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US in the U.S.: Chanukah In My Family

by Mrs. Irina Tsukerman

  

Library » Holidays » Chanukah » About | Subscribe | What is RSS?


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I first learned about Chanukah in my small school in the Ukraine where Jewish Culture was our favorite class.

The concept of "G-d" was presented to us gently, and so naturally that we didn’t doubt His existence. G-d appeared as a main character in exciting stories about our nation - why shouldn't we believe in Him? My belief in G-d was firm, naive, and free of doubts - until I moved to the U.S. and attended public school.

I miss those days. I felt so accepted, so belonging to my own nation. I didn’t ask myself difficult questions as "What is a Jew?" I ‘knew,’ just as I knew to honor the Mezuzah on the door by touching it lightly.

What made Judaism so enjoyable were the young Lubavitch teachers from NYC, who knew enough Russian to communicate with us. The girls, no older than 20, were nice, gentle, fun, and turned learning into games, which made it easier to absorb the material. They told us Torah and Midrash stories. Some had thick American accents, and we would help them out when they were at a loss for a Russian word.

The holidays were associated with fun. Before Passover, we baked and ate Matzah. They showed the girls how to light Shabbat candles. And before Chanukah they gave us menorahs, candles, dreidels, taught us blessings, and the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days.

I mean, how can you not enjoy a Festival of Lights? The name is associated with warmth, comfort, and hope. I felt really special, having a Menorah to come home to, whereas the Gentile children didn't. I didn't look down on them, I just was happy that I had such a great tradition that connected me to other Jews.

The magic ended when I came to the U.S, where we couldn't afford a good yeshivah and I faced the public school reality. Other children's cynical comments rubbed off; I lost the innocence of my mind, associating with people who held nothing sacred. During a history class about Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust some girls laughed at the idea of lamps made of human skin. I got mad and asked them what's so funny; one girl told me that America is a free country, and if I don't like it I can go back where I came from. Jewish holidays lost their appeal, as I brushed away the stories as lies and myths, attempts by the religious authorities to subjugate the uneducated Jews.

My parents kept up with holidays and traditions while being part of a community, but in the U.S. they became absorbed with learning the new English language and finding their place in a new society. Little by little we stopped celebrating the holidays.

One day, I was shocked when I turned on the TV and heard the presenter telling the familiar story of Chanukah. She proceeded to relate the amazing victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucids. The narration stopped me in my tracks. My eyes were opened. Whoa, there! So some of what I learned was actually true! No way! No way... She must be making it up... It couldn't have happened... It's all a myth...


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Shabbat
(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Matzah
(pl. Matzot). Unleavened bread which is eaten on Passover, especially at the Passover Seder (feast), commemorating the Matzah which the Jews ate upon leaving Egypt. It consists of only flour and water and resembles a wheat cracker.
Passover
A Biblically mandated early-spring festival celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt in the year 1312 BCE.
Chanukah
An eight day mid-winter holiday marking: 1) The miraculous defeat of the mighty Syrian-Greek armies by the undermanned Maccabis in the year 140 BCE. 2) Upon their victory, the oil in the Menorah, sufficient fuel for one night only, burned for eight days and nights.
Mezuzah
A rolled up scroll containing certain verses from the Torah which is affixed to the right-hand doorpost of doorways in a Jewish home.
Midrash
(Pl. Midrashim). Non-legal material of anecdotal or allegorical nature, designed either to clarify historical material, or to teach a moral point. The Midrashim were compiled by the sages who authored the Mishna and Talmud (200 BCE-500 CE).
Menorah
Candelabra. Usually a reference to the nine-branched candelabra kindled on the holiday of Chanukah.
Lubavitch
Also known as “Chabad,” Lubavitch is the name of a Chassidic Group founded in the 1770s. “Lubavitch” is the name of the Belarusian city where four of the Chabad Rebbes (leaders) were based. Today, the movement is based in Brooklyn, New York, with branches worldwide. Two of the most fundamental teachings of Chabad are the intellectual pursuit of understanding the divine and the willingness to help every Jew who has a spiritual or material need.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.
Maccabees
The Maccabees (Hebrew: Makabim) were a Jewish family who fought against the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty in the story of Chanukah. The Maccabees founded the Hasmonean royal line and established Jewish independence in the land of Israel for about 100 years.