Rabbi Cantor Robbi Sherwin of the Wood River Jewish Community spoke with the Idaho Mountain Express to explain the history and significance of Hannukah, a historically minor festival in the Hebrew tradition that only recently grew in prominence.
“Only in America do we turn it into a more prominent holiday due the influences of Christmas,” Sherwin said.
She said both Christian and Jewish celebration at midwinter probably date to even older pagan agrarian traditions. The Jewish/Hebrew calendar is a lunar/solar combination, and therefore, the dates of Hanukkah can vary, but it is always in the winter and usually in December, Sherwin said. This year, Hanukkah takes place from sunset on Dec. 10 to sunset on Dec. 18.
“We borrow from each other’s cultures throughout history,” Sherwin said. “The holiday of Hanukkah intentionally comes at a dark time of year—faiths that came before Judaism also celebrated the winter solstice, hoping to bring light into a dark world.”
Sherwin said Hannukah is based on the story of the Maccabees, a band of zealot Jews who refused to abdicate their faith for that of King Antiochus and the Assyrian Greeks. Hanukkah, which means “dedication,” recalls the story of those who fought for freedom to worship in their own way and against assimilation. In 70 A.D., the Assyrian Greeks had destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, built by King Solomon, which was the seat of government, commerce and faith for the region.
“The Maccabees were fundamentalists who did not want Jews to assimilate Greek customs in any way, shape or form,” Sherwin said. ‘They cleaned up and rededicated the Holy Temple, lighting the eternal lamp that burns steadily, representing God’s eternal presence.”
Sherwin said the legend of a small jar of oil lasting eight days, though it was just a one-day supply, came about 300 years later, because the rabbinic sages did not want a holy day that only commemorated a military victory.
“They turned it into a spiritual miracle,” she said. “Hanukkah is celebrated by eating foods cooked in oil. Potato pancakes, or latkes, are popular, along with jelly donuts, an Israeli treat. We always give to charity, sing songs, play games with the dreidel, a spinning top, and enjoy our family and friends.”
Sherwin said some Jewish families also give gifts, but that is a distinctly American custom.
“The immigrant Jews that survived the Holocaust and came to the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s felt left out by the commercialism of Christmas, and started giving gifts at Hanukkah as well,” she said. “My parents made sure we had a present every night of Hanukkah. There were also Tzedakah nights (charitable giving) for my kids. Some nights they got a present. Some nights they worked at food banks, planted things or decorated the Ronald McDonald House, a place where children stayed for free while undergoing cancer treatments. It’s not all about what you get, but also what you give.”
The Wood River Jewish Community will celebrate virtually on Zoom this year.
“We will have a nightly candle lighting at 5 p.m., featuring different families from around the country who are members of our community,” Sherwin said. “On Friday night, Dec. 11, our Sabbath (Shabbat) service will be followed by a lively Hanukkah song session. There are hundreds more songs for Hanukkah other than ‘driedel, driedel.’” Sherwin said. “Here’s to wishing everyone a ‘hag urim samayach’— a happy holiday of light.”