Denise Etheridge Column Teaser

Hanukkah comes early this year. The Festival of Lights begins at sundown on Sunday and ends on Dec. 6. The eight-day holiday usually lands somewhere between late November and late December each year.

This minor Jewish holiday is relatively well known in the United States due to its proximity on the calendar to Christmas. However, this Jewish observance of a miracle and historic event is completely separate from and has no relation to the Christian celebration of the birth of the Christ child.

The story of Hanukkah took place over 2,000 years ago in the land of Israel, when the small and ill-equipped Jewish rebel army led by the Maccabees triumphed over their Syrian-Greek oppressors. The Jews revolted after King Antiochus IV Epiphanes outlawed their religion and ordered them to worship Greek deities. Antiochus’s soldiers killed thousands of Jews and desecrated the second Temple by slaughtering pigs — a non-kosher animal — inside the sacred site. (Kosher refers to what is acceptable under Jewish religious dietary law.)

The miracle occurred when the Holy Temple was rededicated. The Jews found only one vial of oil left to light the menorah, or large lamp, in the Temple. The oil is said to have lasted for eight full days.

To remember the miracle of the oil Jews today light a candle each night of Hanukkah on a menorah or Chanukiah. The menorah has nine place holders, eight for the eight nights and one candle called the Shamash, or servant candle, used to light the others. We Jews add one candle to the menorah each night, until all the candles are lit on the final night of Hanukkah.

We retell the story of Hanukkah, sing songs, eat special foods like latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly donuts. These foods are fried in oil, to remind us of the miracle of the oil. And we play dreidel.

Dreidel is a gambling game using a four-sided top. There’s a Hebrew letter on each side of the top: Nun, Gimel, Hey and Shin. Together they spell out the phrase, “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” which means, “A great miracle happened there.”

Families often play for pennies, nuts or chocolate coins wrapped in foil called “gelt.” The game seems harmless today, but served a clever and lifesaving purpose for those who were forced to study Judaism in secret under Antiochus’s brutal rule. When the Syrian-Greek soldiers searched Jewish homes for evidence of outlawed religious activity, Jews would make sure their legal gambling games were seen. This distracted the Jews’ oppressors from spotting illegal activity like religious instruction.

For me, Hanukkah has gained importance in recent years due to the significant and troubling increase in anti-Semitic incidents across the globe. We Jews must hold on to our distinct identity and precious faith — as did the Maccabees — and stand firm against rising hatreds.

The Anti-Defamation League reported in 2020 that there were over 2,100 anti-Semitic acts of assault, vandalism and harassment in the U.S. This, the ADL stated, was a 12% increase from similar violent incidents in 2019. These numbers are among the highest on record since the organization began tracking hateful incidents 42 years ago. Anti-Semitism exists on both the far right and far left of the political spectrum.

ADL recorded 331 anti-Semitic incidents last year attributed to extremist groups or persons inspired by extremist ideology.

Another recent survey, conducted for the ADL and Hillel International, found that anti-Semitism is prevalent on many American college campuses. One in three Jewish college students experienced anti-Semitic hostility this past school year, according to the survey.

This is why Hanukkah, a festival of rededication and of freedom, has even greater religious and cultural value in my life. It may be ancient history, but its lessons reverberate clearly today.

Denise Etheridge is a staff writer for The Walton Tribune. Her email address is denise.etheridge@waltontribune.com.

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