Hanukkah is a joyous holiday, celebrated every year by Jews around the world with the lighting of candles or wicks in olive oil on a candelabra called a “menorah”, or “hanukkiya* in modern Hebrew.
Traditional Hanukkah treats include potato latkes, called plyatsky or deruny in Ukrainian, and sufganiyot, doughnuts with jam, called pampushky in Ukrainian. There is also a tradition to give Hannukah gelt—coins, and more recently gifts— to children. And there is a special Hanukkah dreidel game. A dreidel is a top, or dzyga in Ukrainian.
Hanukkah is actually a relatively minor Jewish holiday. There are no religious restrictions on work … other than a few minutes after lighting the candles.
In North America, however, as a symbol of Jewish identity, Hanukkah has assumed a place equal to Passover … largely due to its proximity on the calendar to Christmas. As a result, in this part of the world, Hanukkah has integrated several Christmas-related customs … in particular, extensive gift-giving and Hanukkah parties. The lit menorah is displayed in windows or at the doors of Jewish houses during the festival, alongside neighbouring Christmas lights.
In Ukraine during Soviet times, Judaism could not be practiced freely … so there was no way to buy a menorah. It wasn’t even possible to see a menorah in museums, as it was considered a forbidden religious item. Yet the tradition was kept secretly. Even Jewish prisoners in Soviet jails and concentration camps stubbornly sought a way out to fulfill the commandment. If they were not able to find candles or a vessel to fill with oil, they made Hanukkah lights out of a half potato with sunflower oil and wicks out of cotton.
Hanukkah, known as the Festival of Dedication and also the Festival of Lights, commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians in 165 B.C.E. The Syrian invaders wanted Jews to renounce their G-d and turn to idolatry.
Hanukkah also honours the memory of the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple had been defiled by the Syrians who, among other things, erected a statue of Zeus in the Temple.
An integral part of the Temple service was keeping the lights of the golden menorah burning all the time. Only high quality olive oil produced by priests in ritual purity was acceptable to be used in this service.
The tradition tells us that when the Temple was re-captured by Jews, only one small vessel of consecrated oil was found—enough for just one day. The oil was immediately lit and, miraculously, it sufficed for eight days until new oil was prepared. Jewish sages established Hanukkah as a festival for this length of time to commemorate the miracle, and the triumph against religious oppression.
Today, as in years past, lighting the menora is the essence of celebrating Hanukkah. Every Hanukkah night Jewish families get together to light the menorahs—with oil to commemorate the miracle of the Temple, or with usual candles. Each night of the festival an additional candle is lit until on the last night, eight candles are burning. Each candle has its own special meaning.
On the First Night: A Light for Freedom
On the Second Night: A Light for Tolerance
On the Third Night: A Light for Peace
On the Fourth Night: A Light for Courage
On the Fifth Night: A Light for Knowledge
On the Sixth Night: A Light for Charity
On the Seventh Night: A Light for Responsibility
On the Eighth Night: A Light for Continuity
Today Jews in Ukraine celebrate Hanukkah freely. The Jewish community gatherings on Hanukkah demonstrate the triumph of the deeply-held belief in the Almighty over totalitarianism … just as with the first Hanukkah, faith triumphed over idolatry and oppression.
On this Hanukkah, as on every Hanukkah, Jews wish for each other to be blessed with Light and Peace in all homes, and for Peace around the World.