Chanukah 101

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Growing up Jewish in Minnesota, I knew I was in the minority, but I also knew a lot of Jews. Between Hebrew school, synagogue, and my family, there were plenty of bar and bat mitzvahs to attend, people to wish Happy New Year and those who understood that matzah is gross, but matzah balls are delicious.

So I always assumed that everyone else knew Jewish people, too. But I grew up, went out into the world and realized I was wrong. Jewish people make up about two percent of the Twin Cities population — and a far smaller percentage of outstate Minnesota. I was surprised to find out that I had friends and co-workers who didn’t know a single Jewish person growing up. So being one of the few — or only — Jewish people they know, I get questions. And since Chanukah is the most visible Jewish holiday, I get a lot of questions about Chanukah.

The following are all actual questions I’ve been asked by friends and co-workers over the past couple years.

What is Chanukah?

Chanukah is Hanukkah is Chanukkah is Channuka is Hanuka. Since Chanukah is a transliteration of a Hebrew word, there is no one correct way to spell it. The “CH” sound is not the same as the “CH” sound in “cheese” — but rather is more of a throat-clearing sound. Hear the word pronounced here.

Does Chanukah start on Dec. 8?

Nope. Well, occasionally. Chanukah takes place on the same date every year on the Jewish calendar — the 25th of Kislev. The Jewish calendar is lunar, meaning each new month starts at the new moon. Most years there are twelve months, but every few years an entire leap month is added to keep the calendar more aligned with the longer solar cycles. So Chanukah starts on a different secular date every year — sometimes as early as late November. This year, the first night of Chanukah is on the 20th. Jewish holidays start at sundown, so if your calendar says Dec. 21 is the first day of Chanukah, that day started at sundown the night before. [Editor’s note: This post was written in 2011. Chanukah starts on Dec. 16 in 2014]

What is Chanukah about?

Tablet explains succinctly: “Hebrew for “dedication,” Hanukkah is an eight-day-long celebration commemorates just that: the purging and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BCE after the Jews’ successful uprising against the Greeks.” In rededicating the temple they re-lit a flame that is meant to never go out, but only had enough oil for one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight nights.

Is Chanukah a big deal?

In the scheme of Jewish holidays, no — but due to its proximity to Christmas, it’s become the most visible Jewish holiday. The most important Jewish holidays are the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) that mark the new year and the days of atonement that follow. These take place in the fall.

What’s a dreidel?

It’s a four-sided top that is used to play a game that involves putting chocolate coins (or actual coins) into a pot, or taking them out, depending on which side the dreidel lands. There is a different Hebrew letter on each side…the first letters of each word in the phrase “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” which means “a great miracle happened there.” I’ve always thought this game is fairly boring and it doesn’t really have a clear end. In my family, we stopped playing when we got bored (which meant after about five minutes).

Are there Chanukah songs beyond “I had a little dreidel?”

There are a few. “Maoz Tzur” (aka Rock of Ages) is often sung as is “Svivon,” which is another song about a dreidel (except this time in Hebrew). My favorite is the Yiddish “Oy, Chanukah”….but I can’t find it online, so this Woodie Guthrie Chanukah song will have to do:

Are there particular foods you eat at Chanukah?

It’s traditional to eat foods fried in oil thanks to the whole oil miracle thing. Latkes are fried potato pancakes that are closer to hash browns than actual pancakes. Sufganiyot, another traditional food, are basically jelly donuts.

You really don’t celebrate Christmas?

Nope. Growing up, we didn’t celebrate Christmas since it’s a Christian holiday and we aren’t Christian. We did observe Christmas in our own way — by going to eat Chinese food and going to see a movie. Now, like nearly half of Minnesota’s Jews, I’m married to a nice goyishe (gentile) boy and attend his family’s Christmas celebration.

Do you celebrate Thanksgiving?

Yep. That one’s an American holiday and we’re American, so we celebrate it. Though watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is close to a religious experience for me.

If you have any other questions that I didn’t cover, please leave them in comments. I’m always happy to answer them. It’s a good time of year to celebrate, keep traditions, make new ones and kibbitz. Happy holidays, Chanukah, Christmas, Solstice, New Year and whatever else you’re celebrating this month. Hope it’s a good one.