Hanukkah not 'Jewish Christmas,' but an important family celebration

| Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, 9:07 p.m.

Jonathan Hackam, 5, glues bits of colored glass to a small wooden base at Community Day School in Squirrel Hill.

With Hanukkah beginning Saturday at sundown, Hackam and others in his kindergarten class are making menorahs.

Also known as Chanukiah, they are the candelabras that hold nine candles — one to be lit on each night of the eight-day holiday that signifies religious freedom, and one to hold the candle that is used to light the others.

“I'll take it home and use it,” says Jonathan, as he sits back and admires his creation, anticipating the festivities to come.

“I'm going to get lots of toys,” he says. “I'm getting a bow and arrow with a target.”

For classmate Amit Tuti, 5, one of the best things about Hanukkah are the foods. “I like sufganiyoh!” he says, using the Hebrew term for jelly donuts.

Like potato pancakes, called latkes — another holiday staple — the sufganiyoh are deep-fried to symbolize the oil that miraculously burned for eight days in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, after it was desecrated by the Syrian-Greeks in Second Century B.C.

Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where Jews rose up against Greek and Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt during the Second Century B.C. Legend says that, although they had enough oil to keep the menorah's candles burning for a single day, the flames flickered for eight nights.

It is one of the most celebratory holidays on the Jewish calendar, a time when families gather around the menorah to recite prayers, sing songs and give presents.

They play games with a dreidel — a four-sided spinning top that is rich with symbolism of its own. Inscribed with four Hebrew letters — one on each side, they form the acronym for “a great miracle happened here.” Children gamble with foil-wrapped chocolate coins, known as Hanukkah gelt, betting on which side of the dreidel will be face up when it lands.

“The dreidel dates back to ancient times, when Jews weren't allowed to study Torah,” says Tzippy Mazer, head of Hebrew and Jewish studies at Community Day School. “Jews would gather in secret to study, and if the Greek soldiers approached, they would pull out their dreidels to make them think they were just playing games.”

Because Hanukkah is not a Biblical holiday, Jews go to work and school during their eight-day observance and are not required to attend religious services.

“In the Jewish and Western cultural imagination, it has become a bigger holiday than it really is. It is not ‘the Jewish Christmas.' Christmas is an incredibly significant holiday,” says Rabbi Aaron Bisno, chief Rabbi at the Rodef Shalom congregation in Shadyside.

“Hanukkah is not meant to be compared to what is a major holiday for Christians,” says Avi Baran Munro, Community Day School's head of school, “but we live in a society where gift-giving is big at this time of year, so some families make that part of their Hanukkah celebration. Others minimize the gift-giving and focus on the candle-lighting and the songs. Some do eight charitable projects. In our population, it runs the gamut.”

Debbie Reichbaum of O'Hara enjoys decorating her home from a vast collection of dreidels and menorahs, including one menorah she puts in her living room window, in keeping with the custom of publicizing the miracle. Although her sons are now grown, when they were children, she made sure Hanukkah was extra-festive.

“They would see magnificent Christmas trees and gifts at their friends' homes, so I made sure they had gifts, as well as dreidel games, latkes and Hanukkah cookies,” says Reichbaum, who follows a conservative form of Judaism. “I think Christmas has become very commercial, but my kids would participate in Christmas with their non-Jewish friends and I didn't want them to be envious, so I made Hanukkah special.”

For Stefanie Small, a mother of three, Hanukkah is much the same as it was with her parents and grandparents, although a bit more commercialized.

“Bed Bath & Beyond now sells dreidel lights and Hanukkah gift-card boxes. Anything they could put a Jewish star on. There was nothing like that when I was a kid,” says Small, 35, of Squirrel Hill. In Small's home, each night brings prayers and lighting of menorah candles. The family sings songs, such as the Maoz Tzur, and plays the traditional dreidel game. Her children, she says, “made menorahs in school and we save them from year to year.”

Michael Bails and his wife Jennifer of Squirrel Hill give their young daughters small presents, but participate in a charitable-giving exchange with the adults in their extended family. “The charity exchange started last year to replace a gift exchange,” Jennifer Bails says. “We try to choose charities that would be meaningful to the recipient.”

Charitable giving is typically the focus for most Orthodox Jews, who are less likely to be impacted by the season's commercialism, according to Rabbi Yisroel Altein of the Chabad Lubavitch in Squirrel Hill. “We don't change our method of celebrating or gauge the importance of our holiday to the cultures around us.”

Children may receive money in addition to chocolate gelt, but they are expected to spend at least some of it on charity, says Altein, whose Chassidic sect emphasizes the spiritual or mystical side of Judaism.

Chabad distributes menorahs and candles to those in need, and performs public menorah lightings.

“The message of Hanukkah is that we have the ability to use light to bring goodness to the world,” says Altein, “to have a victory of the small over the many, and to illuminate the world around us with ‘positives.' ”

Altein will again this year lead a caravan of cars through Pittsburgh neighborhoods Sunday — each with a large menorah on top — to Schenley Plaza in Oakland, for the lighting of a 12-foot-tall menorah at sundown.

He also will help coordinate the lighting of giant menorahs Downtown, including one Monday in front of the City-County Building, as part of a long-standing tradition, and another — new this year — in Mellon Square Park on Tuesday.

“Every year, we try to increase the lights,” says Altein, who notes that similar public lightings will occur simultaneously around the world.

Another first this year is the Hanukkah celebration — Illumin-Ner Extraordi-Ner — slated for Schenley Ice Rink on Thursday, featuring a menorah sculpted from ice, and live music by local temple choirs and holiday foods.

“Ner” translates from Hebrew into “eternal light,” explains Nitsa Bucritz Ford, development director of the Agency for Jewish Learning. “The whole point is to advertise the miracle in the Temple, your personal light, and your pride in the light of religious freedom. You want to bring that light to others.”

For a donation of $18 — the numerological equivalent of “chai,” which in Hebrew means “life” — eventgoers can bring their own menorahs and take part in more activities at the rink's indoors facility. (Details: www.ajlpittsburgh.org)

Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer to Trib Total Media. Staff writer Rick Wills contributed to this report.

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