Happy Hanukkah! A celebration of Jewish freedom

DOVER — Today is Christmas Eve, but for some Americans it’s a different holiday: the Festival of Lights, better known as Hanukkah.

A celebration of Jewish freedom, particularly religious freedom, Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah) dates back thousands of years.

It’s also arguably the most famous Jewish holiday despite being a somewhat minor holiday for Jews, according to John Elzufon.

Mr. Elzufon, chairman of the Jewish Federation of Delaware’s outreach committee, said Hanukkah takes a backseat to Rosh Hashanah and Passover.

He compared it to the Fourth of July, a notion similar to one put forth by Rabbi Yair Robinson.

A menorah lit at Congregation Beth Emeth. (Submitted photo/Kim vonWeltin)

“Hanukkah is a very American holiday in that it celebrates freedom and especially religious freedom,” said Rabbi Robinson, who works at Beth Emeth in Wilmington.

The holiday celebrates the Jews’ victory over the Syrians around 165 B.C. After gaining the right to practice their faith, the victors lit a menorah in the Second Temple. Although there was only enough oil to burn for one day, the story goes, the fire kept burning for eight days.

Today, the main ritual during Hanukkah is the lighting of the menorah for eight nights.

“It’s a reason to get together, it’s a reason to celebrate your faith, it’s a reason to show pride in your faith,” Mr. Elzufon said.

As so many Americans do with Christmas, many Jews use Hanukkah as a time to spend with family.

It is also a bit more private than Christmas in some ways.

“Hanukkah is primarily celebrated at home, which is true for most Jewish holidays,” Rabbi Robinson said.

Whereas some people attend Mass or special religious services on Christmas Eve, there is no Hanukkah equivalent in the Jewish faith, Rabbi Robinson said. His synagogue held several events earlier this month in anticipation of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah may be tied with Christmas in the minds of many Americans whose only knowledge about the holiday comes from indirect sources, but “there is no connection whatsoever, as in zero, between Hanukkah and Christmas,” Mr. Elzufon said.

Hanukkah starts on the 25th of Kislev, the ninth Jewish month. In the Gregorian calendar, that’s anytime between the end of November and the end of December. This year, it begins Dec. 24 and ends Jan. 1.

The last time the first day of Hanukkah fell on Christmas Eve was 1978, although the holiday started on Christmas Day in 2005.

Many families, especially those with children, exchange small gifts every night of Hanukkah, something that Mr. Elzufon said is a rather new practice.

“It’s something the American Jewish community did in relation to being in a Christmas-worshiping country,” he said.

Traditionally, children would receive gelt — money and, later, chocolate coins — on Hanukkah.

Rabbi Robinson said some families set aside one night of Hanukkah to do charitable work, such as helping at a soup kitchen, thus ensuring the holiday does not become too focused on material goods.

While many Americans say Christmas has become increasingly commercialized, both Mr. Elzufon and Rabbi Robinson said Hanukkah is more organic.

“I’ve never thought of Hanukkah being overwhelmed by the commercialization of it and having the message lost in it,” Mr. Elzufon said.

Since about 1970, and especially over the past decade, Hanukkah has become more a part of American culture, Rabbi Robinson opined.

“I think there is some worry about Hanukkah becoming more commercial, but I think that’s balanced by the fact Hanukkah is more presented in popular culture, which means that we get to be, as Jews, more visible and more prominent in American society,” he said.

Around 7 million Americans, and 18,000 Delawareans, according to several estimates, identify as Jewish.

Some studies say Jews are more likely to marry outside of their faith than people of other religions. While certainly not unique to Jews, interfaith relationships can raise questions, such as deciding if one spouse should convert to the other’s religion, and what religion any kids should be raised as.

Both Mr. Elzufon and Rabbi Robinson said it varies from family to family as to whether the partners in an interfaith relationship celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas in the event a Jew and a Christian marry — something perhaps even more relevant this year, with the two holidays coinciding.

Since 2009, the governor’s mansion of Woodburn has been home to a Hanukkah menorah along with the traditional Christmas trees. This year, a mezuzah, a small rolled-up scroll affixed to a doorway, is also at the mansion.

“I think the most important aspect of it was that nobody noticed,” Gov. Jack Markell, the first Jewish governor in Delaware history, said of the menorah. “And I mean that in the sense that I think the people are incredibly fair-minded.

“They elected me as governor. I’m proud of it, I think the Jewish community is proud of it, but I think people say, ‘He’s our governor, regardless of his religion and regardless of our religion.’ And I think that’s what it’s supposed to all be about.”

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