Many Gentiles are somewhat familiar with the menorah, the dreidel, and other trappings of the Jewish holiday Chanukah. But do they recognize the significance of the eight-day season of celebration? Or do they even know how to pronounce (or spell) the word? If you learned about Chanukah primarily from Adam Sandler, you could probably use a refresher. In preparation for the Jewish Festival of Lights, take a moment to brush up on your Chanukah facts.
How is it pronounced? Much like “challah,” the braided bread that Jewish people eat on Sabbath and other holidays, “Chanukah,” alternately spelled as Hanukkah, is properly pronounced with a glottal stop. That’s that kind-of harsh sound in the back of your throat, sort of a rougher, guttural “h.” It’s only used to begin words in Middle Eastern languages, which explains why English translators struggled to accurately capture it in print. Basically, practice clearing your throat to begin the word, finish with soft vowels and a distinctly voiced “kuh” at the end, and you just might be able to fit in with experienced Yiddish speakers.
What does it mean? There’s some disagreement among linguists over how to translate the word, but many agree that it means “dedication.” The holiday celebrates the rededication of the Second Temple in the holy city of Jerusalem, an event that occurred some 160 years before the birth of Christ. The Jewish Maccabees recaptured the temple from the Seleucid Empire and Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had prohibited Jewish religious practices by law. The temple was rededicated with a ceremony, but the Maccabees found that their enemies had desecrated and destroyed the sacred oils that they used to light the menorah. According to the Talmud, a later Jewish holy text, they had only enough oil to last one night, but the menorah miraculously burned for eight days until more oil could be created. This is the origin of the eight-day festival that came to be known as Chanukah.
How is it celebrated? Jewish people, in New Orleans and throughout the world, celebrate by adding a new light to the menorah on each of the eight nights. They also eat oil-based foods, in reference to the miraculous fuel that sustained the Maccabees, including doughnuts and latkes—fried potato pancakes often served with applesauce or sour cream. These are frequently paired with hearty portions of salmon or brisket. Traditionally, children received gelt—small coins often substituted with chocolate—from their families, but in recent years, other gifts, including books, toys, and handmade keepsakes, have become popular. Many Jewish people use the opportunity to donate to charity as well. They also gather to play with the dreidel, a wooden spinning top with markings on each surface, often betting for chocolate gelt or other small treats. Depending on how religious the family is, they may also sing traditional songs and recite psalms.
When is it? The eight days and nights of Chanukah begin on the 25th day of the Kislev, the 9th month of the Hebrew ecclesiastical calendar. This means it spans a different eight days every year, and can begin any time from late November to the end of December. In 2016, Chanukah will begin on the evening of Saturday, December 24, and end on the evening of Sunday, January 1, meaning the end of the Festival of Lights will perfectly coincide with the start of the new year!