Celebrating Hanukkah: Customs, Rituals, Traditions

By M. Diane McCormick

A candle burning in the window sends holiday greetings to all who pass by. For families celebrating Hanukkah, the candle – or rather, eight of them – represent resilience, perseverance, and faith.

“The menorah has a beautiful message of illuminating the world,” says Rabbi Shmuel Pewzner, director of Chabad Lubavitch Harrisburg. “We light the menorah when it gets dark outside. You can’t chase away darkness with a stick. We have to light up the world. We light a Hanukkah candle by the window to illuminate our darkness, and we don’t do it only for ourselves. We also do it in the window to illuminate not just our home but the community around us.”

Here, we visit three Hanukkah as they are celebrated throughout the midstate – a public menorah lighting, one family’s tradition, and of course, the food.

“Pennsylvania’s menorah”

In the early 1990s, Operation Desert Storm was raging in the Middle East, and Pennsylvania’s secretary of General Services was serving in Kuwait.

Around the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a public menorah lighting in Pittsburgh didn’t cross the boundary between faith and state in a space frequently used for public expression. Rabbi Pewzner put in a request to DGS. Could he plan a public menorah lighting on the steps of the Pennsylvania Capitol? Yes, said the secretary. In light of all the darkness he’d seen in countries that stifled religious freedom, he saw a strong message to share with Americans.

Pewzner already knew that message.

“Every day we add another candle to the menorah. This teaches us that we need to do a little extra each day to make the world brighter, kinder, gentler,” he says.

The menorah has been lit in and around the Capitol, now from its regular spot in the East Wing Rotunda, since then. Administration and legislative officials put the ceremony on their calendars. Gov. Tom Ridge called it “Pennsylvania’s menorah.”

“That’s why our celebration in Harrisburg is unique,” says Pewzner. “Governors have been participating many, many years.”

The first candle is lit with great ceremony, including “lively Jewish music,” at 4:30 p.m. on the first day of Hanukkah, Dec. 2 this year. Pittsburgh is once again on Rabbi Pewzner’s mind, for an act of evil that keeps 11 families from celebrating Hanukkah with joy in their hearts. He will encourage all his listeners to share good deeds.

“When we face darkness, we have to increase the light,” he says. “A good deed is also referred to as mitzvah. A mitzvah is also referred to as light. We have to illuminate the world by doing more good deeds, and that way we’ll make the world a better place. The only way we can fight baseless hatred is through baseless love.”

A light, he added, “is also compared to the soul. The soul of man is referred to as a candle of God. We all have within us this candle that is waiting to be illuminated.”

 The food

Gather ’round for brisket, potato pancakes, and donuts. Those fried items have meaning, hearkening back to the reason Jews around the world celebrate Hanukkah. They are commemorating the 2nd-century victory of the Jews against their Greek oppressors, when a one-day supply of holy oil in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem – the only consecrated oil in the temple – lasted eight days.

“Anything fried in oil is because of the oil that burned in the temple for eight days, when it was supposed to last for one day,” says Bella Altman, of Lower Paxton Twp.

Altman takes a global view to Jewish holiday food. She’s originally from Curacao and grew up in Panama, where most of her family still lives. Her grandparents were Greek.

Maybe that’s why the culinary traditions of Jews worldwide fascinate her. Hanukkah is the celebration that makes for shared traditions, no matter the latitude and longitude, she says. She has tried recipes favored by Jews of Spain, Morocco, Poland, and Romania.

Learning that her Greek ancestors ran a bakery inspired her to attempt a recipe for a Hanukkah cookie traditionally made with honey. This one had a Greek twist, using something akin to sugar water for sweetness.

“My family really liked it, but it didn’t look like it did in the picture,” she says. “But who knows? Nobody really sat and told me this is the way you make it. My kids don’t know the difference.” 

Family traditions

Jaclyn Rubin asked her kids a question. What comes to mind when you think of Hanukkah?

The menorah, they said. Family time. Extended family time. Latkes. The blessings. Singing and dancing. The dreidel. Brisket. Fun.

She waited for them to say “presents,” but it never came.

“I was shocked,” she said. “It’s not that we’re against presents, but that’s not the focal point. It’s the experiences. We do things as a family, and we keep up the tradition.”

Jaclyn and Scott Rubin, of Lower Paxton Twp., are the parents of Noah, 8; Daniel, 5; and Samantha, 2. All have their own menorahs. Noah was born 16 hours before the start of Hanukkah. His first candle was lit on an electric menorah at the hospital.

The holiday is “about faith and perseverance and freedom, and we can celebrate that together,” said Rubin. She and her husband try to instill in their children “a strong sense that they are proud to be Jewish, that they are confident to be Jewish, and they know where and why we do things.”

Every Hanukkah is a time for reinforcing the core Jewish value of giving back. The children have their own traditional tzedakah boxes, saving money for charity. When they attend the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg’s Hanukkah celebration – part of the season’s fun – they bring presents to donate to less fortunate children.

The family eats latke sandwiches – Scott’s mother’s amazing brisket, packed between her equally marvelous potato pancakes – and “they’re delicious,” Rubin said. Rubin makes her grandmother’s matzoh-meal latkes. “I call her every year to try and get the recipe, and she doesn’t remember. We make it work. We improvise.”

Scott’s huge extended family – both his parents came from families of five children – gathers for celebrations, and now the children of all those cousins “are getting to grow up together and celebrate together,” says Rubin. “There’s nothing you want more than that.”

Every night in the home, menorahs are lit. Traditional blessings are said. The children join in the songs. When the lights are low, and all five menorahs are burning, the room has a beautiful glow.

“Life is so busy,” Rubin says, “but it forces us to pause.”