(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF SPECTRUM, A DIVISION OF USA TODAY)
A guide to celebrating Hanukkah for the non-Jewish
Amidst the sounds, sights and smells of Christmas, some Utah residents are preparing for another holiday: the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah.
And it’s not, contrary to what some may think, the “Jewish Christmas,” said Rabbi Helene Ainbinder of Beit Chaverim Jewish Community of Greater Zion.
“I don’t compare it to Christmas at all,” she said. “There’s no such thing as a ‘Hanukkah bush’ or a ‘Hanukkah tree.’”
Ainbinder said Hanukkah is celebrated during the Hebrew month of Kislev and commemorates the Jewish people’s battle for religious freedom against Greek and Syrian armies more than 2,000 years ago. When the Greeks destroyed the holy temple in Jerusalem, a small army that became known as the Maccabees used guerrilla warfare tactics to fight back.
Eventually, the Maccabees won the war. While cleaning the temple, they found only one small jar of pure oil for kindling the menorah, but it miraculously burned for eight days instead of one. That’s why Jewish people light candles for eight days during Hanukkah, a Hebrew word that means “dedication.”
“The holiday enhances our connection (with our faith) and we realize how lucky we are that we have religious freedom and that we survived all these atrocities against us over the centuries,” Ainbinder said. “If we didn’t fight for our freedom to practice our faith, we’d all be Greeks.”
She also said it’s a smaller holiday than other Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur, but it tends to be more well-known because it’s a holiday that the whole family enjoys, with games, gifts and singing.
And while other Jewish holidays focus on the inner spirit and being guided by God, during Hanukkah, “we’re just rejoicing that we survived again,” she said.
You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the traditions of this holiday. Here are some ways non-Jewish people can celebrate Hanukkah, which falls this year from Dec. 22 through Dec. 29.
Play with dreidels
Ainbinder said during the Greek occupation of Judea, Jews were killed if they were caught practicing their faith. That’s why they used a game of dreidels (tops) to pretend they were gambling in order to fool the soldiers. The Hebrew letters on the dreidel represent the phrase “A Great Miracle Happened Over There.”
“It was really how we preserved our heritage through these images and symbols,” Ainbinder said.
According to the website My Jewish Learning, any number of people can take part. Each player begins with an equal number of game pieces such as pennies, nuts or chocolate chips.
At the beginning of each round, every participant puts one game piece into the center “pot.” In addition, every time the pot is empty or has only one game piece left, every player should put one in the pot.
Every time it’s your turn, spin the dreidel once. Depending on the side it lands on, you give or get game pieces from the pot.
- Nun means “nisht” or “nothing.” The player does nothing.
- Gimel means “gantz” or “everything.” The player gets everything in the pot.
- Hey means “halb” or “half.” The player gets half of the pot. (If there is an odd number of pieces in the pot, the player takes half of the total plus one).
- Shin (outside of Israel) means “shtel” or “put in.” Peh (in Israel) also means “put in.” The player adds a game piece to the pot.
If you find that you have no game pieces left, you are either “out” or may ask a fellow player for a “loan.” The game ends when one person has won everything.
Give chocolate gelt
Hanukkah gelt is money given as a gift or as a coin-shaped piece of chocolate, according to website Learn Religions. Gelt can be given every night of Hanukkah or only once, and chocolate gelt pieces can be used in the dreidel game.
Ainbinder said this tradition stems from the Jewish people minting their own coins when they became a free nation.
Attend a menorah lighting
Rabbi Mendy Cohen of Chabad of Southern Utah said that during a menorah lighting, candles are put in right to left, but lit left to right so that the newest candle is lit first.
Ainbinder added that the candles burn themselves down each night.
“The warmth of a candle brings that much more warmth to our spirit,” she said.
She also said a menorah, which means “light,” has places for nine candles; the ninth candle, shamash, is the “helper” candle that lights the others and has to be separated higher or away from the other candles.
Menorahs should be seen by the outside world, she said, which is why they’re put in windows.
During the first night of Hanukkah, Ainbinder said an extra prayer is offered to thank God that they’ve reached that moment in time. The next two prayers praise and thank God, and are repeated during every subsequent night of Hanukkah while lighting the candles.
