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An old saying eruditely sums up many Jewish holidays, among them Hannukah: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”
It is an oversimplified way of describing Hannukah, of course; many Jews have warm memories of hannukiyot, dreidels and latkes that families bring out at this time of year. But like so many holidays, the Festival of Light as we know it today has complicated origins.
The commonly referenced story stems from the miracle that supposedly occurred shortly after the victory of Judah Maccabee over the Seleucids in the second century BCE.
At the re-dedication of the temple, only one vial of oil – enough for one day’s light – could be found. But once the temple menorah was illuminated, it remained lit for eight.
Arik Luck, cantor at Beth Emet synagogue, 1224 Dempster St., suggests that the “miracle” component to the Hannukah story may originate with medieval rabbis’ discomfort with the militaristic nature of the story.
“The Maccabees themselves were looked at as warriors and as being unfit ‘religious’ characters,” Mr. Luck said. “They began teaching the Jews to look upon that event as a ‘miracle.’”
The victory, he added, really began to be widely recognized and celebrated with the advent of the Zionist movement.
“Israel, for example, re-embraced that with their sports teams, and there’s also the Maccabi Games, which are essentially the Jewish Olympics,” said Mr. Luck.
“That all is obviously not an Orthodox take on Hannukah,” he added.
Other sources have suggested that the eight-day celebration might have originated when the Jews, fresh off their victory, decided to play catch-up with their calendar, said Naomi Weiss, an Evanston-based cantorial soloist.
“They were at war, so they had not been celebrating any of their festivals. At that time of year, what’s the closest festival? Sukkot, which lasts eight days,” said Ms. Weiss.
Hannukah has a relatively minor status on the Jewish calendar. But since it falls so close to Christmas, many Jews historically had used it as an excuse for gift-giving. Ms. Weiss attributed that largely to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
“Many Jews, when they heard that song, thought that it meant we should be giving gifts for eight days,” she said. “This whole lack of dialogue between the two religions resulted in huge misperceptions.”
These days, most families have their own traditions associated with the holidays. “When I was growing up, our big gift-giving time was Passover,” said Ms. Weiss.
She added, however, that Hannukah is one of Judaism’s most comforting times of year, celebrating light at a time when days are darkest. “This year, everything is falling late, so it will begin very close to the solstice.”
To celebrate, Beth Emet is inviting the community to a concert on Dec. 20 by ShirLala as she performs her “outrageously hip Jewish music for kids” beginning at 5:30 p.m.
Mr. Luck called ShirLala, a.k.a. Shira Klein, “the premier early childhood Jewish singer going right now,” adding that the concert was going to be “incredibly interactive for families – there’s a lot of singing, dancing and movement. She wants you to experience the concert and looks beyond the constraints of your ears.” The concert is free.
Beth Emet’s youth program will host a dinner following the concert; it costs $6 per person or $20 maximum per family. All proceeds will benefit the Childcare Network of Evanston. For more information, call 847-869-4230.
On Thursday, Dec. 22, Evanstonians will gather at 5:30 p.m. by a 10-foot-tall hannukiyah at the intersection of Davis Street and Sherman and Orrington avenues. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl will help light the hannukiyah and offer greetings at this ceremony sponsored by the Tannenbaum Chabad House, 2014 Orrington Ave. The event will feature refreshments and musical entertainment. More information is available at 847-869-8060.