Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas…

People have plenty of misconceptions about the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which this year starts Saturday at sundown. Here, according to a pair of Providence rabbis, are seven places to set the record straight.

It’s not that big a deal
The top myth about Hanukkah has to be its importance, said Rabbi Rachel Zerin of Temple Emanu-El in Providence. About half a dozen other holidays, such as Yom Kippur and Passover, she said, are much more important than Hanukkah for Jews. “In the scheme of Jewish holidays, it’s not a very significant one,” she said. Zerin said she thinks this became a popular idea because the eight-day holiday usually falls around Christmas.

Hanukkah is not the “Jewish Christmas”
Some people think Hanukkah is the Jewish Christmas celebration, especially this year, because it begins on Christmas Eve. But the holiday changes every year, as it does not follow the solar Gregorian calendar used in the United States, but the lunar Jewish calendar. “Very often, Hanukkah can be well over by the time Christmas comes around,” Zerin said.

There are two story lines to Hanukkah, Zerin said. The first celebrates the Maccabean revolt, when the Jews overthrew the Greeks who had taken over the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and outlawed Judaism. The other story is of a miracle, she said. When the Jews entered the Temple after the revolt, it had been destroyed, and the menorah that is always supposed to be burning was no longer lit. Only one jar of purified olive oil was left to light the menorah. It should have only lasted one day, but it burned for eight days, until more oil could be purified, Zerin said. “That’s where we got the tradition of lighting the Hanukkah menorah,” she said, for eight days.

Latkes? Try jelly doughnuts
Potato latkes, or oil-fried potato pancakes, are an important treat on the Jewish holiday. That’s in part to celebrate the importance of oil on Hanukkah. But it’s not the only treat Jews have on the holiday. “In Israel, it’s actually more common to have doughnuts, especially jelly-filled doughnuts,” Zerin said. They’ve started to make their way to the United States, she said, and are sometimes seen here on holiday tables.

Dreidel is just a game after all
The dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with Hebrew letters on each side, and is used to play games on Hanukkah. The letters are taken from the sentence in Hebrew, “Nes gadol hayah sham” — “a great miracle happened there.” The story goes that when the Jews were not allowed to practice their religion, they would meet and read Jewish texts secretly. If soldiers came along, they hid the texts and would take out the spinning tops to play, telling soldiers they were just gambling. “It’s not historically accurate, but that’s the myth,” Zerin said. The game was actually invented later, she said, and taken from a German gambling game that used a spinning top.

Presents aren’t a key to the holiday
On Hanukkah, many children today receive presents over the eight nights of the holiday, said Senior Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman of Temple Beth-El. “Giving presents is just a lovely thing to do,” he said. “It is, in part, so that our children don’t feel deprived of getting presents.” But another big part of the holiday is to give presents or charitable contribution to others, he said. Charity is central to Judaism, and “Hanukkah should be no different,” he added.

It’s not a menorah, it’s a Hanukkiyah
A menorah has seven branches with candles and it symbolizes creation, Voss-Altman said. It is often lit on the Sabbath, he added. But a Hanukkiyah, or Hanukkah menorah, is lit on the eight days of Hanukkah, and has nine branches. One of the candles helps light the others over the eight days, Voss-Altman said.

And finally …; the Hanukkah bush?
“There’s no such thing as a Hanukkah bush,” said Voss-Altman. People with “Christmas-tree envy,” came up with the Hanukkah bush, he said, but there is no religious tradition for a bush to celebrate the holiday. “That’s sort of a comedy thing,” he said, laughing. “There’s no bush for Hanukkah.”

Reprinted from Providence Journal.

Hanukkah & Thanksgiving, the Beginnings


In 167BCE Israel was dominated by the Syrian Greek Seleucids and their king Antiochus IV. Antiochus IV referred to himself as Epiphanes, God Manifest. Behind his back he was known as the Madman.

