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Hanukah Lights the Way to Freedom of Expression

If there’s one thing Jews can agree on, it’s that Hanukkah is not a Jewish Christmas. (Now getting us to agree on how to spell Hanukkah—Hannukah, Chanukah, Channukah, or Hanuka—is another story). Sure, both holidays occur in December and fulfill lots of children’s wish lists, but the similarities between Hanukkah and Christmas stop there.

Actually, Hanukkah ranks as a minor festival, compared to the High Holidays. Still, the “Festival of Lights” is a favorite holiday on the Jewish calendar. I mean, come on, presents for eight days straight? Who wouldn’t want to be a Jew this time of year? Hanukkah is not the kind of holiday that is worshipped in a special synagogue service, however; instead, Hanukkah is mostly celebrated at home, where we light the menorah, say special blessings, eat latkes, spin the dreidel, and sing songs. For some families, another tradition is to dedicate their time and effort to a social action project, such as delivering toys or serving meals to the needy, which is what tikkun olam is all about.

The origin of Hanukkah, which means “dedication,” dates back more than 2,000 years when the Greek king Antiochus tried to force the Jews to pray his way, to the gods of Greece. But the Jews refused because they believed in their own God of Israel. To save the Jewish people’s religious freedom, a small band of soldiers, called the Maccabees, fought against all odds against Antiochus and his mighty Greek army. The Maccabees were brave heroes, and yet they were ordinary people armed with little more than their faith in God. Their courageous victory marked the first miracle of Hanukkah and taught us a very powerful lesson that still applies today—Jews and non-Jews alike must defend their freedom of religious expression.

The second miracle happened after the Maccabees and the people of Jerusalem started to clean up the Temple that the Greek army had destroyed. The Maccabees removed all traces of idol worship, and spent eight days rededicating the Jewish holy place. Although the original Hebrew texts related to Hanukkah have been lost, legend has it that the Maccabees discovered a small flask of oil to light the seven-branched gold candelabrum. The lamp oil was supposed to last for only one day. When the oil in the menorah burned for eight days, it was considered another miracle, and the other reason why we celebrate the “Festival of Lights” for eight days.

No wonder light is the symbol of our festival celebration. Personally, I take the concept of “Festival of Lights” even further when I decorate the inside and outside of my home with blue and white lights, which are the colors of the Israeli flag. Mostly, I cherish my collection of menorahs, called chanukiyahs,
including a marble one in the shape of a spiraling staircase that my mom bought me in Israel and another wax-covered, whale-shaped candleholder that Jack and Great Grandma Ruth sculpted themselves out of clay. I realize that some Jewish people may say “Feh!” to my holiday lights tradition that I started when Sari was born on Christmas Eve almost eight years ago, but then again, Jews argue about the spelling of the braided loaf of white bread. Is it challa, challeh, or halla anyway?

The reason why I choose to hang lights, in addition to displaying an array of silver and gold dreidels, is to make Sari’s birthday special and fulfill my own childhood fantasies during the winter season. In fact, ever since Sari was a toddler, I told her that the twinkling lights on all the houses and trees were birthday candles and special wishes just for her. Even as a little kid, she never bought the idea. But the little kid in me likes all the lights, especially in the dark night sky and when the glistening white snow covers the ground and branches. The lights put me in the holiday spirit, as I grip the wobbly ladder that Scott hesitantly climbs so that he can reach the gutter of our two-story house. When another big blue bulb breaks in his bare hand, I try to ignore his curse words and quickly fetch another replacement before he changes his mind about the whole thing.

Even though my blue and white holiday lights have nothing to do with being Jewish, the festive decorations represent my freedom of expression. Along with the flickering candles on the menorah, the lights remind me of the miracles long ago and who I am today. A proud Jew.

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Her stories are inspired by the real life of her family, including her two children, toy poodle named Luci, and her husband, but not necessarily in that order. Feel free to send any comments, prayers or recipes to ellie@mishegasofmotherhood.com.