5 Things You May Not Know About Hanukkah

By Esther D. Kustanowitz

Happy Hannukah from Hebrew Helpers!

We all know about the candles, the dreidel made out of clay or other materials, and the eight crazy nights. We may know about the oil that was found and lasted for eight days, an impressive enough feat to launch our culinary tradition of potato latkes and jelly donuts called sufganiyot. We know that when people refer to “the winter holidays,” they’re talking about Hanukkah (and, increasingly, Kwanzaa). We know that Adam Sandler gave us our most popular modern Hanukkah song and told us that Harrison Ford is a quarter Jewish (not too shabby). And–with thanks to our Christmas-celebrating friends–we’re certainly aware of the tradition of giving presents.

But what might you not know about Hanukkah?

  1. Miracle on First Night of Hanukkah Street. What was the miracle exactly? Finding the oil? That it lasted a full 8 days? Technically, it’s probably the military victory of the Maccabees, who were fighting for religious freedom, but the details are complicated and decidedly non-religious, so the rabbis decided to focus their marketing on the miracle of finding one cruse of oil that should have only lasted one night but lasted eight instead. And while the miracle is traditionally tied to olive oil, customs differ around the world: Indian Jews, for instance, use wicks coated with coconut oil. Read more about some other international customs surrounding Hanukkah here.
  2. The five-sided dreidel. Wait, what? 5 sided dreidel
    Traditionally, a dreidel has four sides each bearing a letter–Nun, Gimmel, Hay and a fourth one that is “Pey” in Israel and “Shin” everywhere else. The letters stand for “Nes Gadol Haya Sham/Poh,” meaning “a great miracle happened there/here,” again, depending on where you are. At a recent conference called Z3–which explores the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jews–they distributed a five-sided dreidel with both “Pey” and “Shin” sides, indicating the close connection that we all have to each other, no matter where we live.
  3. Calling all lactose-tolerant feminists. There’s another story associated with Hanukkah: the story of Judith. A Babylonian general, Holofernes, was on a mission to conquer Judea, so he laid siege to the city of Bethulia, shutting down access to vital supplies. But Judith had a plan: she and a handmaid pretended to surrender and went to his tent with him: she offered him cheese and enough wine that Holofernes fell asleep, and Judith chopped off his head and snuck back into the city. (We know: where was that story when we were in Hebrew school?) According to the story on the Jewish Women’s Archive, “The Jews were emboldened by their bravery. Meanwhile, the enemy army discovered Holofernes’ headless body and fell into a state of panic and confusion. This created the opening for the Jews to launch a successful attack and to defeat the Assyrian forces.” Although this story isn’t connected to the Maccabean revolt, the article points out, the stories share a common theme of military victory by the weak over the strong. And it’s possible the earliest latkes were cheese, in memory of Judith’s bravery. You can read a longer version of Judith’s story at the Jewish Women’s Archive.
  4. There must be 50 ways to love your latkes. Make ‘em with salt, Walt. Make them with cheese, Louise. Give them a bake, Jake. And let yourself eat…Sweet, salty, savory. Dairy, meat, vegan. With sour cream, applesauce, barbecue sauce, ketchup, mustard, cheese. Inflected with Italian flavors, Indian spices, or zaatar. Deep-fried, sauteed in olive oil spray, baked. And Colombian Jews eat fried plantains! There is no Jewish law dictating how you eat latkes–or if you do–so let your latke freak flag fry. That’s right, we said “fry.” (For some more ideas, check out “The Weirdest Ways People Eat Latkes,” over at The Nosher.)
  5. It takes eight (candles) to tango. Instead of the whiny traditional “I have a little dreidel,” why not spice up your Hanukkah song repertoire with “Ocho Candelikas,” a Ladino song about the eight candles. So clench a long-stemmed rose–or luscious and sturdy latke–between your teeth and get your Hannukah tango on with these renditions:

What’s your favorite Hanukkah tradition or reinterpretation? Let us know, and wherever you are this Hanukkah season, we hope you enjoy it a lot(ke).

Esther Kustanowitz is a writer, editor and consultant based in Los Angeles, who has a Star Wars-themed hanukkiyah (Hanukkah menorah).
Happy Hanukkah!

Helpful Hannukah Tips:

Here is a great traditional Latke recipe.

Dreidel Rules!!! Don’t worry, we don’t remember them either.

This new parody by 613 will definitely get you in the mood for Hannuka!

The Traditional Way to Light a Menora

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