Tonawanda News


December 28, 2011

Celebrating another winter holiday, with lights

— — While the world stops to enjoy Christmas, the observance of Hanukkah proceeds, today the fifth day in the eight-day “Festival of Lights.” Throughout Kenmore, Tonawanda and the world, Jews take a moment to light a candle and recall a victory over oppression.

Its reputation as a “Jewish Christmas” notwithstanding, Hanukkah has a remarkable history, one worth understanding. It is a remembrance of a two-year rebellion against the Seleucid Empire (a part of the Greek Empire), which controlled the city of Jerusalem in the second century B.C.

Despite a guarantee given to Jewish subjects of rights to live under ancestral customs and to practice their faith, promises were broken.

The story is told in two books included in some but not all Bibles, the apocryphal 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. Jerusalem was looted, Judaism was banned and its practice was punishable by death and a temple to Zeus was erected.

Jewish temples were defiled until a revolt led by Judah HaMakabi (“Judah the Hammer”) in 166 and 165 B. C. restored order and the freedom to practice Judaism.

While Hanukkah ostensibly celebrates the cleansing of the temple and the miracle of a day’s worth of sacramental lamp oil burning for eight days, the holiday has a deeper meaning.

“The real miracle was actually the driving away of the most powerful empire on earth, the mighty Greek army. A small band of freedom fighters doing away with the enemy, and the first recorded military battle for religion freedom,” said Rabbi Frank Lowinger of Synagogue B’rith Hadoshah of Kenmore.

As a modern observance, Hanukkah is a relatively low-key event. Temples around the world offer a communal ceremony, although not a formal service, generally on the first or second day. B’rith Hadoshah’s congregation gathered on Thursday in its small but elegantly modernist sanctuary for prayer, songs and traditional foods like potato latkes.

“It’s mostly a home-based celebration,” said Lowinger. Of the symbolic menorah, a nine-stemmed candelabrum — one candle is used to light the others, one per day -— he pointed out that “we want families together, and we want children to light the candles, say the blessings and remember the miracle.”

The traditions include playing with a children’s toy called a dreidel, a four-sided spinning top with inscriptions in Hebrew forming the acronym of “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham” — “a great miracle happened there” (dreidels in Isreal spell out “a great miracle happened here”). There is also gift-giving, a function of the holiday’s typical proximity to Christmas on the calendar.

“Hanukkah is referred to as the Jewish Christmas. It’s the influence of society on the holiday. Because of assimilation into society, we practice gift-giving,” said the rabbi. In some families, it’s the presentation of gifts on the first or last day. In his own, there is a growing scale of generosity through the eight days, with the best presents saved for the end. And a stocking stuffer, so to speak, on the first.

Rabbi Lowinger is able to effectively connect Hanukkah with Christmas.

“We would not be celebrating the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem without what they went through in Jerusalem. And it’s relevant to our times, when religious liberty is sometimes run roughshod. When anyone who expresses a belief in God is a target for ridicule, we should remember the spirit of the Maccabees.”

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