Everything You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Hanukkah But Were Afraid To Ask

MENORAH2I was born a Catholic but last night I did what I’ve been doing for many years – I made latkes.  Our family is interfaith – my husband is Jewish, and I guess I’ve been an honorary Jew ever since our first Hanukkah together when I tried to buy a menorah for my husband-to-be.

When I was a kid growing up in my Southern California community, Jews (and Jewish items like a menorah) were not so easily found.  I didn’t have a clue where to buy a menorah so I went to the most cosmopolitan place I could think of – a department store.

“Do you carry menorahs?” I asked a clerk on the ground floor.

She looked at me like I was speaking in tongues.

“A what?”

I tried to explain, but I really didn’t have a clue myself.

She suggested I try bedding.

A department store was obviously not the best place to go looking for a menorah, but back then, who knew?  Luckily, I was rescued by a little old lady who got my attention with a very loud, “Psssst!”  I looked over her way and she beckoned me like one of those ticket scalpers at a sporting event.

“You want a menorah?” she asked in a voice barely above a whisper.

“Yes,” I answered.  “Do you know what department?”

She grinned.

“Honey, you won’t find it here.”

“I won’t?”

“You won’t find it anywhere in this mall, or any mall in this whole town.  You’ve got to call the Temple!”

“The what?!”

The old lady sighed deeply and reached into her purse for paper and a pen.

I didn’t understand: Why was it so difficult to find something Jewish?  And then, I started thinking back to all my Jewish friends I had growing up: I had one.  I think.  I went through junior and senior high with my friend, Carol, but she never talked about being Jewish and nobody ever asked her, so who knew?! There weren’t a lot of Jews in our town, or at least we didn’t know them. My only understanding of what it meant to be Jewish was when my mother explained to me when I was a little girl that “Jewish people get eight presents at Christmas.”

Clearly, I had a lot of learning to do.

And I started the moment I bought that menorah.

Unfortunately, I didn’t buy it at the Temple – It was too far for me to drive (Yes, this was during the beginnings of my agoraphobia) and I made the mistake of going into Susie’s Hallmark Gifts and Stationary Store across the street from my old high school.  Hallmark is known for celebrating the holidays – I was sure they’d have a menorah.

I was right.

Until I gave the wrapped gift to my husband-to-be.

His smile froze as he peeled away the wrapping.


I detected a problem.

“…What…is it?” he asked, carefully.

“It’s a menorah for Hanukkah!” I said proudly.

“Uh, honey…It’s not.”

“Yes, it is! It definitely is! It’s from a Hallmark Store!

“I’m pretty sure, no, it’s not.”

“But it holds candles…”

Six candles. We light eight candles on Hanukkah.”

Who knew?!

This was the beginning of my education in Jewish culture.

To this day I have no idea what that item was that I bought for my husband.  But he was so touched that I had tried to find him a Hanukkah menorah that he used it anyway.  We set up two small candleholders next to the six on the menorah-wannabee and just-like-that we created our own Hanukkah menorah. Once our son was born (and catalogue ordering became a possibility) we bought a real menorah for Hanukkah.  And I learned about latkes, dreidels, and Hanukkah gelt.  More importantly, I learned what Hanukkah was all about.

It’s about a miracle.

And that’s something any Catholic or Christian can understand.

The Hanukkah Handbook If You’re Not Jewish

Hanukkah: In 168 B.C.E. the Jewish Temple was seized by Syrian-Greek soldiers and their emperor made the observance of Judaism an offense punishable by death.

Jewish resistance began and these rebels became known as the Maccabees.  Eventually, they succeeded in retaking their land from the Greeks and once the Maccabees had regained control they returned to their Temple in Jerusalem.  The Jewish troops were determined to purify the Temple by burning ritual oil in the Temple’s menorah for eight days. But to their dismay, they discovered that there was only one day’s worth of oil left in the Temple. They lit the menorah anyway and to their surprise the small amount of oil lasted the full eight days. This is the miracle of the Hanukkah oil that is celebrated every year when Jews light a special menorah known as a hanukkiyah for eight days. One candle is lit on the first night of Hanukkah, two on the second, and so on, until eight candles are lit.

Macabees lighting menorah

Latkes:  Potato pancakes that are fried in oil – symbolizing the oil used by the Macabees.


Dreidel:  A four-sided spinning top played with during Hanukkah.


Gelt: refers to money as well as chocolate coins given to Jewish children on the festival of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah Gelt

Happy 6th Night of Hanukkah!

