Last night marked the beginning of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah. Millions of menorahs were lit for the first time this year, including the National Menorah on the Ellipse of the White House.
The act of lighting a new candle each night of the eight-day celebration symbolizes one of the miracles that the season is all about, says Rabbi Aaron Miller:
“This season is a time of great miracles, celebrating the courage that forever shaped the Jewish future. The Maccabees, the heroes of the Hanukkah story, were Jews of faith. But they were impatient believers — trusting deeply in God, but refusing to wait for God to act. Because of their righteous impatience, the Maccabees became partners with God in transforming the world, and their courage and determination teach us that God does not act alone. As the great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, ‘Pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on you.’ ‘’
As the story goes, the Maccabees overthrew the Assyrian army, the mightiest in the world at the time. But when they returned to the Temple, the Maccabees discovered it had been defiled, and only enough oil remained to light the menorah for one night. The oil, however, miraculously lasted for eight nights, Miller says:
“This Jewish celebration of light commemorates a miracle seemingly insignificant in comparison to the victory over the Assyrians, but in truth, it is the same miracle. Only after we, God’s partners, take that first step can we ask for God to join us.”
Celebrations by modern-day Jews for these wonders are varied now, although like many holidays, food is involved. Because the celebration focuses on oil, fried foods including latkes and doughnuts are generally the focus. As Bonnie S. Benwick of All We Can Eat points out, you don’t have to be celebrating Hanukkah to love latkes during the season, but there are some tricks to making good potato pancakes:
Done right, the traditional versions made of potato, onion and a bit of a binder should be like the song says: crispy, tasty and thin.
Over the years, the Food section has let you in on some latke-making secrets, such as Marcy Goldman’s methods of parboiling the potatoes before they are grated, and frying in a wok to decrease splatters and cooking time. Barbecue expert Steven Raichlen fries his latkes in the oven, with a small amount of oil in a large, shallow pan; this allows him to produce bigger batches. And some cooks have bypassed the potato and/or vegetable route, choosing to use cheese instead.
But celebrations seem to have evolved past the simple enjoyment of fried potatos, notes Rabbi Yael Buechler of On Faith:
“It’s not your grandmother’s Hanukkah anymore! Hanukkah 2011 has roared past latkes sizzling in oil and coin shaped chocolate gelt. Leaving the gelt and the guilt of fried foods aside, we have entered the age of Hanukkah apps, eco-friendly menorahs, Hanukkah YouTube videos, and even Hanukkah Manicures. Yes, for the ultimate expression of publicizing the wonders of Hanukkah you can have a Maccabean manicure with dreidels (spinning tops) on one hand, and Hanukkah menorahs on the other.”
Hanukkah tunes have taken YouTube by storm, with viral videos of groups singing popular songs mixed with Hebrew scripture, says Maura Judkis of ArtsPost:
The Maccabeats, a Yeshiva University a cappella group, scored a huge hit with last year’s “Candlelight,” a Hanukkah anthem set to Taio Cruz's "Dynamite.” This year, they’ve done it again with “Miracle.”
Watch the video here.
More on Hanukkah celebrations: