Many stories, traditions for Hanukkah
submitted photo Ricki Carroll of Ashfield invites friends and family to her house for Hanukkah, lighting all the candles the first night on as many as 50 menorahs. They keep a fire extinguisher on hand.
For each and every candle being lit around the world at sundown this evening at the start of the eight-day Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, there’s at least one story, a tradition, an interpretation.
Here’s one of them, from Colrain musician and storyteller Joe Kurland:
For three children whose families were so poor they could only afford boiled potatoes night after night, the delicious aroma of potato latkes — potato pancakes — wafting from the home of the rich man in the community as they walked home after classes, was a Hanukkah gift more magical and special than the miracle of the tiny flask of menorah oil lasting eight days.
Night after night, these kids stopped at the rich man’s open window to soak up the smell of onions and potatoes fried in oil, a fragrance so lovely it stirred their most delicious imaginations. Who’d believe that on the eighth night, as they sniffed, the man would yell out that these children were thieves, taking in the smell of his latkes without paying.
“‘You have to pay for smelling my latkes! I’ve paid for the ingredients, for the cook’,” says Kurland, retelling the story. So the children get called before the town’s rabbi, who listens to the case against them and rules in the rich man’s favor. Their parents are told to pay — something they can’t afford to do. So the entire town takes up a collection, and their coins are placed in a bag. The rabbi holds it high for the rich man to approach.
The rabbi shakes the bag, jingling the coins.
“For smelling your latkes, you have been paid by the sound of the coins,” says the rabbi.
10 Jews, two dozen opinions
If this traditional tale of Hanukkah captures part of the essence of this minor holiday, it’s not the only one.
Kurland, one of 10 Jewish residents from around the county asked to recount a favorite memory, story or interpretation of the holiday — which commemorates the rededication of the original Temple after it was ransacked by the Syrians — had another one also that he shared a number of years back when former Arms Librarian Lou Battalen invited him to participate in the “holiday” party at the Shelburne Falls library, to balance out all the Christmas stories.
“I don’t like the idea of Hanukkah being singled out from the Jewish calendar as so important. It’s all out of proportion,” he scoffed.
Kurland came up with his own story, “Hanukkah, The Least Important Holiday,” in which all of the many Jewish holidays vie for God’s attention, and, after throwing a tantrum at hearing it’s the least important holiday, Hanukkah is told, “You’ll be the ‘festival of light’ and come at the time of year when you’re most needed.”
Repaying the children
Kurland’s wife, Peggy Davis, offered her favorite story, an explanation for why the traditional Hanukkah gift is “gelt,” money, for children. Legend has it that when the Temple in Jerusalem was being rededicated, children were among those who donated their coins to the effort.
“Giving coins today is a way of repaying those children,” Davis said. “It’s a time-travel feeling. By giving them, it’s a real connection. But we’ve gotten away from that by giving chocolate coins.”
Yet Richard Parmet of Shelburne Falls said, “I wasn’t too fond of tying money to Hanukkah. To me, it’s got a lot to do with the aspect of liberty and freedom (of religious beliefs.) That’s the political aspect I like.”
There are as many interpretations of the eight-day Jewish holiday as there are those celebrating — maybe more.
Keep a light shining
Ben Weiner of Deerfield, the rabbi at the Jewish Community of Amherst, says, “It’s the miracle part, the candle for eight days part, that means the most to me: How you keep that flame going in the midst of the darkest of seasons, or the midst of the people persecuting you, or limited resources.”
As a holiday, Weiner says, Hanukkah has a funny place in the Jewish tradition.
“You can make the argument that the original rabbis didn’t like it. If you read a modern historical reading, it turns out that it wasn’t actually a foreign conquest, it was an internal civil war between different groups and Jews. And the ones that won, the Macabees, were a bunch of religious zealots. You start to question who are your heroes in this story. So there are a lot of ways in which the traditional history in the story doesn’t make that much sense to me anymore. The light that lasted for eight days was never mentioned at all, until the rabbis in the Talmud say the miracle was the light that lasted for all eight days.”
That, more than the story of a great military victory, has more resonance for many contemporary Jews like Weiner, especially in hard times — economic, environmental, political — when people struggle with how to keep a light shining.
“It seems like a lot of times, the spiritual struggle for people that are aware of what goes on in the world, is how do you stay positive, knowing that life is a good thing, when lots bad things are going on? You’ve got this little flame, and it’s got a lot going against it …”
Also, Weiner believes, the candlelight can represent “an attempt to maintain a sense of one’s Jewishness …. a little flicker of your own individuality, of your uniqueness, in a place where you have this overwhelming other culture that seems dominant.”
