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by Judith Seid
Adapted from her God-Optional Judaism, Blue Thread Books, 2017.
Statue of Liberty Menorah by Mae Rockland Tupa.
KHANIKE IS RICH in meaning, with all six classic holiday components: primitive, seasonal, historical, religious, national, and ethical.
The primitive and seasonal components have to do with the winter solstice. Like many cultures, the Jews make light when the sun is least in evidence. The Yule log, for example, is a primitive Germanic custom that dates from long before the Christianization of that part of Europe. It’s sympathetic magic: by creating bright light, we hope to show the sun what we want it to do. We Jews have a tradition of making more and more light for a whole week, showing that we want the sun to come back and make longer and longer days. Don’t laugh: It has worked so far!
Was this sun magic the original Khanike? We don’t know for sure, and scholars have debated the issue. It seems probable that there was a holiday of lights at this time of year, although the ancient Hebrew tradition would have involved bonfires, not oil lamps. If such a holiday existed, it was successfully reinterpreted, or Judaized, as many folk traditions have been over the ages.
The historical component, perhaps the most obvious, is the successful war fought by the first guerrilla fighters in recorded history. On Khanike we celebrate the victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenized Syrians in 165 BCE. The contemporaneous record, the first two books of Maccabees, tell of a civil war waged between Hebrews who were allied with their Greek-Syrian rulers and a band of Hebrews who appear to be a combination of nationalists and religious fanatics who demanded that all acculturation to Greek ways be halted. These zealots wanted to stop Hebrews from worshipping Greek gods, wearing Greek clothes, giving children Greek names, and playing Greek sports, as well as studying all secular learning. If we look at this in modern terms, we see that the ‘bad guys’ of the story — the assimilationists — are a lot like us, and the purported ‘heroes’ remind us uncomfortably of violent religious zealots of our own time. It is not clear at all just who are the real bad guys in this story.
The historical record shows that ancient Israel was fought over by two Hellenized kingdoms, one based in Syria and one in Egypt. It eventually came under the rule of the Syrians, who decided, in an effort to unify the empire, to establish the universal worship of their king, Antiochus. This worship was not to the exclusion of other gods, but in addition to the worship of other gods; Antiochus was said to be the personification of whatever local god was being worshipped. This suited many ancient religions but was anathema to the Hebrew priests. Finally, a band of Zealots led by Mattathias of Modin and his sons (including Judah Maccabee) arose in rebellion — luckily for them, at a time when Syria was otherwise occupied with rebellions all over the empire — and were victorious.
They established the Hasmonean dynasty, which ruled, with the support of Rome, until Rome decided a few generations later that it would just take over. The land of Israel/Judah under the Maccabees (the Hasmoneans) eventually encompassed a huge territory. The Hasmoneans were no better or worse than other ruling powers, though. They were proud of their conquest of the lands of others and even forced conversion — including circumcision — on some who found themselves within their borders.
Throughout the years, the national significance of Khanike played a large role in the folk mind. In the mid-to late-1800s, early Eastern European Zionists reclaimed the holiday as a time of national aspiration, embodying their central ideals and glorifying physical prowess, fighting ability, and sports. Against the loud protests of the religious establishment, this heretofore minor holiday captured the imagination of the oppressed Jews.
Also in the late 19th century, the holiday was used to energize the Jewish militias that fought back against pogromists. Yiddish Khanike songs from Eastern Europe contain mournful statements about how hard it was to believe that Jews were once fighters and had their own land. Although the establishment of Israel has made those songs seem like mere quaint echoes of days gone by, the national longing is clear.
It is because of these national and historical components that the ethical component of Hanukkah is so important. We see in the Hanukkah story a phenomenon that has been repeated many times in the modern world: a tyrant so strong he can be overthrown only by fanatics. Just as the moderates never spoke out against the Shah of Iran in contemporary times, moderate Jews of ancient times did not speak out against Antiochus, the Greek-Syrian ruler. As the tyranny tightened, only those who were fanatics were willing to sacrifice all for the cause of overthrowing the tyrant. The fanatics began rebellions, and when it looked like they might win, the moderates joined them. The fanatics ended up taking over the government and becoming tyrants themselves, as fanatics are wont to do. We learn from this that it is necessary to speak out against injustice and tyranny immediately, and not to acquiesce even to the first injustice.
We also learn from the holiday the need of people for their own heritage and culture and the lengths to which they will go to defend their national and cultural rights. We remember how we resented being deprived of our culture, and we speak out against instances in which others are being deprived of their culture.
