Happy Hanukkah!

by - December 14, 2017

All pictures used in this blogpost are borrowed (stolen) from Batsheva's post 'How To Survive As A Cultural Minority' which, fun fact, actually inspired me in writing/reaching out to her on this topic. All credit goes to Batsheva and her photographer Yitta Fetman from You R Photography.

In 1742 poet Thomas Gray ends his poem Ode On A Distant Prospect Of Eton College with the words: "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." Which can be seen as similar to 'out of sight, out of mind' or the catchy 'what you don't know doesn't hurt you'. All of these so to says, I feel, are from the get-go guiding you to think of the more darker or sinister things in life you'd like to ignore. 'Ignorance is bliss' most often meaning that if you simply don't know or are unaware of something unpleasant, you can't be troubled by it. Because you don't know. So it's hard to know what you should know if you, you know, don't know. This can sometimess also turn into willful ignorance: intentionally ignoring that what you should know just so you can't be taken accountable for it.

"I think that because Christmas is such a BIG part of Western mainstream culture, it often willfully ignores other notions of togetherness, celebration and religious presence."

Accountability in this sense is mostly said in terms of law, however it's also such an easy excuse to use to get out of thinking, looking or experiencing the world beyond yourself. It gives you a certain legitimacy to explain everything that exists outside of yourself as automatically belonging to the pile of 'other' (which subsequently stands beneath you). I think that because Christmas is such a BIG part of Western mainstream culture, it often willfully ignores other notions of togetherness, celebration and religious presence. Because, as I've written before, Christmas is a Christian holiday. Although it's been normalised to an extend that its 'religiousness' is only meaningful to those who conciously endorse it within such a context or know where to look for, it still reinforces a particular ideology which -however commercial things will go- is entangled with this specific background.

Use your Dutch g

"So what?", you might ask, while wearing plastic pink party glasses shaped like two flamingos wearing Christmas hats (I saw them at H&M, for those who are interested in saying "So what?"). Well, today is the 12th of December, which can only mean one thing (well, actually it can mean multiple things, but we're going with the one for now): it's the first day of Hanukkah! Or Chanukkah, as Batsheva from Cynical Duchess explains: "It's a huge misconception about how Hanukkah is pronounced, so most Jewish people actually write it with a 'ch' because it's pronounced with this quite hard low growling sound." So, you know, your regular Dutch 'g'. "This is because", she continues, "the word is derived from Hebrew and refers to a historical biblical word."

When I was younger I followed classes on different religions which I was, surprisingly, good in. Surprisingly as I'm non-religiously raised and my mother is basically ridiculous ignorant when it comes to believes. And then, naturally, within my Cultural Heritage study (and also actually now within Gender Studies) I've learned quite a few things about rituals and traditions. However the who/what/where of Hanukkah has always been a bit blurry. The thing that I do know: it has something to do with lights that's why there's this candle holder; or, as Batsheva enlightened me, a menorah. And that's why Hanukkah is also sometimes called the Festival of Lights. And I was right! However there's so much more to it than just pretty twinkling lights...

I believe in miracles

"We celebrate Hanukkah because during the time of the Ancient Greece a lot of Jewish people lived in Israel", Batsheva begins. "The Greeks were conquering tons of different land and, obviously, they wanted Israel too and take over the Jews. What did they do? They basically came to Israel inserted a king called Antiochus. At the time he was ruling over Syria and made his base in Israel inside our holy temple." But it didn't stop there, besides this desecration, Antiochus & co bullied the Jews and forbade them to practice their believe.

Batsheva: "So he banned us from doing a lot of different things in our religion. And that's like, a huge thing, because that's who we are. We have this relationship with God and all we ask for is that we can practice our believes. We don't ask everyone to be Jewish, we don't do missionaries, we just want people to leave us alone." However alone isn't what Antiochus had in mind. As said, he desecrated the holy temple and smashed jars of olive oil which is used to lit the menorah. "Within the temple there's this huge menorah which is traditionally lit. But now there was no more oil to light it with because he had smashed everything."

"So they lit the menorah and #MiracleTime instead of lasting for one day, the oil lasted for eight days and eight nights."

While everything was looking bad the Macabees, a group of brothers, rebelled against Antiochus' ruling and -skipping a bit- they went into the holy temple during the war (yes, there's a war now. As said, we're skipping a bit) and they found one jug of oil that was only supposed to last for one night. "And they were like, you know what", Batsheva recites, "we have faith in God that everything's going to be fine." So they lit the menorah and #MiracleTime instead of lasting for one day, the oil lasted for eight days and eight nights. "So that's why we celebrate and light the menorah for eight nights. Lighting one more candle each night until all the candles are lit."

Tell me why

And that, my dearest reader, is the story (short-cut version) of Hanukkah. Now there are also, obviously, other aspects to the celebration of Hanukkah which goes beyond Antiochus trashing the temple. He wanted to eradicate Judaism. And, as we all probably can guess, this wasn't done by holding a balanced debate with prose and cons, but by blood shed, absurd, nauseating and otherwise suppressing actions and rules. Does this got something to do with the war we've just skipped. You bet ya!

The Macabees went to war against this huge Greek army, and, against all odds, they won. Batsheva: "And that's the true miracle of Hanukkah which we commemorate and celebrate each year. And is passed down from generation to generation, to know that God is with us and no matter how many times people try to kill us or try to eradicate us, we will continue to exist." Which is, as you might agree, a very strong message to celebrate. However, I almost didn't dare to ask but what I think might be an important (ignorant) question (an ignorant) someone -perhaps the same person wearing those flamingo glasses (although, to be honest those are pretty rad)- would ask. Out of curiosity. Out of habit. So... what does Hanukkah have what Christmas doesn't?

