Jewish holiday honors victory against foe
Butler Eagle
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December 12, 2012
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Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer lights a guitar-shaped menorah Tuesday at Congregation B'nai Abraham in Butler. The Jewish Festival of Lights, better known as Hanukkah, began at sundown Saturday.

Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday honoring a victory against an attack on Jewish culture, has itself become a weapon in the fight against assimilation.

That's the opinion of two area Jewish spiritual leaders on the increased prominence of the Festival of Lights, an eight-day holiday that began at sundown Saturday.

Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the rebel Jewish Maccabees over the Syrian/Greeks of the Seleucid Empireand the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C., said Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer, who heads the Congregation B'nai Abraham, 519 N. Main St.

“When the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple from the Syrian/Greeks, the Temple had been desecrated, and there was only enough holy oil to light the menorah for one day. But it lasted eight days. We call this miracle Hanukkah, which means rededication,” said Gray-Schaffer.

She said the Seleucid ruler Antiochus, to consolidate his rule in Palestine, had forbidden Jewish practices and desecrated the Temple hoping to impose Greek culture on the populace.

Instead, she said, the people revolted led by the priestly Hasmonean family, one of whose sons was known Judah Maccabee or Judah the Hammer.

Rabbi Howie Stein, the religious school administrator for 120 students in grades kindergarten through 10th grade at Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park, said that until recently, Hanukkah “certainly was one of the minor festivals, but certainly has gotten renewed prominence because of its proximity to Christmas.”

“It's a very small kind of holiday,” said Gray-Schaffer. “It's grown recently because Jewish parents try to keep their kids interested in Jewish customs when the Christmas culture is so pervasive.”

Hanukkah's custom of giving children small gifts on each of its eight nights made it a counterpoint to the Christian gift-giving holiday, she said.

Stein said observance of that tradition varies, but “the more modern observation, in a large part, that's in response to living with people who celebrate Christmas.”

“The practice of giving gifts on Hanukkah is mostly an American tradition,” said Stein. And whether that's eight gifts for each night of the holiday or one gift, the gift-giving is confined to children.

“It's a way to avoid assimilation, although some people are saying you are assimilating by making a big deal out of it,” said Gray-Schaffer. But she noted modern Israelis are celebrating Hanukkah more because they can identify with the Maccabees winning out over a more numerous foe.

The observance, said Stein, “also touches on some important themes. The story of the Maccabees who were willing to fight against overwhelming odds. Their victory gives us a pride in our heritage and the rededication of the Temple makes us ask ourselves how can we rededicate ourselves to Judaism and God?”

Hanukkah is observed by lighting candles on a nine-branched candelabrum, called a menorah, said Gray-Schaffer, one additional candle on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night.

In addition, said Stein there are special prayers for the holiday.

“Traditionally, Jews pray three times a day, every day,” said Stein. “When something like Hanukkah comes along, there are special prayers added to the service, but it is not a special service onto itself.”

Other Hanukkah traditions include eating potato pancakes called latkes and sufganiyot, ball-shaped doughnuts that are deep-fried, then injected with jelly or custard.

And Jewish children play games with a four-sided top called a dreidel. The game pieces are often gold foil-wrapped chocolate, said Gray-Schaffer, called gelt.

Hanukkah is a happy holiday, said Jack Cohen, president of the Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau and one of the founders of the Cranberry Jewish Community.

The association will gather Dec. 16 at the Marriott North on Route 228 to share food and fellowship to mark the holiday's end.

“It still has a religious overtone, but it's a happy holiday,” said Cohen. “It's not one where you are atoning for your sins like Yom Kippur. Each holiday has a different meaning.”

“All peoples have a holiday around the winter solstice when it's the least light of the year,” said Gray-Schaffer. “As with Christmas, you put a holiday of lights when you need the light the most.”