Our program featured Rabbi Melody Davis of the Congregation Bnai Shalom in Easton. Although she wanted to be a Rabbi from a very young age, her path to the rabbinate was circuitous. She considers herself to be a teacher and a perennial student. Her presentation centered on Hanukkah from a historical perspective.
The idea of Hanukkah being a festival of lights is rather contemporary. Historically it is a story of assimilation and warfare. Traditional Jews found themselves living in a land governed by Assyrian Greeks. The rulers became increasingly hostile to Jewish traditions and laws. Many Jews found the Greek culture appealing and assimilated. The tradition-bound Maccabees fought for their land. Eventually, this outmanned group defeated the Greeks and the assimilationists. They took back the temple in Jerusalem which was cleansed and rededicated. They found only one small cruse of oil. Enough to light the 7-candle menorah for only one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days.
Eventually, two more candles were added in honor of the Sukkot holiday which gives thanks for the fall harvest. Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days and nights. The celebration begins at sunset on the 25th day of Kislev, the ninth month of the Jewish year. Each night as the sun sets, one candle is lit, using the tall attendant candle in the middle of the Menorah. All candles are lit after eight days. The lighting of the candles is often accompanied with prayers. This is all it takes to properly celebrate the holiday which is minor compared to others including Passover, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah.
Some favorite food traditions have emerged over the years. Latkes (pancakes made with potatoes, onions, egg, flour, and seasonings) and sufganiyots (jelly-filled donuts) fried in oil are particularly popular.
Hanukkah often features a gambling game using a four-sided spinning top called a dreidel. The Hebrew letters on the four sides of the top are a mnemonic which stands for “a great miracle happened there” (dreidels in Israel substitute a different fourth character which means “here”).