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Jewish Culture-Gram: Hanukkah Edition

December 4, 2015

Today’s post is written by guest blogger Kelly Steiner. Kelly shares these insights with her faculty and administration. Thank you Kelly for sharing your culture with us. This year Hanukkah begins at sundown on Sunday, December 6 and continues until December 14.

What to expect with your students in terms of Hanukkah
some FAQs about this often misunderstood holiday.

Will the kids miss school?
Generally, Hanukkah doesn’t require missing of school.  However, for some Jewish families the mandate to light the candles at a specific time (connected to sunset) is very strict.  Since the sun sets just after school these days, it may mean that some Jewish students aren’t available for after school activities/ help.

Can they still do their homework?
There is no religious expectation to not work, so it is still reasonable to ask students to complete their work.  However, exceptions might be needed for kids who are either traveling to be with family or have lots of family staying at their house, which can make it more difficult to manage, but you would be culturally sensitive to treat these cases the same way you’d treat any other family time.  All eight nights can have associated family time and festivities so there may be more on kids’ plates this next week, just something to be mindful of.

Isn’t it weird to send e-mails about religion?
I hope it isn’t weird.  Judaism is a bit different in that it is both a religion and a cultural ethnicity.  Lots of people consider themselves Jewish culturally but don’t practice the religion.  We’re an odd group that way.  I hope that I don’t offend anyone, I aim to just help us better understand each other’s cultures.  If it helps at all, Jews actively discourage converting to Judaism and so we’re one group where it is a good guess that there is no intent to sell the religion.

I thought Hanukkah happened at Thanksgiving, what’s with that?
The Jewish holidays happen based on the Jewish calendar which is lunar, as opposed to our secular solar calendar.  This means that Jewish holidays fall at a different time in the secular calendar each year, even thought they are always at exactly the same time on the Jewish calendar.  Previously we had  “Thanksgivikah”, this year it starts at sundown on the 6th and continues until the 14th.  You can search future secular dates of Jewish holidays if you’re interested.

Is “Hanukkah” the right way to spell it?
There is no right way.  Hebrew and English don’t share the same characters so all spelling in English of Hebrew words is just phonetic.  Multiple spellings are considered “correct”.

What is this holiday all about anyway?
Hanukkah is not a biblical holiday like some of the others, it comes from early Jewish History.  Because Judaism is both a religion and a cultural identity and has the added distinction of being a minority culture in many places there is a lot of focus on retelling of the history of the people and their struggles to maintain a sense of cultural identity, cohesiveness and common history.  This holiday (like many others) follows the theme that would probably be a movie trailer like this: “in a world where the culture of power bans Judaism and Jewish practices, persecuting Jews for following their beliefs, a band of feisty Jews refuses to be oppressed and fights back against a much larger and stronger force to preserve Jewish culture for future generations!”  In this episode, the oppressive culture of power is the Greek-Syrians and the rebel band of Jews was led by the Maccabee family.  After the Greek-Syrians destroyed the temple, the Jews reclaimed it and rededicated it.  Hanukkah means dedication in Hebrew.  More information can be found at:

What about the presents?
Just like Christmas isn’t really about presents and trees, Hanukkah isn’t really about presents and fried foods.  It is an opportunity to repeat the stories of a common history and focus on the victory of light over darkness (a key theme in lots of cultures around the winter solstice).  That’s why the menorah is lit.  The fried foods are a nod to the oil which, when where was only one day’s worth of not desecrated holy oil left, miraculously lasted for eight days (according to the story as it is told every year) until more oil could be prepared.  That’s also why the menorah has one additional candle each night for eight nights.  It is lit, prayers are said and songs are often sung.

The last menorah I saw had 9 spots, was it a mistake?
Nope, there are 8 candle spots, one for each night plus one “helper” candle, the shamash, which is lit first and used to light all the other candles – making a total of 9.

What’s with the dreidel?Dreidle
The dreidel game was originally a way to cover up the teaching of the Jewish traditions from the oppressive regimes.  When soldiers came by it was a basic game of chance.  But when the soldiers left, it could be used to teach children.  The four hebrew letters on the dreidel are the first four letters of the phrase “A Great Miracle Happened There” which allows for the telling of the story.  Interesting factoid – in Israel, the last letter on the dreidel is different so that is says “A Great Miracle Happened Here”.

What do I say to a Jewish kid?
It is polite to say “Happy Hanukkah” to Jewish kids on any of the eight days.  It starts at sundown on Sunday night and continues until December 14.  “Happy Holidays” is also generally considered inclusive of Hanukkah.

Also, just like all cultures, actual practices and traditions vary greatly family to family.  A student’s (or other staff member’s) description of their tradition and practices should trump my generalization.

Happy Hanukkah!

Kelly teaches science in Milwaukee, WI. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and an adjunct professor at Cardinal Stritch University.

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