Hanukkah and the Importance of Representation

Abigail Elperin, Staff Writer

Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, is celebrated by millions of people all over the world. It is classified as a minor holiday in the Jewish religion. Its history traces back thousands of years, celebrating the Maccabee victory over Hellenistic Seleucid forces. Hannukah also commemorates the miracle that is believed to have occurred at the Second Temple in modern-day Jerusalem. According to History.com, “There was only enough untainted olive oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single day, the flames continued flickering for eight nights, leaving them time to find a fresh supply. This wondrous event inspired the Jewish sages to proclaim a yearly eight-day festival.”  The holiday follows the Lunar Calendar, so the eight days it takes place on are different on the Gregorian Calendar every year. In 2021, it was observed from Nov. 28th to Dec. 6th. 

Celebrators of Hanukkah have many different traditions, varying largely due to ethnic background, location, family traditions, and whether or not you celebrate it religiously. Food is also a big part of it; some traditional foods include Latkes (potato pancakes) and Sufaganiyot (jelly donuts). An article from Time says that “eating food fried during Hanukkah is considered a symbol of the oil used to light the menorah. Hence, jelly donuts.” Sophomore Maks Greenburg says, “Some of my favorite Hanukkah memories include the smell and use of oil in food.” Other traditions include lighting the Menorah on each of the eight days of Hanukkah and playing the Dreidel game. The dreidel is a four-sided top spun in hopes of winning chocolate gelt.  Britannica explains, “On each side of the top is a Hebrew letter, which forms the initials of the words in the phrase nes gadol haya sham, meaning ‘a great miracle happened there.’ In modern Israel the letters of the dreidel were changed to reflect the translation ‘a great miracle happened here.’” In some places, family members will give each other presents, but this is mostly a tradition in places with a cultural importance of giving gifts around the winter holiday season, probably derived from Christmas. 

Though Hanukkah is one of the most widely known Jewish holidays, probably due to commercialization and proximity to Christmas, it is not considered by many religious Jews to be a major holiday. An article from Vox explains that “during most religious holidays, observant Jews have to abide by the same rules they do on Shabbat (Saturdays): no work, restricted use of technology, etc. Those rules aren’t in play on Hanukkah. The only theological obligation on Hanukkah is lighting the candles on the menorah for each of the holiday’s eight nights — the centerpiece of the holiday. Everything else that is associated with Hanukkah has just sprung up as custom over the millennia.”  Freshman Shira Delcau says, “[Without the over-commercialization of Hanukkah] I think maybe Hanukkah would be focused a lot more on what the miracle was and spending time with family, or really connecting to your Judaism as opposed to gifts, or something like that that maybe came from Christian tradition. ” Hanukkah’s occurrence in the winter holiday season prompts many to simply call it a “Jewish Christmas,” but many consider this assumption to be inaccurate or offensive. Freshman Hazel Terry says, “It kind of offends me, because just like Christmas, there’s a whole backstory behind it that’s kind of been just over-romanticized as presents.”  Another reason for the misconceptions surrounding Hanukkah could be the way it is presented in pop culture. While Christmas movies (whether it be a lousy rom-com or a truly noteworthy film) seem to come out every hour during the holiday season, it is hard to think of even one decent Hanukkah movie. The Canadian Jewish News explains, “That’s part of the problem: our onscreen holiday-era marginalization has become status quo. Jews have had no trouble with on-screen historical or dramatic representation in general – movies and shows generally don’t shy away from featuring Jewish characters, and we’ll always have Fiddler – but, for some reason, holiday specials have eluded us.” There could be many reasons for this- perhaps there is not a large enough Hannukah-celebrating population to make a profit for a film studio that makes a Hanukkah movie. Perhaps it is a problem with lack of filmmakers who are Jewish or consider Hanukkah to be a holiday that needs its own movie. After all, it is not considered to be very significant in the grand scheme of Jewish holidays.  

Though lack of Hanukkah representation is certainly not the biggest issue facing Jewish people today, in an age where most of our information comes from the media, accurate representation of all holidays has never been more important. Good representation of Hanukkah is important because it could provide accurate depictions of the holiday to those who do not celebrate it, and gives people who do celebrate (especially young kids) a sense of inclusion in the holiday season.