the Ancient Syrian Greeks ruled Judea, the lands of what is now known as Israel.  Antiochus III held the power, and he allowed the Jews to practice their religion freely. But, unfortunately, his son that rose to power did not share his father’s tolerant views. He used his power as a platform to spread hate and declared that Jews were no longer welcome. He then proceeded to take big steps to enforce his cruel policy, like outlawing the religion itself as well as all of the traditions and practices that came  hand in hand. He forced the Jews, thousands of innocent people, into conversion. He expected them to ignore all of their prior beliefs and start fresh. Under his rule, they were now to worship the Greek Gods. The Jewish people of Judea lived in discontent, until one man decided to take a stand. There was a Jewish priest by the name of Matthias, and he and his five sons led rebellions against their oppressors. After two arduous years of fighting the monarchy, the Israelites took back control of Judea. However, in the time that the evil king ruled, he was able to do ample damage. The king had destroyed most of the Jewish temples, and few Israelites dedicated their lives to restoring the second temple. One such Jew was Judah Maccabee. While working, he and his crew of devoted Jews witnessed a miracle. The crew had only enough untainted oil to light the menorah for one night, but instead, the oil lasted for 8!

This miracle gave birth to Hanukkah, the festival of lights commemorating the miracle of the oil in the second temple. Jews all around the world celebrate eight nights, one for each miraculous night that the oil continued to burn. This holiday may have a bittersweet origin, but the traditions brought along with it are nothing but jovial. One of the most vital and classic traditions is that of lighting the menorah. When strolling through neighborhoods, many bright and colorful menorahs can be seen through the windows of homes, each personal menorah story personal to the owner. While the menorah might have a unique external design, its internal structure remains the same in every menorah. Traditionally, the menorah has nine places for candles, although most would think there would only be eight. If there are only eight nights, then why are there nine spaces? There are eight regular spaces for candles. But the ninth is special - raised slightly above the rest, or even found right in the middle of the Menorah. This is the dutiful place of the shamash, otherwise known as the all important lighter candle. The menorah is lit from right to left. The honored shamash is the first candle to be lit by a match or lighter, and is used to ignite all of the other candles.

Other Hanukkah traditions include singing and playing special songs, just like any other holiday. Some common Hanukkah songs include “Dreidel,” “Oh Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah,” “Ocho Candelas,” and, “The Hanukkah Song” by Adam Sandler. The holiday also brings about its own set of special prayers, like the candle blessing (chanted while lighting the candles), the Hanukkah blessing (chanted only on the first night of the holiday), and the Shehecheyanu, (a chant of thankfulness and togetherness, as it is a blessing of family). In addition to this comes special games that children look forward to all year, such as the classic gambling game of Dreidel. The word dreidel itself means to “turn around” and turn around it does. It has four sides, each with a hebrew symbol carved into it or printed on top. The four symbols are nun, gimmel, hay, and shin. They stand for the Hebrew expression “Nes Gadol Haya Sham,” meaning, “A great miracle occurred there,” referring to the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days that occurred in Israel in the temple all of those years ago. All you need to play the game is Hanukkah gelt, small chocolate coins packaged in golden aluminum (about 10-15 pieces per player), and the dreidel itself.

Because this is a children’s gambling game, at the start of each round, each player must contribute one piece of their loot into the pot. When it is your turn, you simply spin the dreidel. Whichever side you land on determines the size and amount of your winnings. If you land on nun, you get nothing, Hay means half, so the player get half of the pot. If there is an uneven number of pieces in the pot, the spinner gets the majority. Gimmel means everything, so the lucky player who lands on this side gets everything in the pot. If you land on shin, you don’t get any, but you have to put one coin of your own into the pot. Each time the pot empties, each player adds a piece to the pot so that the game can continue. When you run out of gelt, you can either ask a player for a loan or accept your defeat. This thrilling game ends when one player ends up with all of the coveted chocolate coins.

People celebrate Hanukkah all over the world, and in each place, there is a slight variation of tradition. In the United States, we are lucky to have a blend of traditions because of all of the immigrants that end their journey here that helped create the diversity that our country is home to. In Eastern Europe and the US, Jews celebrate Hanukkah by eating latkes (potato pancakes). You will also find it commonly paired with applesauce. As unlikely as the pair may seem, it tends to be a praised combination among the Jewish community. In India, rather than displaying the classic candles on their menorahs, they place unique wicks dipped in rich coconut oil to honor on the menorah to honor the miracle of oil that the Holiday commemorates. In Yemen, the holiday is considered to be a women’s holiday, because they believe that women led the Jewish revolts, rather then Matthias and his sons. In Israel, Jews feast on small light, fried jelly donuts, known as sufganiyot. In addition to finding its way into the Jewish hearts of young and old, this sweet and delectable tradition also finds its own way to honor the miracle of oil by being fried. It is also a tradition that is shared by the United States. In Istanbul, they eat burmelos, small fritters that bear a striking similarity to latkes. In Morocco, the holiday is celebrated with the consumption of Sfenj, citrus versions of sufganiyot, typically infused with orange juice and zest. In Italy, Jews indulge in precipizio, a sweet dessert.

The word Hanukkah means “dedication,” and it is during this holiday that we honor our ancestors for their dedication to the temple and practicing their religion freely without prejudice. Because in some parts of the word this dream has not been fulfilled, we must be dedicated to creating a better future where everyone can be themselves, especially in today’s climate. Let us unify, and dedicate ourselves to the creation of a more tolerant future in hopes that someday every family has a chance to openly partake in the joys of Hanukkah.