The eight-day, worldwide celebration of Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, will begin this year at sundown on Sunday. The word Hanukkah comes from a Hebrew term often rendered as “dedication.” The original dedication in view was that of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Central to Israel’s life, the temple complex had been reclaimed from its Greek conquerors by Jewish revolutionaries in 165 B.C. As part of the temple restoration, consecrated oil was essential for a sacred temple lamp. The liberating priests determined that only one day’s supply of the needed holy lamp oil was left after the battle. Miraculously, this small amount of oil sufficed for the entire eight days until a permanent supply had been prepared according to tradition.
The holiday is traditionally celebrated at home with friends and family and the lighting of one additional candle each night until the eight-place candle holder, the menorah, brightens the whole room.
Gerilyn Farb Gordon was born on the island and attended Congregation Beth Jacob here. Looking back, she recalled what Hanukkah meant to her and how her iPhone helps out now with the holiday.
“My children learned at an early age to light the menorah every night, and they also looked forward to the presents,” Gordon said. “They still do, even though they live far away. They still give me their Hanukkah lists. And sometimes we FaceTime (phone video chat) when we light the candles. It’s the modern way to be together for the celebration. My mother is no longer with us; she passed away last year. But we still celebrate in just the way she taught us with food, presents, and family.”
Her own childhood was smartphone-free, but just as much fun.
“My earliest memories of Hanukkah are of anxiously waiting for my mother, Lillie Farb, to get home from our family business with our presents,” she said. “I would wait in the window to see her drive up and she could hardly get in the door before my brother and I were telling her to hurry up and light the menorah so we could get our presents. She always had the latest doll for me. One year it was a Chatty Cathy. And my mother always made the traditional potato pancakes, latkes. It was a very happy holiday for us.”
Kathleen Sukiennik, who attended the same temple with her husband Max, spoke along the same lines.
“My husband immigrated to Galveston from an Austrian displaced persons camp in 1950,” she said. “His childhood memories of Hanukkah in Galveston included menorah lighting every night, no gift-giving, spinning the dreidel and getting gelt (gold-foil wrapped chocolate coins).”
Public celebrations are less common, but for a number of years here Rabbi Yitzchok Schmukler, director of Chabad of the Bay Area, has held a free holiday event crowned with a larger-than-life sized menorah.
Schmukler explained why he offers an interfaith presentation of this ancient Jewish festival.
“We do this for a couple of reasons,” he said. “The theme of Hanukkah is very much resonant of the founding ideas of the U.S.: celebrating religious freedom. It’s about a people who wanted to be free and to live according to their religion. It is a story of the few triumphing over the many in a struggle for religious liberty. That touches to the core of who we are as Americans. So, Hanukkah is meaningful to everyone.”
The rabbi said his own childhood memories of the winter observance were warm and wonderful.
“By increasing the lights every night it becomes a universal message of how we change our world for the better through acts of kindness, radiating positive change,” he said.
Happy Hanukkah from Our Faith.
Next week in Our Faith: Two pastors: one black, one white attempt a new tag-team style of preaching to bring two congregations together for worship, service and racial reconciliation.