Chanukah: The Power of Light

Samantha at Bourbon Coffee on 14th St., Manhattan unique and joyful celebration of Chanukah

Samantha at Bourbon Coffee on 14th St., Manhattan unique and joyful celebration of Chanukah

Amidst the lights and music of Chanukah comes the lights of Chanukah.  It’s a festival – not a holiday, and, like many Jewish celebrations it involves near annihilation and food.

Sunday, a friend asked about the meaning of ‘gelt’ as we walked chomping on chocolate gelt coins.    Midway through making up answers, I came face to face with the fact:  after lighting hundreds of Chanukah candles, spinning countless dreidels, and, eating twice my weight in potato latkes and soufganiot (doughnuts) over more than half century of celebrating:  I DON’T KNOW!

Fortunately, I had picked up a brochure:

I'm thinking this is an "Everything you wanted to know about Chanukah - that your friend didn't know" brochure, courtesy of Lubavitch Youth Organization/Chabad

I’m thinking this is an “Everything you wanted to know about Chanukah – that you didn’t know” brochure, courtesy of Lubavitch Youth Organization/Chabad

In fact, while reading Chabad’s Lubavitch Youth Org’s www.lubavitchyouth.org short brochure I realized not only do I NOT

The way we Eastern Europeans prefer to ingest our oil!  martha stewart highlights sharon lebewol's latke's from her 2nd Ave Deli Cookbook

The way we Eastern Europeans prefer to ingest our oil! martha stewart highlights sharon lebewol’s latke’s from her 2nd Ave Deli Cookbook

understand the meaning of ‘gelt’, I don’t fully understand the whole festival.

Ultimately, Chanukah, is about the triumph of freedom over oppression, of spirit over matter, of light over darkness.

Our sages said, “A little light expels a lot of darkness.”

Notable as the longest night of the year is days away.

Lighting the candles Sunday night

Lighting the candles Sunday night.  My Chabad brochure explained: ‘ the 8-branched menorah is a symbol of hope and eternal optimism that G-d will make things work out for us, even when it seems unlikely.’   It must work!  Menorahs have nurtured perseverance during the horrors of the Holocaust and the gloom of the Soviet gulag!

Some of what I needed to learn:

313 B.C.E.:  Alexander the Great conquered Jerusalem.  The Jews lived under Greek ‘rule’ until they were forced to worship statues of Zeus.  Then, enough was enough:  In 140 B.C.E., the Jews fought a war over religious freedom led by the Maccabees, an acronym for ‘Who is like You among the powerful, O L-ord?’

Battles were fought and miraculous victories led to chasing the Greeks out of Jerusalem.  But the Greeks had desecrated the Holy Temple and there wasn’t any undefiled oil to keep the special light above the Ark where the Torah’s are kept lit.  It would take 7 days round trip to get undefiled oil.  Ah, the days before Fed-Ex!

Miraculously, a pure, sealed bottle of oil was found beneath the floor.  A bottle to last a day, miraculously lasted for eight.

Miracle or luck?  A question for another day.

Chanukah celebrates this miracle with the ritual of lighting menorah’s:  special candlesticks allowing candles to be lit for each of the  miraculous eight nights,

Eating oil laden food like potato pancakes fried in oil

Sufganiyah, fried jelly donuts - a Chanukah delicacy!  pic courtesy of wikipedia.

Sufganiyah, fried jelly donuts – a Chanukah delicacy! pic courtesy of Wikipedia.

Giving ‘gelt’ or charity.  Most often in the form of foil wrapped chocolate, though as kids it’s much sweeter to get a gift each night.  I become my niece’s least favorite aunt by giving donations in their name!

Gelt!  Check out About.com/judaism/whatis hanukah for more info

Gelt! Check out www.About.com/Judaism/whatis Hanukkah for more info

Playing Dreidel, spinning a four-sided top – for money – and praying for a miracle to take the pot.   Here’s the deal with dreidels:  When the Greek

Dreidel playing gelt!  Winner eats all - happily!

Dreidel playing gelt! Winner eats all – happily!

Antiochus forbade Torah study, Jews studied secretly in caves.  When an officer approached, they would hide their books and pretend to play with tops. The dreidel’s four sides have a Hebrew letter imprinted on each side:  Nun, Gimmel, Hay, and Shin, standing for the Hebrew:

Spinning dreidels!

Spinning dreidels!

‘Ness Gadol Haya Sham’: 

‘A great miracle happened here’

FYI:  Give the top a twirl and when the dreidel stops spinning, if it lands on the Gimmel it means you win everything.  Landing on the Shin will diminish your lot by 2 M-n-M’s.

chanukah dreidel gimmel

Today, Wednesday, the fifth night, is the most special:  five lit candles out of eight signifies more light than darkness.

Watching the candles burn on my menorah, I’m acknowledging struggles and darkness, taking in the light .  Menorah’s have been lit and dreidels have spun through far worse than my measly problems, I know.  Still, it’s reassuring.

My Lubavitcher Youth www.LubavitchYouth.org brochure says it better than I ever could:

Let us pray that the message of the Chanukah lights will illuminate the everyday life of everyone personally and of the society at large, for a brighter life in every respect, both materially and spiritually.

I’ll drink (some hot chocolate) to that!

What’s your favorite holiday ritual? 

What have you learned about it lately that blew your socks off?

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4 responses to “Chanukah: The Power of Light

  1. Even though the service had nothing to do with Chanukah, I went to Shabbot last Friday night with a friend. The service was the most joyful this Presbyterian woman has experienced in a long time. Singing, dancing, praying! Truly honoring God. Thank you for making me feel welcome.

  2. Linder, I enjoyed reading about Chanukah. The pictures of food made me hungry but I can feel the warmth and light of the menorah and I love the story of conquering oppression with light and faith. I looking forward to the winter solstice next weekend when our side of the earth turns toward the light. Wishing you much light, faith and good food in this season of festivals. Mary

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