Note: Hanukkah, the eight-day Festival of Lights, begins at sundown Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. This was originally published in 2015 and updated.
Ever wonder why Hanukkah sometimes falls in November or December and other times in January? How about how many pounds of potatoes a deli goes through when making latkes (fried potatoes) during the eight-night holiday?
For Hanukkah, we explore the meaning and celebrations of the Jewish holiday, also dubbed the festival of lights.
“One thing that’s interesting about Hanukkah is how its meaning has transitioned over time,” said Jacob Solomon, president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. “Depending on where it is celebrated, it can take on a different meaning.”
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Eight things to know about Hanukkah
The word Hanukkah (which varies in spelling because of Hebrew-to-English translation) means dedication. The holiday itself marks the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after Jews were banned from practicing there more than 2,000 years ago, said Temple Sinai of North Dade Rabbi Alan Litwak.
“We rededicate ourselves to our faith every year,” he said.
Added Solomon: “The story of Hanukkah is the victory of the few over the many.”
In the Second Century, the Maccabees, the Jewish rebel army, revolted against the Syrian-Greek Empire and reclaimed the temple.
And the reason Jews celebrate for eight days and eight nights: Oil that was supposed to last only one day lasted eight.
“That is the miracle of Hanukkah,” Solomon said.
2. COOKING WITH OIL
Latkes and doughnuts are popular during Hanukkah because they are cooked in oil — which is synonymous with the holiday’s miracle.
Mo Hussin, the co-owner, of Mo’s Bagels & Deli in Aventura, said more latkes and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) are sold during the holiday than all year.
On the first night of Hanukkah last year, the popular New York-style deli, sold 75 dozen jelly doughnuts and about 2,000 latkes.
“People love their latkes,” Hussin said.
Chefs will begin preparing the fried treats at Mo’s about 4 a.m. and go through about 1,400 pounds of potatoes by the time the holiday is through.
When Temple Beth Am Cantor Rachelle Nelson sings at a special Shabbat service Dec. 11 — the sixth night of Hanukkah —she will sing I Have a Little Dreidel with the children, but she also like to “shake things up.”
This year, the children will sing about latkes to the tune of Matisyahu’s One Day: “One Piece, all grease, oh please.”
Nelson, who has been a cantor for 30 years, said while there is a distinct melody for Hanukah, it is important to “make sure we stay relevant.”
Every year, the actor Adam Sandler comes up with a new version of his Hanukkah song, which talks about celebs who celebrate the holiday. Some new faces added to his list this year: Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, of Ben & Jerry’s fame.
4. GIFT GIVING
On the last night of Hanukkah, the Bister family makes a donation to the Jewish Federation of Greater Miami, instead of exchanging gifts on each of the eight nights — a common holiday tradition.
“We started the tradition of giving to others when the kids were very young,” said Mytyl Bister, whose children are now 13, 17 and 19. At first the children would each give $18 to children in Ethiopia. Now their gift goes to the federation.
Bister said people often get wrapped up in the gift giving and forget about those who are less fortunate.
“We wanted to send the message on the last night that there is nothing else you need, but to give,” she said.
For Daniel Bister, 17, his family’s tradition has helped shape who he is.
“The most important thing about receiving is being able to give,” he said.
5. HANUKKAH’S DATES
Like all other Jewish holidays, Hanukkah rarely begins on the same night every year. Because of the Lunar calendar — which is based on the cycles of the moon — Hanukkah can be as early as Thanksgiving (which it was in 2013) or even fall into the new year.
“You learn to adapt,” said Temple Sinai’s Litwak.
In 2013, Hanukkah began on the night before Thanksgiving. This was the first time since 1888 that the two holidays coincided. It’s not expected to happen again for 70,000 years.
Litwak said Hanukkah celebrations tend to change a little depending on when it falls.
“It is a reminder that we are influenced by our surroundings,” he said.
6. MENORAH PARADE
Rabbi Zev Katz of Chabad House of Miami Beach said Jews have the responsibility of “spreading the miracle of Hannukah.”
And what better way to do that than attaching a giant Hanukkah menorah to the top of cars and parade through the streets of South Florida. The menorahs can be about five-feet tall and light up through the car’s cigarette lighter.
7. LOCAL FESTIVITIES
From giant menorah lightings at city halls to menorah-building workshops, there are plenty of ways to celebrate the festive holiday.
“We want everyone to have fun,” said Chabad Jewish Center of West Kendall & Dadeland Rabbi Getzy Rubashkin.
While many families have small menorahs in their homes, the idea is to share the miracle with others, said Litwak.
Katz said the yearly lighting of the giant shell Menorah on Lincoln Road draws hundreds.
“It’s an amazing community event,” he said.
8. DREIDELS AND GELT
I have a little Dreidel, I made it out of clay is a traditional song for the holiday.
But dreidels — a four-sided spinning top used to play a game — can be made with anything from plastic to wood and even silver, explained Hank Seider, owner of Judaica Treasures in Davie.
He and his wife Roberta have owned the store — which is especially busy during the gift-giving season — for 30 years. They plan to retire early next year.
Hank Seider said dreidels come in all shapes and sizes and are even art pieces. Some can be as cheap as 20 cents and others can cost more than $100.
The smaller plastic ones are often used for the dreidel game, in which each side of the dreidel has a letter that stands for either take nothing, take half, add one or take all.
And a big part of the game: gelt or money, often made out of chocolate.