JOLIET – Rabbi Charles Rubovits, why is Hanukkah spelled two ways?
“It’s interesting,” the Joliet rabbi answered. “In Hebrew, Hanukkah is only spelled one way. In English, there are 22 different spellings that I know of.”
Rubovits explained this and other mysteries of Hanukkah, or Chanukah if you prefer the other common spelling that attempts to represent the guttural pronunciation of the word in Hebrew.
He emphasized, however, that Hanukkah is really a simple holiday and not even a major one on the Jewish calendar. Somewhat to the dismay of Jewish religious leaders, it has become a bigger deal largely because it happens around the same time as Christmas.
“Between the roly-poly Santa Claus and Adam Sandler, Hanukkah has become a major holiday,” Rubovits said.
Adam Sandler is the comedian who wrote “The Chanukah Song,” which describes alienation that Jewish children can feel at Christmastime.
Now, Rubovits said, not only do many Jewish children get elaborate gifts for Hanukkah, they get them for eight days and become the envy of their Christian friends.
Hanukkah lasts for eight days, but the dates can vary from late November to late December because of the Jewish calendar, which is based on a lunar cycle and can add an entire month in some years.
This year, Hanukkah started Saturday.
Robin English, a member of the Joliet Jewish Congregation where Rubovits is rabbi, said she still gives her children the simple gifts that are the Hanukkah tradition.
But she’s addressed whatever alienation issue by throwing a Hanukkah party each year for her children’s friends.
Since there aren’t a lot of Jews in Shorewood, where English lives, or the Joliet area, most of her children’s friends aren’t Jewish. But they probably know more about Hanukkah than the average American.
“We talk about what Hanukkah means and why we celebrate,” English said. “We have the traditional foods – the potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts. We also do a candle lighting and play dreidel.”
The Hanukkah miracle
Potato pancakes, jelly doughnuts, candle lighting, dreidel – what’s it all about?
Really, all the faithful are required to do for Hanukkah, Rubovits said, is light a candle on the hanukkiah (the unique menorah used for Hanukkah) for each of the eight days of Hanukkah, and say prayers as they do it.
Here’s how that came about.
Back about 166 years before the first Christmas, Syrian-Greeks had taken over much of Israel, desecrated the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and were trying to force Jews to worship Greek gods.
A successful rebellion drove the Syrian-Greeks out of Jerusalem.
One of the first rebuilding tasks was to cleanse the temple, which includedlighting of the sacred menorah. Unfortunately, there was only enough oil to keep the menorah lit for one day. But by a miracle of God, the menorah stayed lit for eight days.
Thus, there are the eight days of Hanukkah and the unique hanukkiah, which has nine candles (one used for lighting) so that a candle can be lit each night of what also is called the “Festival of Lights.”
“From the first day to the last day, we’ll light the menorah,” said Sami Guzick of Joliet, also a member of the Joliet Jewish Congregation. “We gather together, and each of the children say a prayer as the candles are lit.”
So, why the latkes?
The two foods most associated with Hanukkah are latkes, or potato pancakes, and sufganiyot, which are rich, jelly doughnuts.
What they have in common is that they both are cooked in oil, which is associated with the miracle at the Second Temple.
“You just fry and fry and fry,” said Guzick, describing family gatherings where lots of latkes get made.
So much oil gets in the air that her sister covers the kitchen cabinets with cardboard to keep them from getting coated in grease.
Cooking such foods is a tradition, said Rubovits. Fried chicken and french fries might be suitable Hanukkah food, too, but they’re not tradition.
The dreidel is a tradition.
Tradition and perseverance
The dreidel is basically a top, which can be designed in many interesting shapes and forms. But it always is divided into four segments with four letters, which become the basis for placing bets.
Rubovits speculated that someone since 166 BC came up with the dreidel to keep children amused during Hanukkah, and the idea caught on until it became a tradition.
It’s a child’s game, and children typically win small prizes.
At English’s Hanukkah parties, the kids win candy or pennies.
“They do like it, and they have a good time,” she said.
Aside from the dreidel, latkes and the encroachment of commercialism, English said there is something basic and meaningful about Hanukkah.
“Hanukkah is a celebration of the rededication of the temple in Israel,” she said. “I think of it as a rededication of what being Jewish means to you.”
Said Rubovits, “In Judaism, it’s a big thing because it stands for perseverance – in this case, religious perseverance.”