Chanukah 101

menorah.jpgPhoto by Dominic Alves via Flickr

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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.


When does Chanukah begin?

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 12 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.

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.

  • Suzanne

    Preach it, Molly! Way to represent!

  • Although I didn’t marry any of them, more than once I was that nice goyishe boy to a nice Jewish girl growing up in NYC

  • Zebulun

    You truly missed out, Paul. Didn’t anyone ever tell you to marry up?

  • Stuart

    Here’s my question, Molly: Have you always been this awesome?

  • Steve

    I second the question asked by Stuart.

  • Laura

    What a great article! I liked that you included the same number of questions as there are candles on the menorah. Well done.

  • Marilyn

    Stuart +1

  • Paul

    Growing up in Greater Minnesota, I didn’t meet any folks of the Jewish faith until college, and then faith in a particular theology didn’t matter as we were all just trying to graduate…

    I’ve very glad my children are exposed to the multiple cultures in the metro area.

  • Debbie O

    In answer to the question asked by Stuart and seconded by Steve, yes Molly has always been this awesome.

  • John P II

    Fried foods and jelly doughnuts for 8 days? Count me in.

  • Jim Shapiro

    How can you mention Chanukah songs and leave out Adam Sandler’s classic? 🙂

  • Jenifer

    Great piece Molly. I’m jealous you have both Hanukah and Christmas now — extra fun!

  • jon

    I thought motzah was pretty taste… like an unsalted saltine… Me and some friends ate most of my roommates Motzah during one of them Jewish holidays… We tried to make it up to him by getting him a bunch of jelly packets from Perkins so the motzah he had left wouldn’t be so bland… he later explained that Perkins jelly isn’t kosher…

    good times…

  • jon

    I forgot to post my question.

    If Hanukkah is a celebration of a miracle that happened before the birth of Christ, Why don’t Christians celebrate it? I mean Christians observe Passover, you can’t go to a Sunday school in a christian church with out hearing about mosses and the miracles that happened in Exodus… what makes a lamp burning for 7 days longer then it should have a miracle that is decisive for between Christians and Jews?

  • James

    I think I can answer that, jon. Christians are familiar with Passover because it is inextricably tied to Easter. We don’t celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In fact, the Chanukah story is not included in many bibles; only Catholic versions that include books whose only sources were written in Greek.

    There are many Jewish holidays that we Christians aren’t familiar with. A Jewish friend of mine once said one of the best things about being Jewish was that they had more holidays than government workers.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Most Jewish holidays can be summed up in the following manner:

    They tried to kill us –

    we ended up killing them.

    Let’s eat!

  • Naomi

    Love this, Molly! You are the Best… I can take this explanation to all my co-workers at St. Joseph’s hospital here in Milwaukee. At this time of the year I always get tons of questions and can never answer them as well as you just did! It also gives me an opportunity to brag about my wonderful niece that works at MPR in Mpls………Hugs and kisses from Milwaukee……xoxo

  • Amy

    My question is – Do Jewish folks enjoy getting holiday/christmas cards? I always wonder as I send them out. I feel It’s just a way to keep in touch and celebrate the season, but how do you feel?

  • tboom

    Are fruit cakes in any way associated with Chanukah?

    (By fruit cake I’m referring to the literal kind,that my family seems to enjoy sending to each other but doesn’t seem to enjoy eating. I’m NOT referring to the human equivalent).

  • tboom

    … also associated with my family.

  • Molly Bloom

    @tboom — As far as I know, fruit cakes are not associated with Chanukah.

    @Amy — I can only speak for myself and friends/family that I polled, but it’s lovely to get holiday cards at this time of year. Many Jewish families also send out their own holiday cards (though they say “Happy New Year” or “Happy Holidays,” as opposed to “Merry Christmas”).

  • Wendy

    Molly, I’m a little late in watching this, but it’s still Chanukah, so we’re OK. Many of my co-workers marvel at the 8-day holiday length, and often ask if we give presents on all eight days. I often answer that we did that sometimes when the kids were little, but really – who’s home eight days in a row these days??!!

    Proud of you! – Wendy

  • Alli

    Wonderful article Molly! I sent to all my non-Jewish friends and co-workers as the question “You really don’t celebrate Christmas” comes up just about every day!