The Mississippi Delta’s Jewish population may be small, but the heart of their annual Hanukkah celebration is not.
“It’s a festive luncheon,” said Rabbi Debra Kassoff of the Hebrew Union Temple in Greenville. Hanukkah this year starts at sunset Dec. 22 and ends at nightfall Dec. 30.
With about 50 member units on the books for Hebrew Union Temple, many of whom live far away from the Mississippi Delta, Kassoff said she expects there to be about 25 people in attendance for the Hanukkah party.
To honor Hanukkah traditions, the congregation of the Hebrew Union Temple will celebrate Sunday by eating a variety of dishes and learning the history of Hanukkah through story and song.
The events that inspired the Hanukkah holiday started around 200 B.C., when Judea came under the control of Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria, who allowed the Jews who lived there to continue practicing their religion.
His son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, outlawed the Jewish religion and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods. In 168 B.C., his soldiers massacred thousands of people in Jerusalem and desecrated the city’s holy Second Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs — an animal Jews believe to be unclean and unfit to eat — within its walls.
Led by the Jewish priest Mattathias and his five sons, a large-scale rebellion broke out against Antiochus and the Seleucid monarchy. Within two years, the Jews had successfully driven the Syrians out of Jerusalem, relying largely on guerilla warfare tactics.
Despite their lack of resources and number of men to fight, they won.
“Who’s to say these, what seem to be just coincidental circumstances, would enable the Maccabees to win the battle wasn’t orchestrated by some higher power?” Kassoff said.
In order to celebrate their win, they had to rededicate their Temple by burning sanctified oil to light the eternal light.
Those who took part in the rededication of the Second Temple witnessed what they believed to be a miracle. Even though there was only enough oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single day, the flames continued flickering for eight nights.
When established, the first Hanukkah was a do-over for Sekkot, an eight-day fall festival Jews had not been able to observe during the Maccebean Revolt.
Traditional Hanukkah dishes are fried in oil to commemorate the miracle associated with the temple oil.
For their Hanukkah luncheon, as they have done most years, Kassoff said they will eat potato latkes, which is typically served with sour cream or applesauce, and brisket.
“Brisket isn’t Hanukkah in particular, but every Jewish mother makes it for the holiday,” Kassoff said with a laugh. Another traditional food to eat is jelly doughnuts, or Sufganiyah.
Their Hanukkah celebration will also include children playing games of dreidel, which is a four-sided spinning top featuring a Hebrew letter on each side to learn about the miracles of Hanukkah, a retelling of the Hanukkah story through either skits or reading the story to the children while the rest of the group listens in.
They will also sing traditional songs like “Sivivon, Sov, Sov, Sov,” (Dreidel, Spin, spin, spin), and “Ma’Oz Tzur” (Rock of Ages).
The words of “Rock of Ages” describe the story of the military victory over the invading Syrian Army.
There is also the tradition of giving Hanukkah gelt (foil-wrapped chocolates), Kassoff said, which is a Yiddish term for ‘coins’ or ‘money.’
The gelt represents the time when the Maccabees were more independent, running their own government and striking their own coins. Jewish children used to be given real gelt, actual money, as their presents.
“It’s actually a minor part of the holiday. It’s become a more major part of the holiday since Queen Victoria and Christmas. It’s a big showy thing,” Kassoff said.
Kassoff said it’s easy to find chocolate coins made to look like American money, but if someone is going to celebrate Hanukkah correctly, they need to make sure they’re purchasing what looks like authentic gelt.
It was gelt that started the tradition of giving gifts throughout Hanukkah. Although Hanukkah is not considered the “Jewish Christmas,” Kassoff said a lot of Jewish families began to give gifts to make their children feel better during the Christmas holiday.
“At some point, the giving of presents at Hanukkah time became the Jewish answer to Christmas to help Jewish children feel better about not getting to celebrate Christmas,” she said.
The most important holiday ritual is lighting the candles on the menorah, which Hebrew Union Temple members will do together.
“Traditionally, the candles are lit in the evening, but we do it while we are together. Since the first candle will be lit at sundown, it’s kind of appropriate that we are gathering together, even if it’s just a little bit early,” Kassoff said.
Menorahs don’t burn straight for eight days in a row today because many of the modern wax candles melt in about 30 minutes. Most Jewish homes keep them displayed in their windows.
“Long before Christianity and certainly long before Judaism, there were all sorts of mid-winter traditions,” Kassoff said. “To have a festival of lights that falls at this time of year is the most natural thing in the world.”
With a rich history full of multiple layers, Kassoff said the three main components of Hanukkah are about 1.) Religious freedom, 2.) Rededication, and 3.) Hope.
“Those are the messages that we really try to get across to our children,” Kassoff said. “That’s where we feel the value of the holiday lies.”