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What the is Hanukkah

A brief history of an unimportant Jewish holiday.

To many people in America, Hanukkah isn’t a holiday, it’s an Adam Sandler song. Sure, you might see a “Happy Hanukkah” sign draped behind the sea of red and green decorations at your local Walgreen’s. Or, maybe, spot one of those round, multi-pronged candlestick things in the window of a Chinese restaurant. But what, exactly, is this L.A. Clippers of winter holidays? And what are the Jewish families on the block doing while you’re eating ham and re-gifting fruitcakes? Here’s a quick primer on the history of Hanukkah, and how our people celebrate.

The miracle of Hanukkah!

The story of Hanukkah dates back to the year 168 BC when Syria was ruled by Antiochus IV, who Syrians generally agreed was not as good as Antiochus I, but still had a pretty decent soundtrack. Rather than trying to win over the Syrians by doing crazy things like fixing roads and cleaning water, Antiochus IV did what any self-respecting tyrant does when people don’t like him: Blamed the Jews.

He outlawed Judaism, taking over their holy temple by erecting a statue of Zeus and sacrificing pigs inside. The Jews were forced into the mountains outside the city, where they formed militias, grew long beards, wrote manifestos, and made angry-sounding bumper stickers.       

Led by Judah “The Hammer” Maccabee and his dreaded figure-four leg lock, the Jewish militias stormed Jerusalem, defeated the Syrians, and retook their temple. Once inside, they found only enough purified oil to light the temple for one night. As every store in Jerusalem was fresh out of purified oil, the journey to find more would take four days, which ended up being eight days with traffic. Despite having only one night’s worth of oil, the Jews made it last eight nights. Historic texts credit this to Jewish fathers yelling, “You think oil grows on trees?” every time their child left a room without blowing out the menorah.

As Old Testament* stories go, this one is actually fairly believable, compared to, say, an ocean magically separating, or a man and woman going camping and only arguing about an apple. And it is commemorated every year with the eight-day Festival of Lights known as Hanukkah.

Hanukkah comes to America, and immediately gets commercialized.

Though it’s an inspiring story of rebelling against tyranny, on the scale of Jewish holidays Hanukkah was traditionally about as important as National Puzzle Day. That is, until Jews emigrated to America and found that Christmas was only slightly less important a holiday than the Super Bowl.     

Lest we feel left out, we found the closest holiday in our calendar to Christmas and turned it into a winter tradition of giving kids presents they’ll forget about by New Years. We now celebrate Hanukkah every year at some point in December that nobody is quite sure of, until the local news runs a 15-second segment at the end of the broadcast wishing a Happy Hanukkah “to all our Jewish friends.” 

Then, Jewish families pull out a nine-pronged candelabra called a menorah, that is covered in literal generations of Hanukkah candle wax. Jewish tradition dictates that no one should ever clean the menorah, lest our customs be wiped away like they were by the evil Syrians.**

We light one candle each night to commemorate the eight-night miracle in the old temple, and children unwrap a present. Gift-giving was never part of the tradition, but try telling an eight-year-old who just saw his Episcopalian friends unwrap a PS4 that his holiday is about rising up against oppression.

Other traditions include eating special potato pancakes called “latkes,” which is an old Yiddish word loosely translated to “batter you’ll find in corners of your kitchen until April.”

We also play a game called Dreidel, which involves wagering gold-foil-covered chocolate called “gelt” on a spinning top. Some may call this “gambling,” we call it teaching kids the value of money at an early age.

There are some traditional Hanukkah songs, though none of them are nearly as catchy as “Jingle Bells,” and we don’t bother singing them door to door. And we’ll often eat brisket, though we’re nice enough not to sacrifice the cow in anyone’s holy temple.

So hopefully this has given you some insight into Hanukkah and what all your Jewish friends do during the holidays. It’s ok to wish us a Merry Christmas, too, the season is all about joy, after all. But if you’d like to also wish us a Happy Hanukkah, we’d like that too. Just watch the local news to figure out when.

*Technically, the story of Hanukah isn’t in the Old Testament but rather appears in the Talmud, which is sort of like the rabbinical version of sports talk radio where a single issue is analyzed for hours and there’s a lot of discussion of goats.

**This is also not in the Old Testament or the Talmud, but it’s what my mother told me when I asked why she never cleaned the menorah.

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