Old story, new traditions: How Hanukkah is celebrated through generations

Food, music, legendary stories and a legacy of Jewish survival - these are ways in which Hanukkah is memorialized.

 Images of Hanukkah are splashed on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Images of Hanukkah are splashed on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)
History tends to repeat itself, or as Sholem Aleichem put it in one of his stories, “The Wheel Makes a Turn.” He wrote about Hanukkah, depicting a proud Jew lighting the nine-branched candelabrum, and celebrating this festival of dedication and liberation with warmth and affection.

Later in the story, this same Jew, now old and infirm, is barely allowed to light the hanukkiah by his assimilated son, while his grandson is not even allowed to watch. The story ends when the grandson is an adult, and celebrates Hanukkah with his friends to the dismay of his “modern” parents who cannot understand that their son has rejected their assimilation and returned to his Jewish roots.

Hanukkah is one of Israel’s favorite festivals and is widely celebrated even by secular Jews. Unlike in the Diaspora, it doesn’t have to compete with the glamor of Christmas with its shopping frenzy, Santa Claus, carols and Christian connotations that can be very seductive even to Jews.

Standing alone as The Festival of Lights, you can see the hanukkiot with their tiny, multi-colored candles burning on almost every windowsill in Jerusalem, and at sunset, you’ll hear voices from quivering childish soprano to deep baritone, all singing “Maoz Tsur” – O Fortress, Rock of My Salvation. There is candle-lighting and free sufganiyot (doughnuts) in my local supermarket every evening for the eight days, and a giant menorah burns atop the Knesset and many public buildings and water towers throughout the country. Gifts are exchanged, children receive Hanukkah gelt often in the form of chocolate coins, and dreidels inscribed with the first letters of the Hebrew words: “A great miracle happened here” are spun.

The Zionist movement has used Hanukkah as a symbol and historical precedent of national survival. The Maccabi sports organization was named after the Maccabees who instituted the festival, and it is marked with the Maccabiah, a quadrennial international sports meet like the Olympics.

Apart from its melodic and rousing tune, the singing of “Maoz Tsur” is a feature of the holiday with mysterious origins. The only clue to its composer is the acrostic of the first five stanzas, spelling out the name “Mordecai,” a common practice at the time and one used in a lot of Sabbath songs. Many scholars believe him to be Mordecai ben Isaac, who lived in Germany in the 13th century.

There is a Chabad saying that “Song opens a window to the secret places of the soul.” It is hard to define what makes music specifically Jewish, and many categories exist, including hassidic, Yiddish, Yemenite, Moroccan, Kurdish, Israeli and “religious.” A broad range.

There is nothing in Jewish law against creating new tunes for hymns. The Gerer Rebbe once stated: “Were I blessed with a sweet voice, I would sing you new hymns and songs every day, for with the daily rejuvenation of the world, new songs are created.” Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav wrote: “How do you pray to the Lord? Come, I will show you a new way… not with words or sayings, but with song. We will sing and the Lord on high will understand us.”

When we sing “Maoz Tsur” as a family gathered around the candles, there is harmony of a special kind. The harmony is not just in the song, but in the sanctity and affection that binds the Jewish family and gives it a foundation as solid as a rock.

In painful times for Israel, with so much suffering and loss in all its history, it brings a measure of comfort to be able to recite the traditional blessing:

“Blessed art Thou, O Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who has kept us in life and hast preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.”

Happy Hanukkah!  

The writer is the author of 14 books, including The Pomegranate Pendant, which was made into a movie titled The Golden Pomegranate. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah. dwaysman@gmail.com