Hanukkah is probably the most widely known but, perhaps, least understood Jewish celebration. It is also the most recent. Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur all have roots in the scriptures, but Hanukkah recalls the liberation of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem from hostile, foreign forces in 164 BCE, hundreds of years after the last book in the formal Jewish canon was penned.
Like Passover, which commemorates the exodus of the Hebrew nation from Egyptian slavery, Hanukkah then can be seen as a triumph of God’s chosen people over oppression and servitude.
Janet Hassinger is a member of Galveston’s Congregation B’nai Israel. She sees the celebration, in part, as a valued legacy that extends through generations of her family.
“As a Jew, it is a small reminder to experience the holiday as a reminder of my long heritage,” she said. “I enjoy the lighting of candles and the excuse to enjoy the fried foods. I do not exchange gifts as I do not have children. I have no family in Texas so acknowledgment of the holidays is a childhood reminder of family I love. To me, it is a historical, rather than a purely religious, event, and I must admit that it often seems to be something to replace Christmas which we do not celebrate.”
The fried delicacies, which Hassinger and others populate their family spreads during Hanukkah, are tributes to the miracle (or legend) of the sacred lamp, which lighted that restored temple tens of centuries ago, long after its oil supply could have possibly naturally lasted.
There have been eras when even small family observances of Hanukkah have been fraught with great risk. Its faint and flickering lights stood out bravely against fascism in eastern Europe during World War II, as Sharon Levy Pagan, who also attends B’nai Israel, shared.
“My maternal grandmother, Helen Steinberg Reiswerg, left Poland after her family understood the danger of the impending Holocaust,” she said. “My maternal great-grandmother, Charna Steinberg, was also able to leave and join the majority of her young, adult children in the Galveston-Houston area, but my maternal great-grandfather did not survive the Holocaust. While I feel tremendous love and acceptance in my Galveston community, for the first time in my adult life, I experienced fear earlier this year when the extremists marched in Charlottesville, exclaiming, ‘The Jews will not replace us.’ Never in my lifetime have I heard that sentiment so publicly expressed. Hanukkah matters because it is a celebration of religious freedom. With the rise of antisemitism in our country and throughout the world, the privilege to worship god according to our own unique beliefs, continues to be of utmost importance. I am extremely thankful to celebrate all Jewish holidays and pray that people of all faiths, all over the world, will one day enjoy the same religious freedom.”
Hanukkah 2017 will begin Sunday evening and extend through the evening of Dec. 20. Please see Faith Focus for details on a community Hanukkah event on the island soon.
We’ll give the last word to Meadow Creel, to whom Hanukkah is a new thing.
“Personally, I am new to Judaism, but I find Hanukkah helps us connect to our tradition that is thousands of years in practice,” she said. “I see history and passion for both God and tradition in the flicker of each flame lit.”
Next week in Our Faith: What churches should know about preventing sexual harassment.