Guest Post: Chanukah!

I’m excited to bring you a special guest post, courtesy of my friend Stevie – someone I worked with for many years in my former life as a City Planner.  Stevie is currently living in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two year old son, and is on a quest to integrate her own non-religious but Christian based upbringing (which I totally relate to) with her husband’s Jewish traditions (which I definitely know little about!).  I’ve been keeping up with Stevie’s journey via Facebook posts, but I’m thrilled that she’s expanded her thoughts on the current holiday of Chanukah to share with all of us here.  I hope you enjoy it too!  And if you live in Texas or plan on visiting, trust me when I say you MUST visit Sandstone Cellars (located in Mason) – the wine is fantastic, the food is incredible, and the hospitality of the owners is second to none!

Chanukah is celebrated from December 1st to December 9th this year.

“Every now and then I find myself wondering what might have been if the light and vegetation motifs of Hanukah had early coalesced around those green branches described in 2 Maccabees rather than around clay or cast menorahs.  Might our present menorah, rather than being an abstract or stylized tree of light (one way of viewing it), have been an actual illuminated tree?

And if that beckoning, twinkling, brightly lighted, fragrant tree had been ours, would Christian children have grown up wishing that they might have a Hanukah tree?”-

Everett Gendler from Michael Strassfeld’s The Jewish Holidays.

Before I married a Jew, Chanukah was one of the only Jewish holidays that I knew anything about.  And it turns out that Chanukah is actually a relatively minor Jewish festival commemorating a brief period of Jewish independence that happened around 165 BCE when the Maccabees successfully rebelled against the Syrians and rededicated the Jewish Temple.  The first references to Chanukah (which means “dedication” in Hebrew) apparently don’t even mention the miracle of lamp oil lasting for eight days that is most often associated today with the holiday.

The story and observance of Chanukah has evolved depending on the context of the observers.  Some have speculated that once it became clear that the “miracle” of indepencence was short-lived, the Jewish people adapted by identifying a new miracle worth celebrating.

In 21st Century America, Chanukah is celebrated by lighting an additional candle on each of eight nights to recognize the miracle of the oil, and by exchanging presents.  Apparently, the present exchange is not common outside of the US and has been incorporated as a custom to allow Chanukah to “compete” with Christmas.

I’m not particularly interested in bulking Chanukah up in our home to compete with Christmas, but at the same time, Christmas is posing some special challenges for me this year.  As a secular humanist with a Christian family background, it was easy to celebrate Christmas as essentially a secular solstice;  however, as I work to create a Jewish home for my family, it becomes harder to ignore the religious origins of Christmas.  Suddenly Santa Clause is no longer just some jolly old fat guy.

My husband grew up in a family that celebrated both Chanukah AND Christmas and, at least for the time being, we are continuing that tradition with our son.  It may not be exactly what our rabbi would recommend, but it allows us to honor our blended heritage, while giving Chanukah the space to be what it is:  an important, but minor, festival in a larger year-long cycle of Jewish holidays.

How we’re observing Chanukah this year:

Candle Lighting: Each night before dinner we light a new candle and add it to our menorah.  Our menorah is a family heirloom made in Israel and given to us by my inlaws.  At the base of each candle is a little figure of a soldier who make up a regiment of eight.  I’m assuming they’re probably meant to represent the Maccabees, which I find kind of interesting given the evolving history of the holiday.

Each night as we light the candles, we say a blessing in Hebrew:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the Chanukah lights.

Wine: This year, we have our own special holiday miracle to celebrate.  I am blessed to have good friends who own Sandstone Cellars Winery in Mason, Texas.  Sandstone Cellars happens to make the best wine in the entire state of Texas (seriously, read a review here if you don’t believe me).  In 2009, grape yields were high enough to double their production and bottle four different rhone style red wines, and all four wines have now rested in their bottles just long enough for us to open and enjoy for Chanukah!  The wine isn’t Kosher per se, but certainly meets the Kosher standards of being pure and made with love and reverence.

Challah: Over the last several years, I’ve been continuing to perfect my challah making.  Still not perfect, but it is one of the few yeasted breads that  I make well.  This year for Chanukah, we get to use a special challah cover, lovingly decorated by our two year old son during a recent “Tot” Shabbat.

Latke Party:  Chanukah is typically a family affair around our house, but this year we’re shaking it up a bit with a dinner party.  We’ll be cooking up some latkes (a traditional favorite) and inviting attendees to participate in a white elephant gift exchange.

Presents: My husband grew up exchanging nice gifts at Chanukah and lesser gifts at Christmas to emphasize the importance of the Jewish tradition in their household.  In our household, we’ve flipped that tradition and exchange the small stocking stuffer type gifts during chanukah.

Happy Chanukah everyone!

One year ago on C&T: Sourdough Part 2: Pancakes/Waffles!

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