Days 8 – 12: Highlights from Hanukkah
“For a man to be sure of his road, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.”
— St. John of the Cross
Two weeks ago, I embarked on an uncertain experience with no clue as to where I was going. My self-imposed “menorah mission”: To experience Hanukkah firsthand, alongside my housemates, and to learn as much as possible about Judaism in eight short days. I began this Festival of Lights utterly in the dark; the only thing I knew for sure (yikes, did I just quote Oprah?) was that I wanted to know more. Interesting too that the translation of the root of the word “Chanukah” is “chinuch,” which means education.
My sources of knowledge and inspiration: my kind housemates Claire and Katie. The Noah’s Arc menorah, whose candles illuminated my way each night. The generous folks at Temple Emanuel who embraced my humble Hanukkah project with open arms and latkes, and who led me to further resources, including better bakeries. (I’ll be back for bingo, bubbies!) My bibles: The Idiot’s Guide to Judaism, It’s Always Something by Gilda Radner and Jewish Cooking in America by Joan Nathan.
What did I learn?
Here are some highlights of Hello, Hanukkah. (Also known as, “A Very Shiksa Hanukkah.” (Look for the TV movie version on Lifetime next year; I’m hoping that Drew Barrymore will play me; one can dare, “halam.”)
- Jews have exceptional culinary traditions. Holiday dishes, including those prepared during Hanukkah, all have historic significance and come with a unique story. I’m jealous. What stories do Catholics have for our holiday meals? Nun. While looking for a recipe for noodle kugel, I mentioned this to Claire. “It’s so boring! We have no cuisine!” “That’s because of the ancient dietary laws associated with being Kosher,” she said. Growing up, I complained about having to forsake meat on Fridays during Lent and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, a total of eight days a year compared to Orthodox Jews who are permanently pork-free. My point? Quit kvethcing, gentiles. I found recipes for rugelach, blintzes, kugels and knishes, challah and halvah (move over Nutella; you don’t compare to marble halvah from Russ and Daughters), latkes and donuts. Will I attempt to make them again? No. Will I be scouring East Houston Street to buy them from real Jewish eateries more often? Indeed.
- Some new Hebrew: “Todah” means “Thank you;” “Hufla” means “big party;” “Sababa” means “fun;” Sli’cha means “Excuse me,” as in “Sli’cha, your blog sucks and please don’t consider doing one for Kwanza.”
- The Christian feast day of St. Nicholas, (the precursor to Santa Claus) occurs on December 6, which happened to coincide with Hanukkah this year. December 6 is celebrated as a day to give small gifts to children — often candy — placed in their shoes. The chocolate gelt (coins) that I received at the Hanukkah Happening were dutifully placed in Katie’s shoes on the sixth night, combining our two faith traditions in one chocolate-coated gesture. (In full disclosure, I ate one first, Katie. Sorry!)
- The colors of blue and white — those of the Israeli flag, the traditional colors of candles used in the menorah — are also the colors of the Mary candle, a Catholic tradition I hadn’t known about before. The Mary candle is a white candle decorated with a blue ribbon that is lit on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8. It made perfect sense to me that blue and white would be used to honor the beautiful young Jewish girl who said “yes” without hesitation.
- I was born in the same hospital as Rhoda! (Good Samaritan, Suffern, NY.) All sorts of fun facts learned during Hanukkah 2010 (or Tevet 5771 as the case may be.)
This Hanukkah marked two tragic anniversaries as well. Thirty years ago, on December 1, 1982, Sister Maura Clarke and three other women missionaries who were raped and killed in El Salvador while working with refugees of war. December 8 marked the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder in New York City. These are painful reminders that there will always be darkness in the world. One of the lessons of Hanukkah, perhaps, is not to fear the darkness, but to fight it by adding more light to one’s life — whether it be in the form of candles or more compassion — and not lose hope; the Maccabees didn’t.
So today isn’t so much a goodbye to Hanukkah as it as a hello to a new way of life that brings forth more light and refuses to succumb to darkness. The words inscribed on the outside entrance of Temple Emanuel are these: “In thy light do we see light.”