Archie Nahman of Greenfield, a Sephardic Jew who grew up in northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, recalls hardly ever seeing a menorah at home, but having his mother fill small cups with oil in which she placed wicks of cotton wool.
Nahman also recalls going to a synagogue holiday party in his community of Mufulira, where the women baked cakes to be auctioned off as a fundraiser, and each child was given a book as a gift.
“We never got gifts at home for Hanukkah,” recalls Nahman, who despite growing up without a menorah, has gone on to become a menorah maker, creating about six menorahs a year.
Light of giving
Deborah Habib of Orange says she likes to make latkes with blue potatoes, parsnips, squash and leeks — “using as many of the seasonal vegetables that we’ve grown.” And instead of topping them with applesauce, she follows her Sephardic instincts and uses other fruits and juices, like a pomegranate syrup.
Habib, who grew up singing the Sephardic “Ocho Kandelikas,” in Ladino, — a tradition she maintains— has also continued another ritual of sorts: picking one night of the eight-day celebration to choose with family members which cause to make a charitable donation to.
“One of the nights of Chanukah we sit down, both as a nuclear family and with my extended family, and decide as a family what cause to make a contribution to,” says Habib. “We decide on the cause together, and we give the kids a lot of say in how we make that decision.”
In addition, as they light their Hanukkah candles, the family lights candles each night for a particular hope or value.
For the past 35 years or so, Ricki Carroll has been taking out her collection of menorahs and turning them into a multi-tiered “menorah mountain” inviting friends and family into her Ashfield home along with their own menorahs, always lighting all eight candles —since some Jews prefer to start the holiday with eight candles and subtract one, rather than adding, each night.
“To add a bit of humor into the celebration, I top it off with a moose menorah,” says Carroll, an artist who has made several menorahs over the years. The BYOM celebration always starts with the mountain being lit from the top down — maybe 50 menorahs in all — with hundreds of candles and a fire extinguisher always nearby.
“Before we light candles, I talk about the dark times we live in,” reflects Carroll. “I talk about the stars in my life who shine benefiting all of humanity. For me this is a holiday not only about miracles that happened long ago ... it is about the traditions we create to help hold us while moving ... towards the light.”
Often out of the otherwise-darkened room, one of the “elders” speaks, the assembled friends and family members sing around the lighted table, “about light, love and about this community.”
An important role to play
And in South Deefield artist Jane Trigere adapted the concept of a pinata and created a “sivivon pele” — a miraculous dreydel — that she made from a cardboard box covered in wrapping paper 25 years ago. Her grandchildren pull one of the strings hanging down from the dreydel and a treasure of candy and other goodies showers down.
But Trigere has another goodie: her children’s story, “The Little Lion Who Ran Away,” inspired by the large brass menorah she saw being assembled at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
Watching a maintenance worker screw in the three little lions at the menorah’s base, she imagined one of the lions running off, taking the elevator to the rare books room, where it encountered the images of lions in some of those books.
“It must be great fun for all of you to be together,” says the lion, which is told that they usually spend their lives closed up in the separate books. He then runs off to Columbia University, and marvels at spotting a statue of a lion standing there — until the statue explains that it’s stuck there.
Finally, the runaway sees two lions in front of Columbia’s Butler Library and tells them, “You must be very important lions to be guarding this huge library.” But what’s so important about having a bicycle locked onto a ring in its nose? he’s asked.
And so he runs back to his Hanukkah party, smelling the latkes and joining his two fellow lions holding up the base of the menorah, knowing he has an important role to play.
Marion Cotton of Greenfield remembers her mother telling her about when she was growing up in Russia, she didn’t have a menorah, but used eight potatoes to hold the candles. When Cotton was growing up, she had a menorah, but received only one present of “Hanukkah gelt” for the entire eight-day holiday. Her children were given a present each night, except for the year when they were given the choice of what organization would receive a donation in their name.
“I knew they were disappointed, so we waited until the last night and then we gave them what we knew they really wanted,” she said.
Dan Brown grew up listening to Hanukkah music sung by his father who had immigrated from Eastern Europe. He would sing each night after lighting the menorah but before distributing presents. The ritual seemed to go on for an “excruciating” three or four hours but, he later realized, took just 15 minutes.
Then my father had a stroke when he was about 96 and that knocked out his musical memories, recalls Brown, a Greenfield artist who realized that he’d heard those songs for so many decades that he’d memorized all of them. Some of the songs had been passed down through generations, and suddenly, Brown says, he found himself in his 50s singing them back to his father.
He sang along, but it was very fitfully, Brown recalls. “He was searching his memory, and there was a recognition that these were Hanukkah songs. But it was a very poignant process, singing together like teaching a child to sing a song. It was like returning a favor after all these years.”