Hanukkah or Chanukah is a Jewish holiday commemorating the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar. It is also known as the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication.
Hanukkah, also known as Chanukah, is the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, commemorating the re-dedication in the second century BCE of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where according to legend Jews had risen up against their Seleucid-Greek oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt.
Following the victory of the rebellious Maccabees over the Seleucids in 165 BCE, the holy temple was recaptured. However, when people sought to light the Temple's menorah (the seven branched candelabrum), they found only a single container of olive oil that not been profaned by the Greeks. This was only enough to keep the sacred flame burning for a single day. Yet the flame kept burning for eight days, by which time the Jews obtained more oil. The flame thus never burned out. This is viewed in the Jewish tradition as a miracle. To commemorate and publicize this miracle, the sages instituted the festival of Hanukkah.
Each year the Jews celebrate Hanukkah for eight nights by gathering together to light candles on an eight-branch Menorah. There is a special ninth candle called the shammash or servant candle which is used to light the other candles. The shammash is often in the center of the other candles and has a higher position.
During the festival, people offer praise and thanksgiving to God for "delivering the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few... the wicked into the hands of the righteous." Hanukkah is also a time for people to exchange modest gifts each night and indulge in special foods cooked or fried in oil, such as jam donuts and latkes (potato pancakes).
Around 200 BCE/BC, Israel was a vassal state in the Seleucid Empire of Syria, which was a Hellenistic kingdom. They had to obey the Greek laws, but could follow their own religion and its practises. However, in 171 BCE/BC, the new King, Antiochus IV, who also called himself Antiochus Epiphanes which means 'Antiochus the visible god', came to power and wanted all the empire to follow Greek ways of life and the Greek religion with all its gods.
Some of the Jews wanted to be more Greek, but most wanted to stay Jewish. When Antiochus appointed Hellenistic Jews to the High Priesthood and government positions in Judea, the Jewish people revolted. They drove out the Hellenistic Jews.
Antiochus was furious. He attacked Jerusalem and executed many Jews. However, the Jewish revolt continued under the leadership of Mattathias and his five sons. Eventually, his son Judah Maccabee wore down the Seleucid army with guerilla warfare, and Jewish worship was restored with his brother Jonathan Maccabee installed as High Priest.
Deborah Strobin on her experiences as a Jewish refugee in Shanghai during the Second World War:
During a brief period, 1938-1945, Shanghai was the home of a vibrant community of Jewish refugees, primarily from Nazi Germany and Nazi Austria. Eighteen thousand of us found haven there, including me and my brother, Ilie, along with our parents, who escaped the Nazis on the last boat out of Vienna.
While the rest of the civilized world deplored the persecution of the Jews, it kept its doors locked. Shanghai was the exception. It was the only place on earth that accepted Jewish refugees without any restrictions. All that was needed was passage on a ship to China. Even more incredible was that Shanghai was then occupied by the Japanese. Despite the hardships and deprivations they imposed both on the Chinese and the Jews who fled Nazi persecution, they did not accede to the German demands to "solve the Jewish problem."
Indeed, a microcosm of central European Jewish life managed to establish itself in this alien environment. We were the only transplanted community to survive the war intact. After the war, like our parents, we rarely spoke about our past. Finally reaching America, we went on with our lives. We started families and pursued our passions—Ilie as a fashion designer and later an artist in Manhattan, and me as a fundraiser in San Francisco.
A few years ago, however, a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC changed all that when we came face to face with our past as refugees. There, hanging on the museum's wall, we were shocked to discover photos of me in Shanghai as a five-year-old posing for Japanese war propaganda. Thus began a journey of unraveling and documenting our family's 12-year odyssey of escape and survival across continents and the chaos of war through the eyes of two children.
As we put pen to paper, however, we found that our memories were often different, given our eight-year difference in age. Ilie had been a teenage boy then, full of youthful optimism and bravado, and I was a shy and impressionable young girl.
The dreidel, or sevivon in Hebrew, is a four-sided spinning top that children play with during Hanukkah. Each side is imprinted with a Hebrew letter. These letters are an abbreviation for the Hebrew words נס גדול היה שם (Nes Gadol Haya Sham, "A great miracle happened there"), referring to the miracle of the oil that took place in the Beit Hamikdash.
After lighting the Hanukkah menorah, it is customary in many homes to play the dreidel game. Each player starts out with 10 or 15 coins (real or of chocolate), nuts, raisins, candies or other markers, and places one marker in the pot. The first player spins the dreidel, and depending on which side the dreidel falls on, either wins a marker from the pot or gives up part of his stash. The code (based on a Yiddish version of the game) is as follows:
Latkes (לאַטקע) are potato pancakes that Ashkenazi Jews have prepared as part of the Hanukkah festival since the mid-1800s. Latkes need not necessarily be made from potatoes. Prior to the introduction of the potato to the Old World, latkes were, and in some places still are, made from a variety of other vegetables, cheeses, legumes, or starches, depending on the available local ingredients and foods of the various places where Jews lived. Numerous modern recipes call for the addition of ingredients such as onions and carrots.