BENNINGTON -- Hanukkah, the eight-day event known as the Festival of Lights, may be one of the most high-profile celebrations on the Jewish calendar -- marked with a National Menorah in a ceremony Sunday on the White House lawn -- but that doesn't necessarily signify its importance in Judaism.
Instead, its popularity belies understanding by the general public who might perceive the occasion as a "Jewish Christmas." Today's adaptation into popular culture is more ironic given Hanukkah's origins as a demonstration of faith at a time when Judaism was outlawed.
"I would say it's one of the least important Jewish holidays ... (and) also probably the least well understood," said Mariyama Scott, a Bennington College sophomore who heads the Jewish coalition on campus. Scott, 19, said she saw a push in popular culture to make the occasion more important in the interest of inclusion, but, for herself, "it's really personal.
"When I think of Hanukkah, I think of just my mother and my brother at our table, lighting candles, having dinner, and exchanging a small gift and being a family unit."
Used as a frame of reference for discussion during Shabat services Saturday at Bennington's Congregation Beth El, Rabbi Jarah Greenfield distinguished the holiday as a post-biblical one, instituted to mark the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees during the second century B.C.
After Saturday's services, Greenfield said much of Judaism was rooted in counterculture and the refusal to assimilate. "There are a lot of things you can adapt Hanukkah to," she said, faced with the dominant Christian holiday and a season of consumerism that encroached this year into Thanksgiving Day. In theological circles, the "December dilemma" is a phrase coined for how Jews and especially interfaith families approach the holidays.
Greenfield expressed Hanukkah as opportunity for Jews to rededicate themselves and reflect on what Judaism means today. Rather than focusing on the academic historical narrative, "I fixate much more on the primal message. ... Rededicating yourself to what's important, living your values, bringing light into the world," she said.
Beginning Saturday, Dec. 8, this year, Hanukkah is scheduled on the lunisolar Hebrew calendar and may occur at any time from late November to late December (the Gregorian date cycles and, next year, begins the evening of Nov. 27).
The kindling of one Menorah candle each evening for eight nights commemorates the miracle of the temple where the candles continued to burn despite insufficient oil. The commandment of Hanukkah to "publicize the miracle" is reflected in the traditional placement of the Menorah in a visible location, like a window, "where everyone can see it. And that was really dangerous in a Roman-controlled city," Greenfield pointed out.
Jimmy Carter kicked off the tradition of a National Menorah in Washington, D.C. in 1979, and President Barack Obama in a statement Friday called Hanukkah a time to celebrate the faith and customs of the Jewish people.
César Maione, a 19-year-old native of Cambridge, N.Y., currently attending Hudson Valley Community College, said he also felt Hanukkah was in some respects "overstated."
"Going into Hanukkah, it's a celebration with my family," he said; an opportunity to get together and take part in personal tradition like the kindling of the Menorah. "That's really been the primary focus to me."
There is a festive community event attached also, however, in next Saturday's Green Mountain Shabbat & Hanukkah Party, which includes regular morning services followed by Kiddush and a party with drumming and Israeli dancing, a puppetry show, and a community dinner to close out the final eighth day.
Greenfield said the interfaith puppetry show would focus on Hanukkah and be applicable for non-Jewish attendees interested in learning more. The celebration is intended for all and begins at 3 p.m., with a suggested donation to cover the activities. For the full day's schedule visit www.cbevermont.org.
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