Chanukah: A Time For Lights and Miracles

By Natalie Roisman

There’s A Lot to Love About Chanukah

As we near the end of Chanukah, I’m honored to share some thoughts about this holiday with all of you in Atlas Book Club.

For eight nights of Chanukah, we light candles, sing blessings and songs, eat potato pancakes called latkes (LAHT-kuhs) or other fried foods like donuts, play with a spinning top called a dreidel (DRAYD-uhl), eat chocolate coins (gelt), and some families give gifts, especially to kids. The candles are put in a special nine-branched candelabra known as a “menorah” (mih-NO-ra) or “chanukiah” (chan-oo-KEE-ya). 

It’s a fun, light-filled, kid-friendly holiday that falls amid a fun, light-filled, kid-friendly holiday season. There’s a lot to love about Chanukah! But it’s worth also understanding that it is actually a relatively minor holiday in the scheme of Judaism and that its history and tie-in to current events are complicated.

Chanukah’s History – A Great Reminder

Chanukah is part of a very long story of a religious faith that has been oppressed in various ways around the world for thousands of years. It is a celebration of survival, miracles, and the struggle for holiness. The Chanukah story takes place in the holy Jewish Temple in Jerusalem around 165 B.C.E, amid an effort by the Seleucid Empire to impose ancient Greek culture, religion, and language on the territories they ruled. When they outlawed observance of Jewish rituals, erected a statue of Zeus in the Temple, and sacrificed pigs (a non-kosher animal) there, a Jewish group called the Maccabees rose up in battle to reclaim and rededicate the Temple to its sacred Jewish uses. The legendary miracle of Chanukah is that while the Maccabees could find only a small amount of oil, perhaps one day’s worth, to re-light the Eternal Light in the Temple, that small amount burned consistently for eight days until more could be obtained. 

Chanukah is a time for light and miracles. It also is a critical reminder of the many ways that leaders and people of other religions and cultures have dismissed and desecrated Jewish people, holy items, and places for centuries. This reminder is important now because of a new rise in global antisemitism, the marginalization or oppression of people who are Jewish based on belief in stereotypes or myths about Judaism or Jews. In this country, one out of four Jews reported being the subject of antisemitism over the last year alone. 

Sometimes antisemitism looks like name-calling. Sometimes it’s vandalism. Sometimes it’s violent. The best word to describe most antisemitism is “insidious.” It’s cloaked in words and phrases that are steeped in anti-Jewish sentiment and send clear messages to those who know. Antisemitism can be perpetuated by those who don’t realize the history or coding of the words or ideas they are sharing. It happens on both the political right and left, and it happens within all communities and cultures. A clear understanding of antisemitism and its tropes is essential to fight it. 

Antisemitism also can sometimes look like exclusion or marginalization, and unfortunately the winter holiday season in schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods is often an example of this. Songs, parties, parades, decorations, gifts — it’s all Christmas. Of course the vast majority of Americans celebrate Christmas and only a tiny sliver of the population is Jewish. It’s not the scale of Christmas that is the problem, but rather the assumption that Christmas is for everyone. Christmas is a beautiful holiday that I enjoy, but it is not *my* holiday or my children’s holiday. For centuries, Jews have been forced to convert and assimilate and take on the trappings of Christian nations, so this is an extremely sensitive point. 

Similarly, Chanukah doesn’t become a more important Jewish holiday simply because of its proximity to Christmas. We can’t fix the centering of Christianity by ascribing greater value to Chanukah than Jewish tradition warrants. 

Chanukah Facts and Traditions

Like I said, it’s complicated. But there are some things we can all do that will make Jewish kids feel seen in an authentic way. Here is a Chanukah fact or tradition and something to think about for each night of the holiday:

1. One name for Chanukah is the Festival of Lights.

It’s amazing to think that so many religions and cultures have holidays based around light (Diwali, Eid al-Fitr, Kwanzaa, and Christmas, to name a few). We are all looking for light, and we are all inspired and empowered by it. May we find a way through the dark times we are experiencing personally, communally, and around the world. May we be the light for others.

2. Another name for Chanukah is the Festival of Rededication.

My rabbi likes to talk about making the old new and making the new holy. Never in my life have I been challenged to do this as much as during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are living, learning, working, mourning, and even celebrating in ways we never imagined. We have the chance to rededicate our lives in new ways to the people and practices that are holy to us. May we dedicate ourselves passionately to noble and righteous causes. May we dedicate time and sanctify physical space in our lives to our families, our friends, and the pursuit of what makes each of us happy.

3. Chanukah is about a military battle.

And to be honest, that battle was won by people who by today’s standards likely would be considered religious extremists. We can rejoice in the restoration of the Temple and the victory of an oppressed religious community without holding up those who led it as unstained heroes. May we always strive first for consensus and compromise, as we are more alike than different. May we use force only when necessary, and may we have the courage and strength to fight the real battles for hearts and minds. May we emulate the passion and commitment of the Maccabees but also embrace diversity of faiths (and no faith at all) as part of our vibrant society. 

4. Chanukah is about a triumphant underdog.

May we all achieve many victories, but remain humble and peaceful. May we stand up for those who lack the power or voice to stand up for themselves. And may we fight for what we know is morally right regardless of what the law says.

5. Chanukah is about placing a chanukiyah in the window to show that one is celebrating.

May we all be brave enough to be who we are, no matter who is looking. May we stand in solidarity with those who otherwise would stand alone.

6. Chanukah is about religion and spirituality.

May those of us who identify with a faith have the freedom to practice, and may we all be free from hatred and violence purportedly wielded in the name of religion. I’d love for people to learn and get excited about Jewish holidays beyond Chanukah, ones that take place at a time that isn’t primarily focused on Christmas. We have a rich, vibrant tradition of holidays and rituals throughout the year that showcase the depth and diversity of Judaism far better than the narrow story of Chanukah ever can. 

7. Chanukah is about a small supply of oil that burned for longer than it should have.

This is why we fry up potato pancakes and donuts throughout the holiday. While prioritizing good health, may we eat foods fried in oil without regret, because they are delicious, and life is short and precious. And did I mention they are delicious? I like my latkes with either applesauce or sour cream.

8. Chanukah is about a miracle.

We live in a time where we need miracles and where we can all be part of making miracles happen. May the next year bring the miracle(s) each of us is hoping for, and may we bring miracles to those who need them most.

There is a ninth candle, a “helper” candle called the “shamash” (sha-MAHSH) that lights all the others. I like to talk with my children about how we can each be a helper to all those around us, to our communities, and to our world — how we can help bring light. How can you be a light if you are not Jewish? I encourage you to have a little Chanukah fun — fry up some latkes, spin a dreidel, listen to Leslie Odom’s modern version of the classic Chanukah song, Ma’oz Tzur, featuring his wife, Nicolette Robinson. Then commit to calling out antisemitism. Make a plan to look beyond Chanukah to more important days in the Jewish year. Work to understand why Jewish holidays are so often first and foremost a story of religious and cultural survival, and how that fight continues.