When I was a college student living in the dormitory, one of my favorite times of the year was Chanukah. Starting from the evening of the twenty-fifth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, over one-hundred girls who called the dorm home came down to the front lounge, where long, foil-covered tables were set up in full view of the street, to light Chanukah lecht (candles or lights).
For eight nights the front lounge was softly lit with the light from hundreds of Chanukah lights. It did not matter if that light came from a sturdy iron menorah you brought with you from home that used olive oil and wicks or a cheap aluminum menorah you purchased in the dorm’s convenience store with a box of multicolored candles. Saying the blessings and watching the lights burn together, remembering the miracles that occurred in Jewish history during that time, that was what counted. Everyone was friendlier and more cheerful by candlelight, even if finals were around the corner and assignments were due the next day. Girls brought their dreidels downstairs to play around the low tables and ate sufganiyot, traditional jelly doughnuts fried in oil, provided by the school.
We sang Chanukah songs and discussed the story of how a small group of Jews called the Maccabees (incidentally, our school sports teams and acapella group were named for these famous warriors) rose up from the oppression of the Syrian-Greeks during the time of the second Temple. Antiochus, their king, had issued restrictive edicts punishable by death preventing Jews from practicing their religion, including outlawing the Jewish Sabbath and most importantly, installing and worshiping idols in the Holy Temple. Judah Maccabee and his followers fought back, winning the battle against the massive Syrian-Greek army with their small band of soldiers.
After the fight, when Judah went to re-dedicate the Temple after its desecration and light the great Temple menorah, he could not find any of the special oil used. All bottles appeared to have been smashed during the desecration. After a thorough search, a tiny bottle of oil that would only be enough for one day was found still sealed. That oil burned for exactly eight days and nights, the amount of time required to produce a new batch of oil. To remember this miracle, Jews eat foods fried in olive oil, such as the aforementioned sufganiyot and potato pancakes called latkes. The dreidel has the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hay, and shin on each of its sides, which stands for ”neis gadol hayah sham,” or “a great miracle happened there”. Though I am not in the dorm this year, I will make time to pass by, look through the front windows at the long table of lights, and remember.
Chanukah began at sundown on Sunday, December 6th and ends at sundown Monday December 14th.
Contributed by: Toby Krausz, Judaica Librarian, Midtown