Determined to Hellenize the Jews, Antiochus IV outlawed Jewish religious ritual and custom and defiled the Temple by sacrificing to Greek gods there. In the village of Modi’in, just outside Jerusalem, the priest, Mattathias, refused an order to sacrifice to the Greek gods. When a Hellenized Jew in the village agreed to make the sacrifice, Mattathias killed him, as well as the Greek officer and then fled into the mountains with his five sons and other supporters. From there they launched an insurgency against the Seleucids, led by Mattathias’ son Judah. Because Judah was a crusher-of-enemies he was called Maccabee, which roughly translates as the Hammer, and the whole rebellion is known as the Maccabean Revolt. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Maccabees prevailed. Now, the first order of business was to cleanse the Temple by burning the ritual menorah for eight days, but there was only enough oil for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for the full eight days giving us the eight-day festival of Hanukkah, in which we eat fried foods without regret to celebrate the miracle of the oil and the Maccabean victory against religious oppression.


Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The Thanksgiving story, well-known by most American school children, of  Pilgrims and Natives sharing a feast in 1621, is based on accounts by William Bradford and Edward Winslow, leaders of Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. This is from Winslow’s Mourt’s Relation:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

Whether you’re celebrating Hanukkah or Thanksgiving or both (Thanksgivukkah) on November 28, 2013, we wish you a happy, healthy day.


A Jewish Freedom Fighter and a Puritan Refugee Walk into a Bar…

OK, not a bar, unless you plan to celebrate Hanukkah and Thanksgiving in a bar, which could happen. Anyway, this is not a joke but the actual and exceedingly rare concurrence of two beloved holidays in the USA – Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.

Neither is a fixed date. Thanksgiving falls on the 4th Thursday of November, which according my loose estimation can range from the 22nd to the 28th. In the lunar Jewish calendar, the eight days of Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of Kislev, which can fall anywhere from late November to late December. This year, it’s very early. Next year, the Jewish calendar will reset with a leap month in the Spring, which will put Hanukkah back into December.

According to some calculations Thanksgiving and Hanukkah will not coincide again for almost 80,000 years. So we better party while we can! The internet is flooded with merchandise and recipes to mark this rare event, which has been dubbed Thanksgivukkah. Here are some of my favorites:

9-year-old Asher Weintraub conceived and designed the Turkey/Menorah he calls the Menurkey, http://menurkey.com/.

Two silly Youtube entries:
Turkey vs Dreidel Rap Battle, sponsored by Manischewitz, of course
Pilgrims Story of Thanksgivukkah

And of course food!

Sweet Potato Latkes
from the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate.com

1 pound sweet potatoes or yams, peeled (about 2 medium)
1/4 cup grated onion, squeezed dry, about 1 small
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
2 large eggs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour + more as needed
Vegetable oil, as needed

Shred the sweet potatoes with the shredding disk of the food processor or on the large holes of a box grater. Place in a large bowl. Stir in the onion and salt.

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs and flour to blend. Stir into the potato mixture, mixing well.

Heat 1/4-inch oil in a large skillet over moderately high heat until it registers 365° on a thermometer or sizzles instantly when a small amount of batter is added. Add a little more flour to the batter if the test amount is too wet and doesn’t hold together.

For each latke, fill a 1/4-cup measure half full; invert into the oil and flatten slightly. Repeat, making about 8 latkes at a time, but being careful not to crowd the skillet. Cook until the latkes are golden on the bottom, 3-5 minutes. Carefully turn and brown on the other side, about 3 minutes more. Remove to a tray lined with paper towels. Keep warm while frying remaining latkes.

Serve sweet potato latkes with this:

Cranberry Applesauce
from Buzzfeed.com

2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ cup sugar
½ cup Manischewitz Concord Grape wine
4 large Granny Smith apples

In a medium sauce pot, combine cranberries, spices, sugar, and Manischewitz. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes. Peel and core apples, then cut them into large chunks (approximately ½-inch cubes), and add to the cranberry mixture. Cover sauce and continue to simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. If sauce begins to stick, add water.

Remove from heat and cool to room temperature before serving.

Sweet Potato Latkes Photo: Craig Lee, Special To The Chronicle

Sweet Potato Latkes Photo: Craig Lee, Special To The Chronicle

Happy Thanksgiving! Happy Hanukkah!