"Do you even know why you hang a tree with like ornaments all over?"

"Now, I'm not an expert on Christmas", Batsheva begins, "but what I know is that you're commemorating the birth of Jesus. But there are a lot of customs that go with this celebration which I feel like people do these but they don't know why. Do you even know why you hang a tree with like ornaments all over? From what I recall this actually comes from a pagan practice [it is] and Christians aren't pagans [they aren't]. This always confuses me."

Especially as Hanukkah, as Batsheva tells me, is full of traditions but these have a clear source and aren't mashed up together with other religious practices. "That makes me feel really good about it. That we're not doing it for no reason, that we've got a purpose. And it's a beautiful thing to gather around the menorah and light it. Of course it's a holiday of lights, with family, gathered around the fire place or whatever, playing dreidel and eating all of the oily food. But, like, we're not doing it for no reason, which makes it even better."


"We for instance eat oily food like, basically these fried donuts called sufganiyot and latkes [which is the Yiddish word for it and Batsheva is Middle-Eastern, but, like, just go with it] which is fried potato or spinach and eggs, sometimes eaten with apple sauce or with other kinds of sauces depending from which culture you're from." These oily food, you might guessed it, are eaten to commemorate the last oil for the menorah and as a celebration of prosperity.

Dreidel, the game mentioned above, are these little colourful tops with Hebrew letters on them saying 'big miracle happened there' or in Israel 'big miracle happened here'. When it falls on a certain letter you get chocolate coins, or have to put back half or loose it all. Jews were spinning tops when the Greek came around inspecting whether they adhered to their 'no Judaism' rules. Batsheva: "Because back when the Greeks weren't letting us learn from the Torah, so people would hide in caves and would learn and teach the kids from the Torah."

"So when the Greeks would come inspecting they would hide all the books and Torah scrolls and they would take out these tops and they would all be spinning tops. Which is actually really ridiculous if you think about it, but that's what actually would happen. And the Greeks were like 'Ok these people are crazy, sitting in caves spinning tops, which is like really weird and suspicious but we can't find anything, so whatever'."

Although the world might make it seem that ignorance is winning the race, I'd like to sign a petition that states 'ignorance ISN'T bliss'. Or not always, at least. By opening yourself up to other cultures, religions and just ideas, you can learn a lot. This lot doesn't always have to be something you personally endorse or have to nod yes to until your head falls off. But through familiarising yourself with 'things unknown' and understanding the workings behind it, you can see the world or sympathise -however limited- through the eyes of the other. And, as I hopefully demonstrated above, the other isnt as 'other' as it's often made out to be.

I'd like to whole-heartedly thank Batsheva from Cynical Duchess for sharing her knowledge with me, Even though we both didn't really had time for it... But, you know, this demonstrates somewhat my point. As the Dutch saying goes 'waar een wil is, is een weg' [where there's willingness, there's a way], and this way can only find people walking on it if we are there to unplug the baubles from our ear-holes and care to listen and become knowledgable (yes, I'm still the queen of metaphors).

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  1. YES to this! I learned a bit about Hanukkah in school and learning about different cultures and their histories have always fascinated me. I'm not a fan of ignorance so I'd rather know and learn. Thank you for sharing this!

    1. Thank you! And welcome to the fight against ignorance! Well, it's not REALLY a fight... more like a... a... a new learning curve.... Or the death, the burial, the ending, cheersing to a new beginning full of knowledge... or something like that. ;) (I swear this isn't the beginning of a new cult). ;)

  2. I can understand the pressure of having christmas is widely recognized and celebrated as the most important event while other religion don't get that visibility. I have learnt about other religion through schools and my mum (who read the quran, the bible and the torah) I don't know much about hanukkah but it is always good to learn more! xx corinne

    1. Although it's also arguable that because Hanukkah isn't THE focus for many during this period, it also has some benefits that Christmas doesn't enjoy; as said in religious aspects the idea of staying 'truthful' or close to its original intentions opposed to the more Hollywood movie version Christmas is sometimes sold as to a wider audience and neglecting the more religious parts. Not that I'm saying that that is an important 'loss' as rituals and traditions change with time and -personally- the idea of being obliged to celebrate the religious part would be a real bummer (to say it politely) and unfeasible. But yeah... learning new things, man, it's cool... ;)

  3. In all honesty we learned barely anything about Hanukkah in school so I was a bit clueless about it all until recently, this post has been really interesting and eye opening :) thanks for sharing! It's always so interesting to learn new bits about different religions.
    Alice Xx

    1. I was also quite clueless about the whole affair and as a non-Jew it's also something that isn't really put in the spotlight so how can you know about it if you don't know BUT through sharing knowledge and being curious and inquisitive we can battle against our ignorance! Whoop whoop!

  4. What an interesting and well written post! I'm not religious myself but went to a Catholic school and am totally respectful of other religions and find all of the different types of religious holidays so interesting- https://sophiehearts.net x

    1. I actually went to a protestant school! Although not much -but more than I might think- has stayed behind in my brain... I find that a little bit of religious knowledge can't hurt you! Especially, not trying to sound too pretentous, when looking at for instance art or trying/wanting to portray or dissect something...

  5. I love the cultural diversity that's prominent around this time of year! I love learning about other traditions and the importance the have to others...Great and informative post!

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    1. Thank you! Indeed, although Christmas takes the forerunner, this time of year is also becoming more and more a time of acceptance (or so I'd like to think) as most people are celebrating an idea of peace and togetherness whatever that actual celebration is called!

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