It’s not unusual for visitors outside of Judaism to come by the synagogue to ask if our gift shop sells Hanukkah candles for lighting the special menorah (candelabra) each night for eight days.
Why would folks from outside our faith want to purchase Hanukkah ritual items?
Quite simple. They have Jewish grandchildren and the grandparents want to learn about Judaism and be supportive at Hanukkah because they understand from a Christian perspective that these December holidays hold great power. These blessed Christian grandparents are setting an outstanding example of respect and ecumenicism that is sorely needed these days.
They may not be aware of the actual history of the revolt of the Maccabees against the Greek Seleucid authorities in 165 BCE and the retaking of the land of Judea and the the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. For them, the fact that Hanukkah is about an ancient fight for political and religious freedom is secondary.
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To light the Menorah each night for eight nights and to sing Hanukkah songs and eat Hanukkah foods creates its own magic that invites Christian grandparents into a new and beautiful religious tradition. It is an example of American pluralism at its best. The children stare in wonder at the beautiful, multi-colored candles each night until the eighth night, when all the candles of the Menorah are lit. The fully lit Menorah is a sight to behold.
Jewish children love the idea of the presents they receive, sometimes a present each night. They eat latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts (sufganiyot), spin a special four sided spinning top called a dreidel with a Hebrew letter on each side that forms a sentence that means “A great miracle happened there.” This refers to the miracle of Hanukkah, in which the oil that lit the great Menorah in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which had been rendered unfit after the Greeks defiled the Temple, lasted eight days.
After Jewish forces exiled the Greek Seleucids, they cleaned ,purified and rededicated (the origin of the word Hanukkah) the Temple. They only had enough special sacred oil to keep the Menorah lit for one night. Yet, it stayed lit for eight, which gave birth to the story of the miracle of Hanukkah.
Jewish history has always celebrated with pride the Maccabees’ courage to stand against the Seleucids. Countless generations of Jewish families have relied on Hanukkah to remind Jewish children that Jews are strong and that Hanukkah is a holiday of great Jewish pride. This is especially so in recent memory with the existence of the state of Israel. Hanukkah is all about building and fortifying Jewish identity.
Another effect of Hanukkah is using the theme of light from the Menorah, which imbues every child and family with a sense of hope that our world is a sacred place and that despite the challenges we face in a sometimes dangerous world, we still believe that light can resonate and inspire us all to find the sacred and holy in ourselves as well as in our neighbors.
Jewish or Christian grandparents can do a lot to support their Jewish grandchildren on Hanukkah beyond giving them presents.
First, education is primary. Find a Hanukkah book for younger kids and read them a story.
One of the best books on the history of Hanukkah in American culture is called “Hanukkah in America” by Diane Ashton. She reminds us that no matter what people choose to emphasize about Hanukkah, this holiday reveals the presence of God in history. The miracle of the lights lasting for eight nights is one that has captured the imagination of Jewish children and families for millennium and still does so today.
Hanukkah also inspires a charity element that we can give to others less fortunate at this time of the year. Help children identify a project where they can be generous to those in need.
Buy your own menorah and multi-colored candles so that when grandchildren come to your house, you can invite them to join you in lighting the candles each night. Purchasing the dreidels and the chocolate Hanukkah coins (gelt in Yiddish) and sitting down at the table or on the floor with the little ones and spinning the dreidel is fun.
For Jewish kids to have their non-Jewish grandparents affirm their religious heritage is an act of love and devotion.
Religion should capture our imagination and instill wonder in us at any age. Hanukkah gives multiple generations a chance to unite around the universal theme of light and hope as well as to celebrate Jewish pride and renewal.
Thanks to all the Christian grandparents and parents who are making a difference by supporting and honoring their Jewish children and grandchildren’s religious identity.
They do so much good, and not only for their beloved grandchildren.
They also teach that America is an accepting country for all faiths and that faith, hope and pride in one’s religious history is a blessing for building a foundation for a healthy spiritual identity in America.