Taste of Freedom: Hanukkah - #102

BURT WOLF: Most of our holidays and celebrations were developed to mark the cycles of nature and they have taken place in traditional forms for centuries.

They bind the past to the present and predict the future. They are a basic part of every society that has ever existed.

But when these ceremonies arrived in America, they started to change. No longer controlled by convention these ancient celebrations began to evolve. They had gotten their first Taste of Freedom and they would never be the same.


BURT WOLF: During the Jewish month of Kislev, Jews throughout the world light Hanukkah candles in memory of a battle that took place in 165 B.C.  A Jewish clan known as the Maccabees won a battle against the King of Syria, which allowed them to return to Jerusalem and rededicate a sacred temple that had been sacked and burned. The encounter was part of a rebellion by the Maccabees.

RABBI JEFFREY WOHLBERG ON CAMERA: It was a rebellion doomed to failure because it was a small group of guerrillas against the greatest armed might of the world. And ultimately, they could not win.  But they won some battles and some significant victories.  They were able to recapture the Temple. And in 165 before the Common Era, they cleansed the Temple, they removed the statue, they rededicated the Temple to God, their God, the God, our God, and they celebrated a festival.  According to the tradition that grew up, there was only enough sacred oil found to last one day and the sacred oil miraculously lasted eight days and we celebrate that miracle and the rededication of the Temple. The word Hanukkah itself means dedication or re-dedication. 

BURT WOLF: But it was not just a battle against the religious oppression of the Syrian King. It was also a battle against assimilation—the acceptance of Greek Hellenist culture by Jews.

RABBI WOHLBERG ON CAMERA: The Maccabees didn't rebel because they wanted political independence.  They lost. Jews had lost political independence centuries before and they were not about to get it back.  They were rebelling because Judaism was outlawed.  They were rebelling not only because Judaism was outlawed but because they were seeing assimilation all around them.  Hellenism was a dominant culture, very significant, and it was very attractive.  It was new and it was upbeat and it was worldly.  And so, Jews were attracted to it.  And Jews who should've known better were participating in the Greek games, they were speaking Greek, they were adopting Greek culture and Greek attitudes. And in doing that, they were abandoning Judaism.  So the Maccabees were fighting on two fronts, as it were:  the external front against this domination and the internal front against assimilation.

BURT WOLF: As Rabbi Wohlberg pointed out, when the Maccabees were cleansing the Temple, they came upon a container of sanctified oil which they needed for their rituals. It appeared to be only enough oil to last a day, but it lasted for eight days which was considered a miracle. Hanukkah is therefore an eight-day festival with one light being lit each night in a special lamp.

The largest and most comprehensive collection of these lamps is in New York’s Jewish Museum. The lamps on view come from all over the world and illustrate many aspects of Jewish history. Susan Braunstein is the Curator of Archaeology and Judaica.

SUSAN BRAUNSTEIN ON CAMERA: I think that all the lamps that we have on display here show a special relationship, of the Jews to the lands they were living in.  The form of the Hanukkah lamp, other than the fact that it needs eight lights, is the only requirement for a Hanukkah lamp, and so the decorations, however, vary according to where the Jews lived.  And so many times you see the national symbol of the country where the Jews are living incorporated in the lamps. 

Originally there were only to be eight lights, one for each night of the holiday, but during the course of time it was realized that the eight lights provided room light, that you would be reading by this or using it to do work by, and the rabbis decreed that you can not use the Hanukkah lamp for anything but religious. It was a religious light, it was a holy light and you couldn't use it for secular purposes.  So over time a ninth light was added, which kind of took the function of the secular lighting of the room.  You can imagine, in days before electricity, that people didn't have brightly lit rooms, and candles and oil were expensive, and so the Hanukkah light just had to provide some illumination in the room, and so in order not to use it for secular purposes, they added a ninth light.  Today, we use the ninth light also to light the other eight.

One of my favorite lamps is this lamp over here.  It originally started out as a souvenir from Australia, and you can see that it has an emu on the top, and a kangaroo down here.  And it had this wonderful frame, and originally an emu egg would have hung in the frame.  And I surmise that eventually the emu egg broke and the person didn't know what to do with this, so they put a row of oil containers there, and they used it as a Hanukkah lamp.  So it started out its life in Australia, probably was bought as a souvenir and brought to Europe or the United States and was used as a Hanukkah lamp.