The religious aspects of Hanukkah are a later overlay. At least two hundred years after the events of 168-165 BCE, the rabbis invented the story of the miracle of the oil — that in the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabees’ victory, a day’s worth of sanctified oil burned for eight days — and gave God, rather than the freedom fighters, the credit for freeing the Jews from outside tyranny. This resulted from the antipathy of the rabbinic establishment to the idea of Jews acting on their own rather than relying on God, and to the idea that there could be Jewish kings who were not of the Davidic line. They also succeeded in making the story about religious rather than cultural oppression. By paying attention to the nonreligious aspects of the holiday, we are returning it to its true historic and ethical roots.
ON THE EIGHT-DAY holiday, we light a menorah or Khanike-lamp each night, lighting one candle with the shammes (worker candle) the first night and adding a candle each night until the entire menorah is lit on the eighth night. ‘Menorah’ is the word for ‘candelabra,’ and often refers to the seven-branched candelabra that is a symbol of Judaism and of the state of Israel. In Israel, the nine-branched Khanike menorah is called a Khanukiyah, and in Yiddish it is a khanike-lomp (Hanukkah lamp). In America, most Jews just refer to the Khanike menorah as a menorah.
On Khanike it is customary to eat fried food. This is presumably to honor the legendary oil in the ner tamid, the eternal light, that burned for eight days. In Eastern communities, including Israel, the fried food is doughnuts. Among Ashkenazim, latkes (potato pancakes) are popular.
Among Jews living in predominantly Christian countries, gifts are often given at Hanukkah-time, since the holiday occurs near Christmas. The traditional gift, however, is a small amount of money, Khanike gelt, symbolic of the right to print coinage that was won with our national sovereignty. Some families now give gifts each night.
On Khanike it is traditional to play with the small spinning toy called a dreydl, which can be obtained at Jewish stores or synagogues. The dreydl is a traditional Eastern and Central European toy with letters on its four sides. Each letter stands for a word telling you what to do, but the Khanike dreydl has been Judaized to stand for the words “a great miracle happened there.” (In Israel, they’ve changed the letters so that they stand for “a great miracle happened here,” and they had to change the game rules to accommodate the new letter!) You play a betting game based solely on luck. It’s the measure of the goodness of a parent to be able to endure innumerable, excruciatingly boring games of dreydl with his or her young children. It is traditional to bet with nuts, but M&M’s or pennies can be substituted.
Khanike lasts eight days, and it’s a challenge to find something special each night so the holiday doesn’t become just the mechanical lighting of the candles and the clamoring for a toy. You can rescue the candlelighting ceremony by dedicating the candles differently each night. As we light the candles, we honor those in all generations who have fought to sustain our heritage. You can choose a special person or movement for each night and dedicate the candles appropriately. Dedicate them to freedom fighters in our own country and in other lands, or to the people who influenced your own Jewishness. Dedicate the candles to cultural heroes (artists, musicians, writers) or to Jewish heroes throughout the ages.
Need ideas? Find a one-volume Jewish encyclopedia and open it at random. You’ll probably find someone interesting whom you’ve never heard of before. Read the short article aloud to everyone at the candlelighting. Or celebrate a different aspect of Jewish culture each night: Yiddish and Hebrew poetry and songs, art, language, food, and ethics are only a few of the possibilities. Each night at the candlelighting you can read a poem or short story, sing a song, show pictures of works by Chagall or Modigliani and try your hand at making a piece of artwork in their particular styles, tell a story about being different. Or tell how you, yourself, will increase the light in the world in the coming year and ask each family member to do the same.
What we all really want from each other is time, not stuff. Here are some ways to make Khanike a special time at your house without succumbing to the unfortunate noisy commercialism of the season:
Day 1: Tell your kids or grandkids or the children of friends about Khanike when you were a child.
Day 2: Have a latke taste test. Make some with a lot of onions and some with few. Or put some in the blender and grate others. Or use zucchini or sweet potatoes in some and just potatoes in others. Make your own applesauce — it makes the house smell great.
How to Make Latkes
The Three (or maybe Four) Great Controversies
Latkes are not the kind of food you have an actual recipe for. They’re more the kind of food your grandmother makes, and when you ask her how much flour to put in, she says, “enough.” Luckily, it’s really really hard to make a bad latke.
The first big controversy is whether to grate or to grind the potatoes. My family ground the potatoes in what I assumed was a potato grinder, but found out, when I was grown, was really a meat grinder. I like grated latkes better, but the easiest thing is to do them in a food processor. Makes the onions less tearful, too.
Grate or grind or food process at least one huge potato per person.
