Large outdoor versions of the Hanukkah menorah, a 9-light candelabrum, have become a familiar December sight in towns and cities across the country. On the first night of Hanukkah, a single candle is lit from the shamash, the “helper” or “servant” candle. An additional one is lit the following night, and another the next night, and so on, until all 8 candles, plus the shamash, are aglow.
Although a public menorah often stands near a public Christmas tree, Hanukkah is not the Jewish version of Christmas. It’s a “minor holiday,” which happens to fall about the same time of year as other folks put up their Christmas lights.
Hanukkah has less religious significance than the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah (in September) and Passover (in March or April). But its timing is perfect as a means of community inclusion. And like a Christmas tree, the menorah is a celebration of light.
Brooke Freeman of Temple Or Hadash in Fort Collins—“a mother, president of the congregation, and one half of an interfaith marriage”—believes the menorah display is a good thing, especially for children. “At a time when Christmas is bringing together other families, it gives our children a time to celebrate, to be proud of who they are. Especially in this day, any reason to celebrate—major or minor—is an opportunity we should take.”
Freeman appreciates the sense of inclusion that’s created by the menorah display. The public menorah “raises awareness that there is a Jewish community present. Opening up avenues for conversation is a good thing—inviting people to ask questions. A public display, whether for Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa, is a good way to spark such conversations.”
The public lighting ceremony strengthens Jewish ties, too, she says: “Jewish families can gather to meet each other and feel a sense of support and community.”
About half of the members of Temple Or Hadash (http://templeorhadash.org/), led by Rabbi Hillel Katzir, are interfaith families. Brooke Freeman’s own family is one of them.
“I was born and raised Jewish. But my husband is not. We don’t celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday (neither does his family), but it may be the one time during the year when my in-laws, my brother-in-law and the cousins all travel from across the country to spend a few days together to celebrate. These are memories my children will cherish, and they don’t seem to have an issue separating the holidays or having it affect their Jewish identity.”
Respect for both traditions is vital to the family. “We honor both sides of my children’s heritage…otherwise, what would that say about me as a Jew if I was not tolerant of my spouse’s traditions or didn’t participate with his family? Plus, honestly, we have so much fun, why not?”
Why Eight Candles?
The origin of Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah), an 8-day-long celebration, dates back about 2,200 years. That’s when the Maccabee Jews managed to wrest control of their holy Temple in Jerusalem from the Greek king Antiochus, who tried to wipe out Judaism and force the Jews into worshipping the Greek god Zeus.
Although hugely outnumbered by the Greek forces, the Maccabee Jews succeeded in retaking their Temple (the “Second Temple,” built after the first temple—the Temple of Solomon—was destroyed by the Babylonians).
A menorah was already part of the Temple. Its making had been decreed by Moses at the time of the Exodus, centuries earlier, complete with detailed description of how it was to be shaped. The pure gold menorah had 6 branches, plus the shamash, with oil-holding cups “shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms.”
But when the Maccabee Jews reoccupied the Temple, they could find only one small container of olive oil, enough to light the menorah for a single day. Amazingly, the candelabrum continued to burn…for eight days and nights. That was exactly the length of time needed to procure more oil. The lights never went out.
Today’s Hanukkah menorah has 8 branches, plus the shamash, progressively illuminated at Hanukkah to commemorate the rededication of the Temple—and the meager bit of oil that somehow lasted for 8 days.
Everyone is welcome to attend the lighting of menorah and enjoy traditional Hanukkah foods, music, and more at these events. Free outdoor events will be held on December 13, 5:00 p.m., Loveland Museum, 503 North Lincoln Avenue, Loveland; December 17, 4:30 p.m., Old Town Square, Fort Collins; December 18, 5:30 p.m., 9th Street Plaza, Greeley; and December 19, 5:30 p.m., Bond Park, 170 MacGregor Avenue, Estes Park.
Temple Or Hadash, 1200 Raintree Drive, Fort Collins, invites everyone, “whether they be Jewish or just interested in seeing what we do,” to a Hanukkah celebration on December 15 at 8:15 p.m. A family service by Rabbi Katzir will be followed by a menorah lighting (bring yours, if you have one!), and Hanukkah favorites—latkes, donuts, gelt (chocolate coins). Free.
Chabad Jewish Center of Northern Colorado, 1121 W. Prospect Rd., Fort Collins, is having a Community Hanukkah Party and Giant Menorah Lighting on December 12 at 5:00 p.m. For more info, see http://www.jewishnco.com/templates/articlecco_cdo/aid/338179/jewish/Community-Chanukah-Party.htm