This is a magnificent lamp, done in the eighteenth century in Poland and it's made out of silver and gilt and it’s open work and repousse and quite elaborate decoration.  And what it does is represents the Torah arks that Jews in Poland and the Ukraine would have had in their synagogues, these magnificent two and three story Torah arks that were made out of carved open wood work, and in the scrolls you can see animals and birds all inhabiting it.  So I think it's a combination of baroque style and also of the local folk art style, because of all the use of the animals and the birds, which were very popular in folk art of the time.  And if you look down here, you see a double-headed eagle, and that is the symbol of the ruling emperor, of the Hapsburg Empire of Austria.  And so Jews, again, incorporated the symbols of the countries under which they lived, the art styles of the countries where they lived, but we have them doing that on a Hanukkah lamp.

This lamp was created in 1974, I think it's a combination of pop art and folk art, and it was created by Mae Rockland Tupa in anticipation of the Bicentennial of the United States.  It has wonderful patriotic imagery, the American flag on the base, and these Statues of Liberty, which are actually holding birthday candleholders in order to light the lights.  The artist is obviously celebrating the joys of being an American citizen, the joys of being free in the United States as a Jew, but she's also expressing a poignant issue as well, that some of the statues she has placed facing forward, and some she has placed facing backward to the viewer.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Why are they facing backwards?

SUSAN BRAUNSTEIN ON CAMERA: These are facing backward because the artist feels that at times in the history of the Jews in this country, the United States turned its back on Jews and she's thinking particularly of the time during World War Two, when Jews were fleeing Europe and were not allowed to enter this country.  So I think she’s expressing both the wonders and joys of being in the United States, but also some of the bad points as well. 


BURT WOLF: From biblical times on, olive oil has played an important role in Jewish life. It was used for cooking, as a sunscreen and moisturizer, as medicine, as fuel and as an anointing agent in religious services. Olive trees can live for hundreds of years. The roots are so strong and deep that even if you cut the trunk of the tree the roots will send up new life. Olive trees are a symbol of immortality, dependability and peace. Of all foods, the olive most symbolizes the continuity of the Jewish people.

At Hanukkah, Jews eat foods that are fried in oil to symbolize the miracle of the oil that lit the lamps in the Temple. One of the most traditional foods is the potato pancake.

The recipe for potato pancakes is pretty simple. Grated potatoes are mixed with chopped onion, egg, salt and pepper, and a little parsley to add color. The mixture is shaped, flattened and fried.

JOAN NATHAN ON CAMERA: In America you would never go to a home without potato pancakes.  Either boxed or bought frozen or made from scratch. I'll make about three dozen for tonight.

Jews from Sephardic countries, the Mediterranean, they don't have to have pancakes fried in oil because they had a lot more food.  So they might have oil desserts.  They might have donuts, for example, for desserts.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But always a fried disk of some kind?

JOAN NATHAN ON CAMERA: Always fried disk.  Always some sort of fried pancake. 

BURT WOLF: The last night of this particular Hanukkah festival fell on a Friday, which in Judaism is the beginning of the Sabbath--the day of rest.

JOAN NATHAN ON CAMERA: Challah is a Sabbath bread.  And the one that is used every Friday night, at least in my house, to separate the Sabbath from the everyday week.  Whenever I'm making challah I think about Eastern Europe where people could not get white bread.  It was very expensive.

You know, we have a tradition on the Sabbath, you say a blessing, over bread before you eat it.  And before we say the blessings, we take these breads, put them over our heads and hold onto somebody who's holding onto the bread, or hold onto the bread.  So that we show a connection between people.

ALLAN GERSON ON CAMERA: We are here to celebrate together a very very special holiday, but like all holidays in the Jewish tradition we are asked to always interpret it differently. It’s very simple. It’s the story of freedom but everybody has to interpret freedom in their own way because every generation has a different challenge. Happy Hanukkah.


BURT WOLF: Hanukkah at the Nathan household is all about connecting to loved ones and paying respect to their Jewish ancestry. 

JOAN NATHAN ON CAMERA: I think that we all, no matter what our background is, owe something to our traditions.  And it doesn't really matter how you carry it on, but that you do carry it on, that you remember who I am as opposed to who he is.  And say it with pride.

