Berger’s Burg: Festival of Hanukkah means freedom from one’s oppressors

By Alex Berger

Outside, snow is slowly, softly, falling through the wintry night.

In the house, the brass menorah sparkles with the candlelight.

Children in a circle listen to the wondrous stories told

of the daring Maccabees and the miracles of old.

In the kitchen, pancakes sizzle, turning brown. They’ll soon be done.

Gifts are waiting to be opened — Happy Hanukkah has begun!

There are festivals in many cultures that celebrate a victory over oppression: Bastille Day in France, the Fourth of July in the United States and Hanukkah, observed Dec. 11-19, one of the great military victories of Jewish history. Instead of displaying fireworks and parades, Hanukkah is replete with candlelight and gifts for eight days.

It commemorates the victory in 164 B.C. of Judas Maccabeus and his army over the Syrians, who attempted to annihilate the Jewish religion — the first record of religious persecution in history. In addition to Judah’s and the other Israelis’ valor, the celebration of Hanukkah would not be complete without also recounting the tale of Judith.

This courageous heroine helped save her people by slaying the vicious Syrian general Holofernes with the help of a little cheese. Holofernes was intent on bringing the Jews to the brink of death by depriving them of water and other necessities.

Then the beautiful and resourceful Judith stepped forward and asked to see Holofernes. Taken by Judith’s loveliness and charm, the general invited her to his banquet for two. Judith declined to eat his food — it was not kosher — but brought her own and a wineskin to share with him.

Charmingly, she plied him with salty cheese. As he grew thirsty, she offered him great quantities of wine to quench his thirst.

When Holofernes fell into a drunken stupor, Judith took her host’s sword and cut his head off. She returned to the village, where the now-liberated townspeople hung their oppressor’s head on the wall. When the Syrians found their slain general, they became demoralized and fled in defeat. The land of Israel was saved.

Following the victory, the Jews began rededicating their defiled temple. Among the debris they found one cruse of oil to light the temple for one day. But lights were kindled from it for eight days, the time it took to replenish the oil supply.

Since then, Jews have been celebrating Hanukkah by eating pancakes — latkes — and doughnuts fried in oil. In keeping with this tradition, Jews today eat both and tell the story of the gallant Jew who saved her people.

Traditionally during this holiday, Jewish families gather around the candelabra to light a candle on each night of the eight-day festival. Inasmuch as the ceremony of the kindling of the lights is the most significant phase of the festival, this custom is celebrated in a spirit of reverence and solemnity. The eight candles represent faith, freedom, courage, love, charity, integrity, knowledge and peace.

Question: Have you ever eaten a doughnut and wondered where the hole went? This question has plagued carbohydrate-saturated humanity for years, but the answer still evades us. A similar question is presented by great Jewish thinkers of the past: When one lights a candle in a darkened room, where does the darkness go?

The answer is that darkness has no existence of it own. It is a non-entity and is the absence of light. Once a candle is lit, the darkness disappears. Thus, the lighting of the Hanukkah candles in a darkened room, which illuminates it with the flame of the candles, brings resplendency and wider perspectives to the on-lookers. On the eighth and final day of Hanukkah, the eight burning candles, brightly shining in unison, expel the darkness of winter and bring cheer to the celebrants.

Now, readers, do you know that you do not have to be Jewish to enjoy the traditional food dishes associated with Hanukkah? Yes, you can also follow the disappearing doughnut hole by biting into a warm, plump doughnut filled with jam and topped with powdered sugar. As the old potato chip TV commercial once boasted, “Bet you can’t eat just one.”

You can also light a candle in a darkened room and see the darkness disappear into nothing, a most impressive sight.

And to my Jewish readers: Light the candles, tell the stories of the battles and heroes of old, spin the dreidel, search the house for hidden presents, eat the greasy latkes and doughnuts filled with jam and leave with the traditional bag of chocolate coins.

Happy Hanukkah!

Contact Alex Berger at timesledgernews@cnglocal.com.

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