A Shiksa's Guide to Understanding Hanukkah

Maybe Adam Sandler taught you everything you need to know about Hanukkah, but if you're curious beyond the marijuanakkah and gin & tonikkah then read on, my friend.
12/16/2014 06:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Maybe Adam Sandler taught you everything you need to know about Hanukkah, but if you're curious beyond the marijuanakkah and gin & tonikkah then read on, my friend.

Let's start with some honesty for this Jewish holiday. I began celebrating Hanukkah with my husband and his family eight years ago, and still haven't the slightest idea how to spell it. And in my fact checking* I learned it's not spelled as the Indian philosopher of the ancient Maurya Empire, but instead has a couple of k's and always an h in there somewhere. For added holiday fun, I'll pepper all three spellings throughout!

*My husband's family traditions aren't always typical. His parents celebrate Thanksgiving with a breakfast. What's that about?

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I digress. Happy Chaunn, uhh, Hana, err, Hanukkah! Also known as the Festival of Lights, this Jewish holiday works off the Gregorian calendar and can land anytime from the end of November to the end of December.

My husband insists this holiday is NBD compared to the other biggies, and he's right. Hanukkah is not one of the high holy days like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, in fact and it only became widely celebrated in the early '70s because, as my fella says, "Christmas envy." Or more accurately, when the influential Jewish leader Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson encouraged awareness and the lighting of public menorahs.

What's a menorah? Glad you asked. It's a fancy candelabra with nine branches each to hold a candle. "But Chanukah is only eight days!" you knowingly protest. Ah yes, but that ninth guy, called the "shamash" or the "servant," is used to light the rest.

Each night, while saying a prayer, the candles are lit at sundown with an increasing number of candles per night (Night 1 = one candle, Night 2 = two candles, you speak my language), until the eighth night when all eight branches of the menorah are lit.

Why eight days? Let's talk history: The whole shindig began in the 2nd century B.C. when a Greek king named Antiochus became the ruler of the Seleucid Empire, part of ancient Egypt. Antiochus was big on persecuting the Jews and an all around crank if you didn't worship the Greek gods. The Maccabees or Machabees (I know, right?), a ragtag group of Jewish rebels wouldn't take his crap and fled into the wilderness to regroup. The Maccabees, led by Judah Maccabee, used guerilla warfare tactics and over many battles eventually conquered the Seleucid army.

A party was in order!

They victoriously entered Jerusalem to celebrate this win and cleansed the Temple, but could only find a small flask of untainted oil to light the menorah. That small amount should have only given light for one day, but miraculously it provided light for the menorah for eight days, like when your phone is at 1 percent but somehow lasts another hour.

To celebrate, the children are given Hanukkah gelt, meaning "gold" in Hebrew, coin-shaped chocolates wrapped in gold foil. The dreidel is a spinning top used to play games. Each side has a different Hebrew letter creating an acronym that translates into "A great miracle happened here." My husband says the games are basically low-grade gambling, which if his fantasy football were any indication, he learned how to hustle at a young age over these eight nights.

And as I've said in previous Shiksa's Guide installments, a common saying on Jewish holidays is "they tried to kill us, we got away, let's eat!" Hanukkah brings oil-based foods to symbolize the oil used to light that menorah such as doughnuts and latkes, a potato pancake like a delicious version of the McDonald's hash browns served with sour cream and apple sauce. Jewish or not, these are snacks anyone can get behind.

I hope you've learned a thing or two about this Festival of Lights. I did, got this spelling down pat now: H-A-N-U-K-K-A-H.