It's ironic that in this period of history where Jews in America have the freest life they've ever had that some people just don't care about their traditions.  Here, this is a time in America when we have the freedom to carry on the traditions that each of us, I don't care what background you're from, brought to America.  And I think it's our sort of an obligation to carry it on, to continue it.  

Sufganiyot anybody? For dessert at Hanukkah I always make sufganiyot, which are Israeli jelly donuts.  And the jelly donut is the one food that all Israelis eat at Hanukkah. 

BURT WOLF: To make jelly donuts, you need a dough that is similar to a brioche dough--eggs, flour, yeast, sugar, and lemon rind are combined and left to rise in the refrigerator overnight. When they’re ready to serve, they’re rolled into balls and deep fried.

JOAN NATHAN ON CAMERA: You have to have very hot oil cause you want them to puff up and then you fill them with jelly afterwards. I use a Chinese wok when I’m deep-frying because you don’t have to use as much oil. It heats up evenly. I think it works really well. You can’t put too many in a time so it’s not too saturated with oil. When I make these this connects us back and this connects my family back with what there was in ancient Israel. Even if they don’t get what I’m doing in the kitchen, they do get it because these kids are connected to other kids so they have a good time and they associate coming to my house I hope with having fun with being with other children and after all, what are holidays for if not connections with your family with your friends with your family friends.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: At Hanukkah there is a particular interest in foods based on cheese. And that’s because of the story of Judith. It seems there was a Syrian general attacking the Jews and at the same time trying to date Judith. One night he was over at her house and she served him a lot of cheese that had a lot of salt in it. The salt made him thirsty. He drank a lot of wine. Eventually he passed out and as soon as he did Judith took a sword and cut off his head, which made him more or less useless as the head of the army. And to commemorate that event, cheese-based foods are served at Hanukkah.

BURT WOLF: A favorite example of a Hanukkah food is rugelach. Rugelach means little rolls and they originated in Austria. They are small crescent-shaped cookies and their dough is made with cream cheese, which brings us back to the story of Judith and the salty cheese.

Sarabeth Levine, who is the Sarabeth in Sarabeth’s, is doing the baking. She graduated from college with a degree in sociology which is the systematic study of how groups of human beings behave. Considering her success, this seems to have been the ideal background for a professional baker. A professional who is devoted to baking the special foods of our holidays.

She starts her rugelach by mixing butter and cream cheese together in a standing mixer. Sugar and salt go in. A little vanilla. A little lemon zest. The flour is slowly added and all the ingredients for the dough combined. The counter gets a light dusting of flour so the dough won’t stick. The dough comes out onto the flat surface and is cut in half. Each half is rolled into a ball and goes into the refrigerator for a couple of hours to chill out.

When they come out, each ball is rolled into a disk that is about fourteen inches in diameter and about a quarter-inch thick. Sarabeth then covers the dough with her own plum cherry preserves and is careful to leave a one-inch preserve-free border. Next she sprinkles on a filling made from chopped walnuts, granulated sugar, brown sugar, cocoa powder and cinnamon.

Each disk is then cut into sixteen slices. Starting with the wider back edge she rolls the dough into a tubular shape. The tube is then turned in at the ends to form a crescent and placed on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Then into a preheated oven for about thirty minutes. Dust with confectioner’s sugar and you are ready to honor the heroism of Judith. The crescent shape of the pastry is reminiscent of the shape of her dagger; the cream cheese is a reminder of the cheese she fed to the enemy.


CANTOR ON CAMERA: Okay here we are. Everybody see the letters over here.

YOUNG BOY ON CAMERA: I can read them.

CANTOR ON CAMERA: They’re Hebrew letters right and you can read them.

BURT WOLF: Hanukkah has an official game—dreidel spinning. A dreidel is a four-sided top with a letter on each side. Each letter stands for an instruction to the players.

CANTOR ON CAMERA: Well, that’s a shin, right?

BURT WOLF: The game starts with each player placing a coin, or something that stands for a coin, into the pot. Then one of the players spins the dreidel. If it lands with the nun up, then the player takes nothing from the pot. If the gimel is up, you take everything in the pot. Hay will give you half and if it’s shin, you add a coin.



BURT WOLF: If you come to a point where you no longer have any coins, you’re out of the game.