Now it is time to argue about how much onion to put in. My father argued for one onion per potato, but this is excessive, even for an onion lover. If you really like onions, put in one onion for every two potatoes. If you think of onions as a condiment, rather than as the staff of life, put in one for every three or four potatoes.
Grate or grind or food-process the onions along with the potatoes. This will keep the potatoes from turning an unpleasant black color. You can drain off the liquid that gathers at the bottom of the bowl.
Add a little bit of salt. No, a little more than that. Okay, that’s good.
Add one egg. Yes, one egg. My father always claimed that no matter how many potatoes you use, you need one egg. Out of filial respect, I always add only one egg to my latkes. Sometimes they fall apart, though, and I’m sure it would be okay if you added more.
Add a handful of flour or matzah meal. Stir it up and if it looks too liquidy, add some more. Better to have too little than too much, though; you don’t want floury latkes.
Put at least a quarter inch of oil into a heavy frying pan and heat it well. Lift out a large spoonful (or handful) of latke batter and squeeze it out in your hand. Plop it into the pan and shmush it flat, so that at least half of its height is covered with oil. (Oh, no! another controversy! My editor insists that she does not shmush her latkes!)
When the bottom is brown, turn it over. After browning the other side, drain it well on paper towels and eat it with sour cream or applesauce. Which to use? The third — or maybe fourth — great Hanukkah controversy! Galitzianers (those from an area of southern Poland) like sweet food and use applesauce. Litvaks (those from Lithuania) use sour cream. I suggest trying a little shatnetz (the mixing of unlike things, which is forbidden by Jewish law) and eating some of each on the same plate, or even both on each latke.
Day 3: Sing a Jewish folk song or dance a Jewish folk dance. (A Yiddish Khanike song says “Lomir alleh zingen oon . . . lomir alleh tantzn." Let’s all sing and . . . let’s all dance.)
Don’t know any? Call an older relative and ask for a song. Get a Jewish songbook and learn one. Play a recording of Jewish music — any kind: klezmer, Israeli, Yiddish folk songs, or something from the Jews of Bukhara or India. Put on some Jewish dance music and just dance — after all, you’re the folk in folk dance so whatever dance you do is folk dance.
Day 4: Ask each person to tell what she or he can do to keep Jewish culture alive and growing. Will you learn some new Yiddish or Hebrew words? Learn a new song? Tell stories of our heritage? There are lots of ways in which we can all enter into the stream of our civilization and enrich it.
Day 5: Give Khanike gelt. You can give real money or the chocolate coins that you can buy in the grocery store or from Jewish organizations.
Day 6: Give tsedoke. Let everyone decide together on an organization to make a donation to. Or shop for toys or clothes for an organization like Toys for Tots that gives Christmas presents to kids who wouldn’t otherwise have anything.
Day 7: Play dreydl.
How to Play Dreydl
The dreydl has four sides, each with a Hebrew letter on it. The letters stand for the word in Yiddish that tells you what to do when the dreydl falls with that letter up. (Be careful — two of the letters look a lot alike. The only difference is that one has a notch in the base.)
First, ante up! Everyone puts in a nut (or several nuts). Then the youngest person spins the dreydl and follows the directions on it. Play continues around the circle. When you’re out of nuts, you’re out of the game, which goes on until one person has all the nuts. This can take just about forever!
Like everything else in Jewish life, dreydl is not standardized. There are two different sets of meanings for a couple of the letters. I’ll give you both and you can decide which you like best.
The letter nun, in one version of the game, means nisht, or not, and means that the player neither takes nor gives any nuts. In the other version, it means nem, or take, and means the person gets all the nuts in the middle.
The letter giml, in one version of the game, means gantz or all, and means that the player takes all the nuts in the middle. In the other version, it means gornisht, or nothing, and means that the player neither takes nor gives any nuts.
The letter hey stands for halb, which means half. The player takes half of the nuts in the middle.
The letter shin stands for shtel which means put. The player puts one nut into the middle (or however many nuts the ante was — sometimes in an attempt to make the game go faster, adults suggest that the ante be five or more nuts).
Day 8: Read a Khanike story or poem from Jewish literature. There are lots of Khanike books for kids, and there are translated stories by great Yiddish writers like Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Don’t forget modern Jewish writers like Cynthia Ozick and Grace Paley.
For those who have time and are adventurous, how about dipping candles? You can get candle-making wax, wicks, and instructions at craft shops. Or melt down old candle stubs, adding crayon chunks for color. (Don’t plan on using that pot for food ever again!)
"MY FRIENDS say that Khanike is the Jewish Christmas. How come I don’t get a lot of presents? How come we don’t have a tree?” These are familiar questions to many Jewish parents, and they’re not easy to answer — at least, the answers are not always easily accepted by kids.
