Growing up, Hanukkah was all about the miracle of oil enough for one day lasting for eight days. It was about frying latkes and spinning the dreidel and exchanging presents. The main players in the Hanukkah story all seemed to be male: Judah Maccabee, his father, Mattityahu, and the wicked king Antiochus.
As an adult, I found I’d only been taught part of the story. When I started following Orthodox Jewish traditions, Hanukkah was magically transformed for me from a cute kids’ holiday to a celebration that resonates deeply with me as a woman and a feminist. The following three practices changed the way I approach Hanukkah and can transform your festival, too.
Eat Dairy Foods (in Honor of Judith)
Eating dairy foods like cheese recalls one of the central figures in the Hanukkah narrative: a Jerusalem widow named Judith.
Besides the better-known oil miracle of oil lasting eight days, there was another Hanukkah miracle too: a band of Jewish rebels defeated the mighty Greek empire, in a grueling war that lasted 10 years.
When the Greeks marched on Jerusalem, led by a general named Holofernes, a Jewish widow named Judith volunteered to go and negotiate with Holofernes. (Some sources say that Judith was one of the Maccabees’ sisters, though most regard her as an unrelated widow.)
Judith brought cheese with her — think of the salty feta cheese that’s common in Israel and the Middle East — and fed it to the general. When the cheese made Holofernes thirsty, Judith fed him lots of wine. When Holofernes was drunk, Judith took his sword and cut off his head. Holding Holofernes’ bloody head aloft, she showed the Greek soldiers their leader was dead; demoralized, they called off their attack.
Today, Jews eat cheese to remember Judith’s bravery. The first time I served cheese blintzes on Hanukkah, I felt funny telling my kids why. I mean, the story is so dark and bloody. But I love the fact that remembering Judith places women front and center in the Hanukkah narrative, and also that the details of Judith’s story help us understand just why Greek rule was so intolerable to our ancestors over 2,000 years ago.
Tell the Story of Chana
Phillip was Governor of Judea under Antiochus, and he instituted a number of harsh decrees: any Jew refusing to bow to his image, to eat pork, and obey his every command would be killed.
Daring any Jews to defy him, Philip arrested Chana, a woman in Jerusalem, along with her seven sons. One by one, starting with the oldest son, Antiochus demanded they bow to him as a living god, and one by one, starting with the eldest, each of Chana’s children refused. As they defied the despot, each child was slowly, gruesomely, and publicly tortured to death.
Finally, only the youngest child remained. Antiochus offered to drop his signet ring and whispered to the little boy he could pick it up; everyone watching would believe he’d bowed to the king, and he’d be spared. Some accounts relate that her last remaining child asked Chana what to do, and she counseled him not to bow. Whether she was allowed to speak with her son one last time or not, the little boy was tortured to death like his brothers.
As her last child was murdered before her eyes, Chana climbed to the top of a nearby building and yelled out to God: “You asked Abraham to sacrifice only one son, Isaac, and even in that case Isaac was spared. I was willing to sacrifice seven sons for Your glory, and You took them all!” With that, Chana threw herself off the building. Some accounts relate that at the moment she hit the ground, a Heavenly voice was heard saying “The mother of the children is joyous (Psalms 113:),” indicating she’d joined her sons in the World to Come.
Recounting Chana’s tribulations on Hanukkah reminds us that this more than one way to resist tyranny, and that through our history, it’s Jewish mothers who have instilled holiness and bravery in countless generations of Jews.
While the Candles Burn, Take a Break
Given the heroism of Judith and Chana, there’s a custom for Jewish women not to do any work while the Hanukkah candles burn. This gives us a chance to rest, to reconnect, and to savor the holiday. In my own home, this rest and time for introspection often lasts all evening.
Jewish law mandates that Hanukkah candles burn for a minimum of 20 minutes; many of today’s brightly colored candles are designed to burn for that long and no more. Traditionally, however, Jewish families have lit Hanukkah menorahs using olive oil, or large candles that burn for a long time. This Hanukkah, consider experimenting with this custom, spending time while our Hanukkah lights burn to take a break from the mundane, and to enjoy the beauty of the holiday in a whole new way.