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Happy Hanukah Culture-Gram

December 22, 2016

From Guest Blogger Kelly Steiner


What is Hanukah?

Hanukah is actually not a very important Jewish holiday. It ranks WAY down the list, which is one of the key ways that it differs from Christmas. It is a celebration of a victory in about 165 B.C.E. (Jews use before the common era and common era instead of B.C. and A.D. since those focus on Jesus’ birth as the key date set). In this victory a small group of Jewish farmers, led by the Macabee family defeated a much larger and better prepared Syrian army who had desecrated the temple. It’s an underdog story. The menorah (9 candle holder) comes from the story that after the victory the Jews went to re-establish the temple but only had enough oil for 1 day of the holy light that never goes out but it would take 8 days to get more sacred oil. Miraculously, the oil lasted all 8 days. So at Hanukah we light one candle for each night (1 on the first night, 2 on the second night, etc.) to celebrate this. Like most Jewish holidays the focus is on repeating the story and explaining it, especially to younger generations to maintain the communal cultural memory. There are 9 candles because one is a helper (Shamash) that you light first and use to light the others (so on the first night it’s the Shamash plus one for the first night, etc). Hanukah actually means “dedication” as in the re-dedication of the temple.

How do you spell it?
There is no one correct english spelling since Hebrew doesn’t share letters with English, all writing of hebrew words is just a sounding out. It’s just as correct to write Chanukah.

What do people do?/ What is reasonable to expect from my students?
People often get together with families. It’s customary to light the lights, tell the story, sing songs, play dreidel (a top with 4 hebrew letters that represent the phrase “a great miracle happened there” because teaching Jewish tradition was banned so it hid the education as a gambling game but allowed the teaching of the story) and to eat fried foods (to focus on the oil, and well, it’s delicious).
It’s reasonable to expect students to do their school work but you may need to be sensitive to kids who are traveling to be with family or who have a ton of people over to their house.

How do I say something to them?
You can say “Happy Hanukah” or “Happy Holidays”, just preferably not “Merry Christmas”.

When is it this year?
Short answer: starts at sundown December 24. Like all Jewish holidays it starts at sundown the night before the first day. It continues for 8 days. The Jewish calendar is lunar so it’s not in synch with the Gregorian calendar. In order to make up the difference in seasons there is a leap month added to the Jewish calendar 7 times every 19 years. This was done since last Hanukah.

Is it just a Jewish Christmas?
Very much not. It’s got a very different origin, much less significance, and very different symbols. What they have in common is a focus on light (which is found in many northern hemisphere cultures near the winter solstice) and the potential for gifts (although this is down played at Hanukah since it’s such a minor holiday).

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

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