“Is Khanike the Jewish Christmas?” No, of course not. What Khanike is, historically, is a holiday about it being okay to be different from the majority culture. Khanike celebrates cultural diversity and takes a stand against the homogenization of society.
Khanike and Christmas do seem to be linked in the public mind, however, and we professional Jews seem to spend a lot of time trying to unlink them. “Khanike is not like Christmas,” we say, over and over, to very little avail. Why can’t we seem to convince anyone? Perhaps, because in a very important way, Khanike is like Christmas.
Ask any Christian what is the most important and lasting memory he or she has about Christmas and it’s not likely to be the presents or the religious ceremony. The most common answer I have heard from my Christian friends and relatives is that the most important thing about Christmas is that it’s a special happy family time.
Now ask any Jew on the street the same question about Khanike. You’ll hear the same answer. Khanike is a time for us to get together with our families. There seems to be something about the cold winter that makes us reach for the warmth of our loved ones. It’s a sign of our common human condition, and one that we should celebrate instead of condemn.
“How come you don’t get a lot of presents?” This is a harder question, since some Jewish kids do, in fact, get a lot of presents. But for those of us who come from families that don’t give presents at Khanike, the answer is just that Khanike isn’t a holiday that’s about presents like toys and games. It’s a holiday that’s about the gifts of Jewish culture. You can use each night of Khanike to celebrate one of those gifts (see above).
“How come we don’t have a tree?” Because we have a menorah, that’s why. (Okay, I know that’s a flippant answer, but it is true.)
It’s true that Christmas is an official holiday in America and Jews are off work with nothing to do but go to the movies and eat Chinese food, while Christians go to church and gather at the tree and open presents and have a family dinner. Even without a tree, however, American Jews can actually have a Christmas tradition. Lots of organizations need volunteers on this day — to serve dinners or help in hospitals, for example. Every Jewish volunteer frees a Christian volunteer to be with his or her family on Christmas. It’s a gift we can give to our Christian neighbors on their holiday as we fulfill our Jewish obligation for community service.
Some of our kids have the opposite viewpoint from the one at the start of this section. They don’t envy Christmas at all; rather, they resent it. They point out Christmas decorations everywhere and grumble about how “all that Christian stuff” is being imposed on them. This isn’t really any better than the complaints about not getting to celebrate Christmas. We want our kids to be happy living in a diverse community, and we want them to be able to maintain their own identities as free of envy as they are of coercion. It’s important to express your support for the value and the fun of living in a multicultural society. “Christmas lights on people’s houses are pretty,” I used to tell my daughter when she would complain. “We are lucky to live in a country where there are all kinds of people and we can enjoy everyone’s decorations for their own holidays.” This emphasizes both the value of an open society and the value of each culture maintaining its own traditions.
In America, Khanike is an important holiday. The Jewish establishment, in its effort to differentiate Khanike from Christmas, spends a lot of time trying to explain that Hanukkah is really a minor holiday and that we shouldn’t make such a big deal over it, but in America, mostly because of its proximity to Christmas, Khanike has weight. It gets set up as a competitor holiday to Christmas. Kids compare presents and weigh whether it’s better to get a lot of presents on one day or one present every night. Yet it’s more than presents; it’s really the juxtaposition with Christmas that makes Hanukkah an important holiday for kids.
The holiday is often the first instance in which the child distinguishes herself as a Jew from her friends and neighbors who are Christian. We celebrate Khanike instead of Christmas, while most everything else we do as Jews is “also.” We get Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July and school vacations and Purim, Pesakh and Tu b’Shvat. We don’t get Christmas but we do get Khanike. “We celebrate Khanike” affirms the child’s Jewish identity at the youngest age and allows the child to celebrate her Jewishness instead of bemoaning her lack of Christianess.
What if you do both? Lots of families have both Jewish and non-Jewish members. In most of these cases, the non-Jew is at least nominally Christian, even though he or she may no longer subscribe to Christian doctrines. These Christians grew up celebrating Christmas, and to them it’s a special family time. They typically have great memories of Christmas and they would like their kids to have the same fun and family feeling that they had.
There are lots of different ways to handle this attachment to Christmas. Each family has to experiment and find the way that’s right for them.
Judith Seid is the author of God-Optional Judaism, a guide to non-theistic Jewish holidays, customs, and identity that is shipping from our Pushcart the first week of January. Seid was the first person ordained by the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews and has organized thriving secular Jewish communities in Maryland, Michigan, and California. She is the mother of three fourth-generation Jewish Secularists.