(Post by AIMEE LEDEWITZ WEINSTEIN)
This year, my husband, the kids and I decided to spend two weeks in Hawaii over Hanukkah instead of heading to the mainland of the U.S. to visit our family. The four of us have had a heck of a year with new jobs, new schools and other events all compressed into short time-frames. A vacation was definitely in order – and so the four of us devised a plan to put the real meaning of Hanukkah into action.
Hanukkah is actually a minor festival on the Jewish calendar, paling in comparison to the “superbowl” of holidays that take place in the autumn or even Passover in the spring. It has gained prominence in Western countries because of its relative proximity to Christmas. Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the Jews’ victory over the huge Roman army with its small group of ragtag warriors called the Macabees. The word “Hanukkah” means rededication and it is used because after they prevailed, the Jews had to rededicate their Templein Jerusalem after the Romans had run through it, destroying everything. That’s the real miracle of Hanukkah, but the one everyone remembers is the one with the oil. You see, in the ancient Templein Jerusalem, as well as in every synagogue across the globe today, there is a light, called the ner tamid, that burns over the ark, which holds the Torah. When the Jews were cleaning and rededicating their Temple, there was only a tiny bit of oil to light the ner tamid – it would never last the week or so needed to get more oil. But they didn’t have a choice; they set out to get the oil. The second miracle of Hanukkah is that the light did not go out – it lasted the entire eight days until the search party returned with more oil. The light over the Torah never dimmed. Thus we celebrate Hanukkah for eight days and eat foods fried in oil, such as potato pancakes and donuts.
Today, the Jews light a menorah, an eight-armed candelabra. We light one candle for each night – one on the first night, two on the second night, on and on for eight nights. Until recently, Jews just gave kids a little bit of money, called gelt, on one of the nights. Now, with the commercialization of our times, kids get elaborate gifts like their non-Jewish counterparts. The irony is that though Hanukkah falls over Christmas this year, as it started on December 20th; some years it comes nowhere near Christmas due to the lunar calendar that Jews still use. The holiday falls on the same day in the Jewish calendar every year, the 25th of Kislev.
Of course there’s a holiday meal – but it can be any food that goes with potato pancakes and donuts. There aren’t cards to send or cookies to bake, or even decorations to put up. Some people might say I’m missing out, but I don’t feel badly about it. We have other traditions like songs and the dreidel game – a game played by children with a four-sided top celebrating the miracles of Hanukkah as the top spells out the words Nes Gadol Haya Sham – a great miracle happened there.
Even here in Hawaii we have a tiny menorah. The four of us sing the blessings that thank God for the miracles of Hanukkah, and perhaps one or two traditional songs. We tell the story. We laugh together. We have been talking about the past year’s antics as we anticipate the new year. In short, we are rededicating ourselves to each other after the long year that has past and gearing up for the challenges ahead. We may not have any miracles on hand today, at least not ones that we can see. But for now, the spirit of the miraculous and the essence of rededication are all the miracle we need.
Aimee Ledewitz Weinstein, Tokyo, Japan
Dr. Aimee Weinstein is a writer and writing professor who has lived six out of the last eight years in Tokyo, Japan. She received her doctorate from the Department of Higher Education at George Mason University and has held positions at Temple University Japan, The George Washington University, and George Mason University. She has taught a variety of writing courses, from freshman composition to advanced expository writing. Her work has been published in Kaleidescope, Tokyo Weekender, inTouch, and Asian Jewish Life. She also maintains a regular blog at TokyoWriter, where she fondly observes Tokyo life through the eyes of an American expat and writes about writing. Aimee currently resides in Tokyo with her supportive husband and two beautiful children, where she continues to write and help others in their writing. Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/TokyoWriterTweet