RABBI JEFFREY WOHLBERG ON CAMERA: According to the tradition, the Maccabees, in order to indicate that they had achieved independence, which they really didn't, but to try to emphasize that they had, minted coins.  That was a symbol of their independence.  So the minting of the coins by the Maccabees in ancient times became the symbol for Hanukkah gelt in modern times.   

BURT WOLF: You’d think playing with a dreidel was easy but in certain environments it’s quite difficult.

CONTROLLER AT NASA ON CAMERA: Endeavour it’s Houston for Jeff. All of America would like to know what you’ve got and what you’re doing with it.

ASTRONAUT JEFF HOFFMAN ON CAMERA: This is the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and there’s various ways that we celebrate it. And one of the games that we play is a little game with a dreidel. And its something that you spin and then you see which side comes up and according to that you either win or lose. And I was just trying to see how you might reinterpret the rules for space flights since there’s no up or down. Hanukkah is the festival of lights. It lasts eight days and to celebrate it, we light a little menorah which has eight candles and you light one more everyday until finally on the eighth day you have eight candles and so I brought a little traveling menorah of course  up here in the shuttle we’re not going to actually light the candles. To help the celebration of the season I brought it along. It’s a little silver traveling menorah.

BURT WOLF: Challenged by the Mission Specialist Jeff Hoffman’s skill, I returned to

Temple Adas Israel in Washington D.C., for a remedial class in dreidel spinning.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Okay. Who’s going to teach me how to spin the dreidel. Okay. Go ahead. Show me how.

BURT WOLF: There’s a legend that explains why the game is associated with Hanukkah. It says that when the King of Syria decided that any Jew found studying religious texts

would be put to death, members of the Maccabees gathering together to discuss religion would put a dreidel on the table and spin it. If the authorities passed by they would think that they were just a bunch of guys gambling.  The characters on the dreidel also stand for the first Hebrew letters of the phrase, “A great miracle happened here”.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ah, that’s it. Now watch closely. Pay close attention there. Okay you watching that. Okay. You’re getting very very sleepy. Your eyelids are getting heavier and heavier. You want to take a nap.

RABBI JEFFREY WOHLBERG ON CAMERA: Oh, Hanukkah's a fun holiday.  We love Hanukkah.  The kids love Hanukkah.  Families love Hanukkah because there's a lot to do. We have a wonderful pre-school. That pre-school brings in many children from families in the neighborhood who know that it’s a quality school. The school is a Jewish school, emphasizing Jewish values, Jewish celebrations and rituals. We light the Hanukkia together as a whole school and we sing the blessings together. And many other things.  Emphasizing our Jewish connectedness and Jewish traditions. And what's interesting always is, the parents who come here and bring their kids here because it's a valuable resource in the community who had never really thought of giving Jewish traditions to children of that age, find themselves engaged as well. We think it's through our children that we can re-invigorate Jewish life in America. 

Well, America's a wonderful country.  It has offered Jews tremendous opportunities, as it offers all of us opportunities.  We've been able to find acceptance here that we were not able to find in any other part of the world throughout history, as it were. And so, that's very special for us.  But with freedom comes assimilation because if there are no ghetto walls holding us in, which there aren't in America, and there are no laws forcing us to be different, which there aren't in America, we then begin to expand and lose some of the essences of what held us together over the centuries.  And some of the ties become weaker.  The pull in America is centrifugal, whereas the pull in Europe in the smaller communities was centripetal, it pulled to the inside and we're pulled to the outside.  That influences everything we do.  It means, for example, that on Hanukkah we do things that were never part of Hanukkah. 

We've taken this gift giving from Christmas and we've blended it into Hanukkah, which traditionally not its right place, its rightful place. We decorate. And so, my wife puts some decorations on the table for our Shabbat dinner because it was Hanukkah as well.  Little Hanukkiot out of paper, little dredles, we have a "Happy Hanukkah" sign hanging in ... in our home, as do many children.  And that's not traditionally Jewish.  Certainly, nothing any nothing wrong with it.  It's perfectly fine.  It doesn't diminish Judaism at all.  But it's quite unique and it happens in the free society of America.  People want to be like everybody else and do what they do in a way which is more American, not just Jewish.

BURT WOLF: The power of American culture is extraordinary.  It appears to have the ability to influence and alter virtually every holiday and celebration that arrives on our shores.

For Taste of Freedom, I’m Burt Wolf.