Locals share their traditions and connections to Hanukkah.

As the sun sets on Thursday, December 10, Roberta Herman and her husband, Robert, will stand together and light one candle on their menorah to mark the beginning of Hanukkah, the eight-night Jewish holiday known as the Festival of Lights.

The lighting of the Menorah
The lighting of the Menorah.

“It’s a celebration,” Herman says. “Because it often comes at the same time as Christmas, lots of people compare it, but it is a celebration of the Jewish people winning a battle against a king called Antiochus, who wanted to destroy the Jewish people.”

In the year 168 B.C.E., King Antiochus, a Hellenistic king in west Asia, outlawed Jewish practice and defiled a Jewish temple, the holiest place for Jewish people at that time. A small army of Jews known as the Maccabees united to rebel and regained control of the temple. And then a great miracle happened.

“In every synagogue, there is an eternal light that hangs over the ark, and in those days it burned with oil,” Herman says. “The bad guys, the Romans, came in and used the temple like a pigsty and extinguished the eternal light. When the Maccabees won, they wanted to have the light burning again. They found one bottle of sacred oil that should have lasted one night, but it burned for eight nights. That is the miracle of Hanukkah.”

To commemorate the miracle of the sacred oil, a special blessing is said, and a candle is lit on a menorah every evening at sunset. On the first night of Hanukkah, a shamash, or helper candle, is used to light one candle. On each night following, another candle is lit. On the eighth night, the shamash and all eight candles burn brightly.

The miracle of the oil is also honored with Hanukkah delicacies such as the potato pancakes known as latkes and jelly doughnuts known as sufganiyot, both fried in oil. Chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil, known as gelt, are a favorite among kids.

Family celebrating Hanukkah
Daughter-in-law Elise Herman with her daughters Leah, Emily, Margaret, and Sarah Herman in 1999.

The celebration includes several other traditions that appeal especially to children. As a child, Herman vividly recalls receiving a small gift for each night of Hanukkah, and she carried on the same tradition of gift-giving with her two sons. However, each family approaches gift-giving differently. Some kids get a gift each night until they reach a certain age, while others receive one big gift during the week of Hanukkah.

“The gifts are why some people think that Hanukkah is the ‘Jewish Christmas,’” says Shelley Kofsky, the president of the Sisterhood at Temple Beth El. “It is just something to keep the kids interested and looking forward to what’s going to come the next night.”

After dinner, candle lighting, and gifts, many families gather around the menorah to sing traditional Hanukkah songs and then pick a spot at a table for a game of dreidel.

“Dreidel is a fun game that kids like to play,” Kofsky says. “A dreidel is like a spinning top with four sides. Each side has a Hebrew letter, and the letters translate to the saying, ‘a great miracle happened there,’ which describes the miracle of the oil.”

During a normal year, Temple Beth El hosts a Friday night Hanukkah potluck dinner for its nearly 40 members at their temple on Monroe Street. Although the temple — the oldest synagogue west of the Mississippi in continuous use — does not employ a rabbi, members enjoy gathering as a temple family for celebration and prayer.

Robert and Roberta Herman by their family menorah.
Robert and Roberta Herman by their family menorah.

As the year 2020 comes to a close, Herman says that this year, she and her husband will celebrate Hanukkah while wishing for a modern-day miracle.

“We’re always hoping a miracle happens and we can get back to our little temple,” she says.