If you’re interested in seeing a menorah lighting, Chabad of Southern Utah is holding a menorah celebration at Town Square Park (50 S. Main St.) on the first night of Hanukkah, Dec. 22, at 5 p.m. Admission is free, and Cohen said people of all backgrounds are welcome to attend.
“The message (of Hanukkah) applies to everybody,” he said. “Light over darkness. Just one small little flame, a match in a big dark room, can dispel a lot of darkness.”
In addition to lighting the first candle, the celebration will include music, dreidels, chocolate gelt, latkes and jelly doughnuts.
A new candle will be lit for the rest of Hanukkah at 8:30 p.m., Cohen said, except for Friday night because that is the start of the Jewish sabbath.
Additionally, he said a menorah is currently on display at the Red Cliffs Mall (1770 Red Cliffs Dr.).
Eat fried foods
Cohen said traditional Hanukkah foods include latkas (potato patties) and doughnuts, which are both fried in oil to remind people of the miracle of the oil.
A latka recipe in The New York Times calls for:
- Two large Russet potatoes (about one pound), scrubbed and cut lengthwise into quarters
- One large onion (eight ounces), peeled and cut into quarters
- Two large eggs
- Half cup all-purpose flour
- Two teaspoons coarse kosher salt (or one teaspoon fine sea salt), plus more for sprinkling
- One teaspoon baking powder
- Half teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Safflower or other oil, for frying
Grate the potatoes and onion with a food processor. Transfer the mixture to a clean dishtowel and squeeze and wring out as much of the liquid as possible.
Transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Add the eggs, flour, salt, baking powder and pepper, and mix until the flour is absorbed.
In a medium heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat, pour in about a quarter inch of the oil.
When the oil is hot, use a heaping tablespoon to drop the batter into the hot pan, cooking in batches. Use a spatula to flatten and shape the drops into discs. Flip when the edges of the latkes are brown and crispy. Cook until the second side is deeply browned. Transfer the latkes to a paper towel-lined plate to drain and sprinkle with salt while still warm.
A sufganiyot (Hanukkah jelly doughnuts) recipe from website My Jewish Learning calls for:
- Apricot, red-currant or raspberry jam
- Oil for deep frying
- One and two-third cups flour, plus a little more if necessary
- Two or three drops of vanilla extract
- A pinch of salt
- One whole egg
- Three tablespoons sour cream or vegetable oil
- Two tablespoons sugar
- One egg yolk
- Confectioners’ sugar to sprinkle on
- Quarter cup lukewarm milk or water
- One teaspoon dried yeast
Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk or water with one teaspoon of sugar and leave for 10 minutes, until it froths.
Beat the rest of the sugar with the egg and the yolk. Add the sour cream or oil, the salt, vanilla, and yeast mixture, and beat very well. Fold in the flour gradually, and continue beating until you have a soft, smooth, and elastic dough, adding more flour if necessary. Then knead for five minutes, sprinkling with a little flour if it is too sticky. Coat the dough with oil by pouring a drop in the bowl and turning the dough in it. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place to rise for about two hours, or until doubled in bulk.
Knead the dough again for a few minutes, then roll out on a floured surface with a floured rolling pin to quarter-inch thickness. With a pastry cutter, cut into two-inch rounds. Put a teaspoon of jam in the center of a round of dough, brush the rim with a little water to make it sticky, and cover with another round. Press the edges together to seal. Continue with the rest of the rounds and arrange them on a floured tray. Leave them to rise for about 30 minutes.
Heat one and a half inches of oil in a saucepan to medium hot. Drop in the doughnuts, a few at a time. Fry in medium-hot oil for three to four minutes with the lid on until brown, then turn and fry the other side for one minute more. Drain on paper towels. Serve sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar.
Kaitlyn Bancroft reports on faith, health, education and under-served communities for The Spectrum & Daily News, a USA TODAY Network newsroom in St. George, Utah. She’s a graduate of Brigham Young University’s journalism program, and has previously written for The Denver Post, The Daily Universe, Deseret News and the Davis Clipper. You can reach her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @katbancroft.