41 thoughts on “Everything You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Hanukkah But Were Afraid To Ask

  1. Darlene, I loved this story dearly. It contrasts in my mind with my visit to Israel in 2008. I couldn’t believe HOW MUCH Jewish stuff there was for sale all over the place. It’s true what they say that it’s easy to be Jewish in Israel.


    • Never been to Israel, but I’m guessing that’s true. My dear friend, Cookie went to Israel and said that it was so difficult to explain how much it meant to her as a Jew to be in a country where she wasn’t the minority. It filled her with great love and brought tears to her eyes for much of the visit. Thanks, Java for coming by and reading my post.


  2. Darlene, I loved this story. It contrasts in my mind with my visit to Israel in 2008. Jewish stuff was on sale EVERYWHERE, and lots of it. It’s true what they say, that it’s easy to be Jewish in Israel.


  3. As usual, Darlene, I love this blog entry. I have to say that growing up in Canada, Western Canada, at least, I did not encounter a single Jewish person until I was in university. And then the Jewish people I met were all draft dodgers from the Viet Nam war and their friends and family. I have to admit it was the beginning of a cultural revolution in Victoria. For the first time ever many of us tasted bagels! The rapidly increasing Jewish community in Victoria brought with them many other cultural things and I think it truly was beginning of a cultural Revolution in that area of Canada. Along with bagels, they brought independent newspapers and independent theater and opened our eyes to the rest of the world. Happy Hanukkah to you, Phil and the kids!


    • Thank you, Lynne. That’s so fascinating to learn about the war resisters that moved to Canada during the Vietnam War. So those young men (I’m assuming they were all men because the draft only affected men) all settled there in Canada permanently? I don’t believe our government ever offered clemency to those individuals who fled the country rather than face imprisonment for not serving.


      • Yes, they were probably hundreds who came to Victoria alone. Canada wide the number was probably in the thousands. After the war was over, most of them remained in Canada and took out Canadian citizenship. At one point, they were offered clemency, and were allowed to return to the US if they wanted to, But the majority of them stayed. Interestingly enough, many of them worked in the social
        services professions as special ed teachers or childcare providers. At one point I think I had more American friends than Canadian friends because I also worked in those fields. The majority of the draftdodgers had no interest in returning to the US.
        In fact, they are probably among the most politically active Canadians that I know.


  4. What a wonderful article. It was accurate and informative and I enjoyed reading it. Unfortunately, where I live in SW Florida I don’t make it known that I am Jewish because of rampant antisemitism and my tremendous fears. I have two young grandsons who have already been bullied for lesser reasons and announcing they are 1/2 Jewish would bring down the wrath of Khan on them. This is real redneck country……a real coulture shock for a Jewish kid who was born in Brooklyn.


    • I am so saddened by what you’ve written here. I wish I had the right words to eliminate all forms of bullying – especially that which is found in anti-Semitism. My heart goes out to you, and to your two young grandsons. Keep talking with them and let them know that the intolerance they have witnessed isn’t felt by everyone. Racial hatred is taught, and bigotry is handed down from one generation to another. The cycle only ends through education, and exposing the young to diversity of peoples, cultures, and other ways of looking at the world.


      • They weren’t actually bullied because out of antisemitism, but because they are both a bit overweight and don’t have nice clothes. Kids can be so terribly cruel. My daughter and SIL took them out of that school. If I didn’t have a myriad of fears I would be glad to tell people I’m Jewish. It’s such a proud heritage. I just feel safer keeping it to myself. We do talk about it at home though, and the boys know that there are stupid people in the world that make things rough for others. They know they don’t announce it because of any shame of being Jewish. My grandsons are not fighters. They are brilliant when it comes to book smarts but not at all learned in street smarts. That’s okay. I like it that way. We can celebrate quietly at home. We are not religious. In fact, I am a Jewish atheist. I don’t believe in God but as I’ve said, the Jewish heritage is so beautifully rich. I relate to the cultural part of Judiasm.


  5. I must say I find your celebration of both Christmas and Hanukkah inspiring. It reminded me of my four-year-old self climbing the hillside to the kindergarten of Montego Bay’s Mount Alvernia Convent. I hopped up the flight of stone steps to the rhythm of two prayers: the Arabic one my
    had father taught me and the Latin one of the nuns. I had little idea at the time of their meaning. I later found they were similar. Thank you for a wonderful blog. May you have a warm family time at this festive season and a happy New Year!


    • Thank you so much for coming by and reading this post. It’s alway a delight to hear from you and a special treat to read your remembrances. That is a wonderful story about reciting the two prayers. Once again, your storytelling (with its precise attention to detail) is just beautiful.


Let's keep the conversation going...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s