As the long, dark December days arrive, Jews gather to remember a miracle that brought light into a troubled world more than 2,000 years ago.
For centuries, Jewish people around the world have retold the story of how a small band of faithful Jews led by Judah Maccabee defeated a powerful Syrian army and then experienced a miracle when rededicating the temple in Jerusalem: one day’s worth of oil provided light for eight nights.
Beginning Sunday, Dec. 2, and continuing through Dec. 10, Jews light menorah candles each evening and retell the story of the Maccabees’ victory.
Hanukkah is a joyful holiday that celebrates Judaism and freedom, but it is also a time for generations to share traditions of food, songs, and games.
Lower School (grades 1 to 3) students at the Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton have found a fresh way to tell the story that is relevant to their generation and to the Jewish storytelling past by writing and recording Hanukkah rap songs.
“It is a voluntary project showing the students’ thoughts about Hanukkah miracles and freedom,” said Eugenia Gerstein, Schechter music teacher. “It is a music language for our days. The children tell the story in their own words. They work in teams to write and then learn to record the song.”
The students delight in sharing their musical creations with parents and grandparents.
“My family shares the [Hanukkah] story every year. My grandparents shared it with my Mom when she was a little kid and now I am sharing it with them,” said 8-year-old Abby Aaronson, whose mother, Heidi, also attended Schechter.
“It is so important for older members of the community to have a sense that Jewish traditions are being passed from generation to generation,” said Lynda Doctoroff Bussgang, director of the Adam and Matan Adelson Multigenerational Program at Hebrew SeniorLife in Dedham. “Seeing younger generations embracing the holiday is important to older adults.”
At the Hebrew SeniorLife Simon C. Fireman Community in Randolph, which provides apartments for low-income seniors, the “Cooking & Kibitizing” program brings residents together with teens from Temple Chayai Shalom in South Easton. Together, the generations cook holiday foods that are fried in oil to connect to the Hanukkah miracle. Potato latkes and jelly-filled doughnuts known as sufganiyot are among the treats that teens and seniors share.
The Chayai Shalom teens perform a mitzvah (religious duty or good deed) by spending time with the seniors, and in the process they discover how the holiday has been celebrated over the generations.
“Potato latkes did not always come frozen from the store,” said Mary McCarthy, director of community life at the Fireman Community. “It was a long process to make them by hand. Our residents talk with teens about the way their families prepared food for Hanukkah and celebrated the holiday.
“Music is an important part of Hanukkah. Our seniors tell stories about the whole family gathering around the piano and singing together. That is very different from the experience of the teens that may be running home from a soccer game in time to light the candles and then off to the next event.”
Sharing the holiday with others is important. Rabbi Zalman Borenstein and his wife, Mushkie, of Anshe Sholom Chabad of Greater Haverhill visit communities across the Merrimack Valley to celebrate the festival of lights with public menorah lighting ceremonies.
“The mitzvah of Hanukkah is to light the menorah when its dark and place it near the window for ‘pirsumei nisa,’ which means ‘publicizing the miracle,’” explained Borenstein. “There is no greater way to publicize the miracle and its message of ‘good over evil,’ ‘light over darkness,’ than by gathering in public in unity and sharing this mitzvah together. For many Jews, this gives them a sense of pride to be able to celebrate their religion openly and proudly.”
Following the public menorah ceremonies, people of all faiths share latkes, doughnuts, dreidel games, songs, and the pride of being part of community that celebrates diversity. Over the past several years, the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Center of Merrimack Valley in Andover and now Anshe Sholom and have brought Hanukkah menorah-lighting celebrations to Amesbury, Andover, Boxford, Haverhill, Middleton, North Andover, Tewksbury, and Westford.
“This year Andover will have its first public menorah,” said Rabbi Asher Bronstein of Chabad Lubavitch, Rabbi Borenstein’s father-in-law. “Each year the mitzvah is to do something new. This year we have added the public Andover menorah.”
For Rabbi Borenstein, the joy of the light of the menorah comes from sharing it with friends and family.
“Each night has a unique message,” he said. “The common theme is to learn from the menorah to always add light and that a little bit of light dispels lots of darkness.”