FORT WORTH, Texas, December 24, 2014 — Today, Christmas Eve, is also the eighth and final day of the Festival of Lights or Chanukah.
Raised as a Christian, I did not know many Jews while growing up, so my knowledge about the faith and holiday is limited. The stories I heard told me that when forbidden to live and practice their faith the Jews rebelled. When the reigning Greek king demanded they worship the pagan Greek gods, the Jewish people refused.
Antiochus then gave the Jewish people an ultimatum: either give up their Jewish customs or face death. Antiochus then marched his troops into Jerusalem and desecrated the holy Temple.
The Maccabees, led by Judah, revolted against the Syrian-Greeks and took back the Temple. In the midst of restorations, they found the menorah on the altar was empty and there was only enough consecrated oil to burn for one day. The miracle of Chanukah is that the one day’s worth of oil stayed lit for eight days, the amount of time it takes to consecrate more oil.
That amazing event made me want to know more. Research took me to Destination Yisra’el where I learned that the American Founding Fathers were great admirers of Judah and the Maccabees. I also turned to my good friend and colleague Caryn FitzGerald who is Jewish. I’ve learned much about Judaism from knowing her.
My family had the honor to see her daughter Sami become Bat-Mitzvah a couple of years ago. It was the first time I’ve been to a Jewish religious service of any kind.
A couple of weeks later began Chanukah. My family attended the first night community festival with the FitzGerald’s Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth. We learned, sang, and watched a musical and broke bread. It was truly a wonderful experience. Caryn also told me about Chanukah traditions in her family.
The fragrance of latkes (potato pancakes) filled the air along with sufganiot (deep-fried, jelly-filled doughnuts) as well as a special meal prepared by her mother.
Her father worked in Manhattan and it took some time for him to travel to their home from the city. The celebrating wouldn’t start until he got there. On the first night of Chanukah, Caryn’s grandmother would often travel from the Bronx to celebrate with them too.
Waiting for Christmas was torturous when I was a kid. I can’t imagine waiting once a day for eight days for gifts, though we Christian kids thought Jewish kids had it made with their eight days of presents to our one.
Once dad was home the family festivities would start. First came prayers, and then the menorah was lit and placed in the window before dinner. All the gifts for each of the eight nights were out and the children would pick one from the pile each day. They played with the dreidel (a spinning top), ate chocolate candy coins called Gelt that came wrapped in gold or silver foil while singing songs.
A dreidel and gelt
There was food, dancing, singing, and games at the temple for the first night of Chanukah. I told her that I had seen the Rugrat’s Chanukah special and asked if it was like that. She rolled her eyes and chuckled and said the show did not depict her experiences.
She does believe that Chanukah’s miracle shows that G-d is reminding Jews that He is here with and for them, showing there is something bigger going on than just what occurs in the confines of mortal life, and He cares about what happens.
Then I wondered why Christians don’t celebrate Chanukah. As a devout Jew, Jesus celebrated it. The New Testament even mentions Chanukah in John 10:22.
Judah lived long before anyone followed Jesus. On Saturday the rabbi said that Jews wouldn’t exist now if not for that rebellion and victory over the Greeks-Syrians. That also means there wouldn’t be any Christians.
Judaism is the spiritual ancestor of Christianity. Jesus is a Jew. He never quit being one. He never renounced Judaism. To me Judaism is part of my religious heritage.
Many say that Chanukah, a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, wouldn’t be a big deal if not for Christmas, and maybe so. On the surface they look very different. Yet light is the common theme of both.
That one day’s worth of oil not only burned for eight; think of what it did for the faith of Judah and the other faithful.
Christians believe that Jesus is the Light of the World. He came to defeat spiritual darkness and death.
Both traditions represent the defeat of the darkness in our lives, one way or another, showing that G-d is ever present in them.
In both of our holidays, we all thank and offer prayers to G-d for His goodness and love. We pass customs on to teach our children who we are: Jews by birthright and faith and Christians by faith alone.
I wish all my Jewish readers a very Happy Chanukah, chag Chanukah sameach! May the blessings of the holiday shine in your lives always. L’Chaim!