What Hanukkah means to me

These brave little lights flicker on every windowsill in Jerusalem

What Chanuka means to me (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
What Chanuka means to me
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
When I was a little girl of seven, growing up in Australia during World War II, I remember what a colorful and festive event Christmas was in Melbourne, where I was born. Every department store had its Santa Claus with his “ho ho ho” and bulging sacks of toys for every child except me.
All my friends had enormous fir trees in their homes that they would help decorate. They talked endlessly of the roast turkey with chestnut dressing, and plum pudding with brandy sauce that they would be eating on Christmas Day. Carols were played on every radio station. And the little brown-haired, freckled child that I was cried bitterly because this was not my festival and Santa would not be visiting my house.
Of course the reason I was excluded from this happy season of giving and receiving gifts was because we were Jewish. At that time, it was quite a rarity in Australia – I was the only Jewish child in my school of 500 pupils, and in those days there were no Jewish schools. The Jewish community grew only after the dark days of Nazi Europe brought a flood of refugees to Australia, fleeing from the Holocaust. I felt so discriminated against because Christmas – except in the most token, insignificant way – was denied to me, but I didn’t have the compensation of Hanukkah. My family was not very religiously observant – it was more a matter of what we didn’t do as Jews – celebrate Christmas and Easter, eat forbidden foods. We usually had a Seder at Passover, but Hanukkah got overlooked because we didn’t really have anyone to celebrate it with us.
Today I know what a joyous festival Hanukkah is … rich in ritual and joyful sharing. As a child, I knew of it as rather a dry history lesson – dating back from 165 BCE Palestine was part of the Hellenist Syrian empire, ruled by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. He wanted to wipe out the Jewish religion, substituting the Greek language, customs and gods. The Jewish Temple was defiled, and when the people were forced to worship Zeus, they rebelled. By clever military tactics, the tiny army led by Judah Maccabee, was victorious. Their first act was to purify the Temple, but the cruses of sacramental oil had been rendered unfit. There was only one pure cruse left. When lit, instead of burning for just one day, inexplicably and miraculously it burned for eight days until more pure oil could be prepared.
But such a dry, even miraculous, historical perspective on the holiday didn’t seem to make Hanukkah all that important to me as a child. I still felt bereft of what my friends had, with nothing to console me.
It was only as an adult, when I moved to Jerusalem with my family, that I began to understand what a magnificent holiday it really is. By that time, I had four children of my own and I was determined that my Hanukkah experience as a child would not deprive them of joy and pride in their own heritage.
Here in Jerusalem, where the Hanukkah story happened 2,000 years ago, we began to celebrate it among our own people – no longer on the outside looking in. And today, we have 18 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren to swell the excitement and happiness.
Hanukkah, more correctly called the Festival of Dedication, is nevertheless a Festival of Lights. Each night at twilight, like almost all the Jewish families in Israel, even the secular ones, we stand before the window as we light tiny colored candles in the eight-branched “menorah.” On the first night we light just one candle, the second night two and by the end of the festival, all eight candles are burning brightly. The house is permeated with the luscious smell of latkes and “sufganiyot” – potato pancakes and donuts filled with raspberry jam. We recite the special blessings, and the whole family joins in singing “Maoz Tsur” (“O Fortress, Rock of my salvation”). These brave little lights flicker on every windowsill in Jerusalem. At dusk, they are lit even in the local supermarkets and the customers join in singing. A giant menorah lights up the sky over the Knesset. We all proclaim the miracle that took place.
And children do receive gifts – one for every night of the festival. Usually the gifts are modest, but they bring excitement and joy just the same. Sometimes it is just “Hanukkah gelt” in the form of small, mesh purses filled with chocolate coins covered in gold and silver paper foil.
Small children enjoy the “dreidel,” a spinning top. It has four sides with a Hebrew letter written on each one, representing the words “A great miracle happened here.” The game is like a game of chance with each player starting off with 10 or so peanuts, raisins or coins. The dreidel is spun by one player at a time, and whether he wins or loses depends on which face of the dreidel is up when it falls at the end of the spin.
Like most Jewish festivals, food is one of the highlights, which may have given rise to the joke that you can summarize all of our holidays in nine words: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat!”
At Hanukkah, it’s delicious, fried foods to commemorate the cruse of oil, but it’s no time for counting calories.
With maturity comes knowledge. The more I learned about my own faith, the less I grieved for the festivals that were not mine. I am filled with gratitude that none of my grandchildren will ever experience the longing I felt as a little girl to share in Christmas celebrations from which I was always excluded.
Now, when December comes, with my own children and grandchildren and their children, I celebrate Hanukkah in Jerusalem. I revel in the colored candles proclaiming a miracle in the night, the closeness of family as we watch the children open their gifts, the music of Hanukkah songs and the tantalizing smells wafting in from the kitchen. And I know how lucky, rich and blessed I truly am!

The writer, who has lived in Jerusalem for 48 years, is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah.
dwaysman@gmail.com