DALLAS — While Christians are busy decking the halls and scurrying around trying to buy the perfect present to go under the Christmas tree, those of Jewish faith are lighting up the world.
Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, began Tuesday at sundown and goes until Wednesday (Dec. 24).
There is no “Hanukkah season,” unlike Christmas, which can start as early as Halloween in retail shops.
“There’s no actual workup to Hanukkah,” said Francine Shetterly of Dallas. “There’s no real prep unless you buy gifts and wrap them up.”
Occasionally, retailers will think the holiday is an opportunity to drive business and offer “hams for Hanukkah,” which is silly because Jewish people don’t eat pork, Shetterly said.
That’s not to say food doesn’t play a big role in the traditions of Hanukkah.
Hanukkah is more like a traditional holiday rather than a religious one, Lane Shetterly said. The word “Hanukkah” means dedication, and is a time to rededicate yourself to things that matter: faith and family.
Other Jewish holidays, such as Sukkot — the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, celebrating the fall harvest and commemorating the desert wandering of the Jews during the Exodus — or Passover — the Jewish commemoration of the deliverance of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, have more religious meaning.
But that doesn’t mean Hanukkah isn’t special, and it sure doesn’t diminish the fun.
Francine shares Hanukkah with her Lutheran husband Lane. They raised their family with both Jewish and Lutheran faiths.
With the children grown and gone, the holiday has gotten quieter.
“She doesn’t get me any presents,” Lane said teasing, “but we still light the candles.”
For Hanukkah, gifts are given each night of the celebration, with maybe a larger gift on the first or last night of the week. Francine said generally they are small gifts, more like tokens.
“Things like maybe a book or a small toy,” she said. “As we got older, we got a check. (Money is) a very traditional gift from family.”
But Hanukkah should not be confused as a “Jewish Christmas,” Lane stressed.
Hanukkah serves as a celebration of religious freedom and miracles when the Jewish people, led by Judah Maccabee, defeated the oppressive Syrian king Antiochus in 175 B.C.E. (Before Common Era, otherwise known as B.C., or before Christ).
“After they rescued the temple from the Syrians, they were able to recover a small amount of oil for the eternal flame, which they thought would only last for one day, and it lasted for eight days,” Francine said.
Oil is incorporated into the traditional foods eaten during Hanukkah in remembrance of the oil for the eternal flame, she added.
Some delicious foods are fried up, sweet and savory.
Latkes are potato cakes lightly fried, and can be made up with shredded apples, sugar and cinnamon or potatoes, parsley and onion. Sufganiyot — kind of like doughnuts — are generally deep-fried, Francine explained. Sufganiyot are sprinkled with powdered sugar and can be filled with jelly.
At Temple Beth Sholom in Salem, where the Shetterlys attend services, a Hanukkah party is held with a contest to see who makes the best latkes. One year, Francine and Lane’s son, Joel, won first place, even though Francine is the one who made them.
He was 15, Francine remembered, and decided something was missing from the potato cakes. Joel started looking through the spice cabinet and came upon some dried chives.
“He said we have to put these in,” Francine said. “So we sprinkled a bunch of chives in, cooked them up, brought them to the temple and won first place.”
“He added the winning ingredient,” Lane added. “We still laugh about that.”
Once the food is prepared, it is time to light the menorah. Each night, another candle is added to the candelabra.
In the Shetterly house, Francine lights the center candle, which is the shamash, or helper candle. The shamash is used to light the other candles.
The Shetterlys’ menorah has been in Francine’s family for decades.
“This menorah is very old because my mother gave it to us, and it was in my family before that,” she said.
On the first night of Hanukkah, the shamash and one other candle is lit. Each night, another candle is added to the menorah, until all eight days are represented. Including the shamash, the menorah holds nine candles.
“For each night, you would say a special little, not a prayer so much, but a special significance of that candle,” Francine said.
Once the candles are lit, it’s time to sit down and eat.
Latkes are served with applesauce and sour cream — and, for the Shetterly family, rugelach, a Jewish rolled cookie with cinnamon sugar which resembles a crescent roll.
Rugelach can be for any time, Francine said, but she only makes them during Hanukkah.
After dinner, it’s time to pull out the dreidels and play a little game.
Dreidels are four sided tops. The game can be played in various ways, but it always involves gambling.
“Imagine if you were in Europe in the early 1890s in the ghetto at Hanukkah time,” Francine said. “There’d be kids playing dreidel with whatever money they got from their families as gifts for the holiday. It was probably kind of a bad-boy game.”
The game doesn’t have to be played with real money, and is often played with chocolate Jewish gelt, or “money” that resembles gold-foiled chocolate coins. It can be played with anything that can be accumulated, such as nuts, Francine said.
The game is played similarly to dice, and starts when everyone picks a dreidel. But how do you know if you’ve picked a good one?
“You know if you win,” Francine said with a smile.
The traditions for Hanukkah are the same all over the world, with music, food and rituals, Lane said.
“There’s a story, and there’s a myth,” Francine said. “For the most part, it’s just about being together as a family.”
Light the Menorah
For the first day: The first light tells of Him whose first command was “let there be light.” The darkness of idol worship was scattered when Israel brought radiant knowledge of the one God. “I am the first and I am the last,” saith the Lord.
For the second day: The second light is the light of the Torah. Israel’s book of law has brought learning and truth to all of the western world. “The commandment is a lamp and the Law is a light.”
For the third day: The third light is the light of justice. No nation can endure which is unjust to the weak. “Justice, always justice shalt thou pursue,” was the grandest commandment of Moses, our teacher.
For the fourth day: The fourth light is the light of mercy. Cruelty hardens the heart and destroys friendship. “Do justice and love mercy,” was the teaching of Micah, the prophet.
For the fifth day: The fifth light is the light of holiness. Purity of thought, nobility of action, make all of life sacred. From the prophet Isaiah, these words have been taken into Israel’s prayer book: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.”
For the sixth day: The sixth light is the light of love. When the love of which our parents give us makes all of our life beautiful, we learn to understand the Biblical words, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and might.”
For the seventh day: The seventh light is the calm light of patience. Nothing can be achieved in haste. The spreading tree and the soul of man grow slowly to perfection. Thus sang King David, “Trust in the Lord, wait patiently for Him.”
For the eighth day: The eighth light is the light of courage. Let truth and justice be your armor and fear not. Judah Maccabee, the hero of Hanukkah, lived by the words Moses spoke to Joshua: “Be strong and of good courage.”
Source: “For a Happy Hanukkah: A Manual For the Home,” a guide printed by the synagogue in Highland Park, Ill., Congregation B'nai Torah