By Stephanie Helms
It is probably uncommon for the Rolling Stones to remind someone of a Jewish holiday. I don’t know if it is the hopeful lyrics to “Shine A Light,” the theme of redemption or that it’s a track from the album “Exile on Main Street.” However, Jews know a little something about exile, and to me it sounds like a perfect theme song for the celebration of Chanukkah, the annual Festival of Light.
In the Jewish calendar, Chanukkah’s eight-day observance takes place during the month of Kislev, usually in December. Because Kislev is always close to the winter solstice, Chanukkah takes us into, through and out of the literally darkest days of the year—what a reason to celebrate!
Perhaps the most widely celebrated of all Jewish holidays, Chanukkah commemorates two very important happenings: the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek forces who tried to wipe out Judaism in the second century and the miracle during which one day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days in the sanctuary lamp called a ner tamid (eternal flame) during the rededication of the Holy Temple. In a larger sense, the holiday marks a reaffirmation of spiritual freedom and recommitment to our Jewish community. The word Chanukkah itself means “dedication.”
Although the menorah is a popular symbol of the holiday, menorah is really a word for a seven-branched candelabra, and the nine-branched one used to kindle the lights during Chanukkah is actually called a chanukkiah. The nine branches represent one candle for each night plus the shammash, the center candle used to light the others. Blessings are recited over the lighting of the candles, which is done from left to right. Some families have a chanukkiah for each family member, others take turns lighting the candles and in some households everyone holds the shammash and lights each candle together.
No Jewish holiday is complete without food, and during Chanukkah, oil-based treats like latkes, potato pancakes eaten with applesauce or sour cream and jelly donuts called sufganiyot are enjoyed. Other customs include playing a game of dreidel, a four-sided spinning top printed with the letters nun, gimel, hay and shin, which are initials for the phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, meaning “a great miracle happened there.” Players take turns spinning to win gelt, gold and silver wrapped chocolate coins. Songs are sung about heroes, love and kindness, and small gifts are given to family and friends. It is also a traditional time for tzedakah, giving to charity, which is a key component of Judaism.
On Dec. 6 from 5 to 6:30 p.m., the Jewish Family Service Agency will sponsor its sixth annual Light of Life community menorah lighting in the Magical Forest at Opportunity Village on the first night of Chanukkah. A special musical performance by the Temple Sinai Choir will follow at 7 p.m. “Hanukkah is the festival of lights during the darkest time of the year. We celebrate by lighting candles and singing songs that retell the story of Judah and the Maccabees, reminding us that miracles are all around us even in the darkest of times,” explained Cantorial Soloist and Choir Director Heather Klein. Both classic and contemporary tunes will be presented during the concert.
May the glow of the Chanukkah candles shine a light on everyone this holiday season, reminding all of us of the persistent miracle of light through the ages and the warmth of family and friendship that surrounds us.