Local Families Celebrate Hanukkah

For just the fourth time in 100 years, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins on the same day as Christmas this year.  Generally known as the ‘Festival of Lights,’ the word ‘Hanukkah’ means ‘dedication’ in Hebrew.

The holiday commemorates the successful rebellion, in the second century B.C., of the Jewish freedom fighters known as the Maccabees. Israel at the time was ruled by Antiochus, a Greco-Syrian monarch who banned Jews from practicing their faith. When the Jewish temple was desecrated, a war was fought, and the Maccabees, while smaller in number, were victorious.

The connection to lights came a few hundred years later.  Perhaps captured by word of mouth through generations, or perhaps legend, the story was told about a miracle of oil. When the Greeks entered the Jewish temple, they destroyed all of the oil in it. After the Maccabees’ victory, only one bottle remained that was sealed by the high priest. It contained enough oil for one day, yet the oil burned for 8 days, enough time to replenish the supply.  

Local families are preparing to celebrate Hanukkah in their traditional ways. Shaina Masterman, a freshman at T.C. Roberson High, will celebrate Hanukkah with her family in Biltmore Park.  The centerpiece of the Hanukkah celebration is the menorah, a candelabra that holds nine candles. Eight candles symbolize the number of days that the temple lantern burned. The ninth candle, in the middle, is called the shamash, or helper, which is used to light the other candles.

Shaina explained that on the first evening of Hanukkah her family lights the candle on the far right, using the shamash. Each night following, an additional candle is added, lighting the newest one first. The shamash, often seen in the center of the menorah at a different height, remains lit with the other candles.

Her family recites a prayer together in Hebrew, which she has memorized through the years, thanking God for the miracle of oil and for his blessings.

“I love all of the Hanukkah traditions,” she said, “but I’m most happy about our family coming together.” This year, since Hanukkah coincides with Christmas and schools are closed , the Mastermans can celebrate with extended family and friends.

There is nothing low calorie about Hanukkah, and it is traditional to eat fried foods during the holiday because of the significance of oil. That includes potato pancakes, or latkes, a favorite of Shaina’s, often served with applesauce or sour cream. Her grandmother, Barbara Masterman, shared the latkes recipe she prepares for the family.

Matzah ball soup is the favorite of younger sister, Kayla, along with challah, and noodle pudding for dessert. Shaina and Kayla will help their mother, Bernadette, and their grandmother with the cooking.

“We also play a game using a dreidel,” Shaina said. The dreidel is a 4-sided top with Hebrew letters on each side to represent a word from the phrase “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham,” Hebrew for “A great miracle happened there.” The winner receives chocolate coins wrapped in gold paper called gelt, meaning ‘money’ in Hebrew.

Some records show the practice of handing out gelt goes back to 17th century Poland. It is a reminder that the Jews were free to mint their own coins in their own state after the Maccabean revolt, and the land around Jerusalem was governed by Jewish kings for about a century.

Kayla admitted she also enjoys exchanging gifts on each of the 8 days of Hanukkah. Jews traditionally exchanged gifts on Purim, but in the late 19th century, when Christmas became a national holiday here, and Santa Claus a focus for children, the practice of exchanging gifts at Hanukkah was added.  “I recall as a child being so excited to receive the gifts each day,” Michael Masterman said. “Some days the gifts were very small, but it was just fun to receive a package.”

Kayla is currently in her last stage of study for her Bat Mitzvah and is learning to read from the Torah. “Learning to read Hebrew is hard,” she said, “because the language doesn’t have any vowels.”  Unlike other Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is not a particularly religious event with much scripture reading or time spent at the temple.

Kayla recalled Hanukkah a few years ago when the family was staying in their log home in Black Mountain. A snow storm came, and the family was snowed in.  “All day we just stayed home together, sleigh riding down the driveway, eating and playing games.” Kayla hopes this Hanukkah will also include a lot of family time, eating, playing and just being together with loved ones.

by Mary Koppenheffer