Chanukah isn't a very important Jewish holiday, but because it comes at approximately at the same time as Christmas and includes giving gifts, it has become highly commercialized.
I didn't like Chanukah much when I was a child. I preferred Christmas because they had all the decorations and Santa Claus and elves, and flying reindeer. All Chanukah has is a candelabra and a dreidel, which is a top that figures into the story.
Chanukah does have catchy songs and dances and food. All Jewish celebrations, except Yom Kippur, have food. Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, is the most serious of Jewish holidays. We're not supposed to enjoy anything about it. So that's probably why we're supposed to fast.
I was too young to fast when my Orthodox Grandmother lived with us, and I'm too old and agnostic now to fast on Yom Kippur. But I did make potato latkes (potato pancakes) yesterday in honor of Chanukah.
So what is Chanukah? Well it is supposed to celebrate the miracle of the oil, but I think it's a rather feeble miracle as miracles go. Twenty-one-hundred-seventy-sixty years ago Palestine was occupied by the Greeks, it's always somebody, and the King forbade the Jews from practicing their religion bad idea. Jews, as we know, can be very stubborn.
Greek soldiers would break up any gathering of Jewish men. A Sabbath service requires minyan, or 10 adult men to hold the service. Women didn't count but boys over 13, who had been bar mitzphed, did. So the men came up with the idea to pretend they were playing dice, well dreidel, which was a gambling game similar to dice.
In dice you would through the die and it would land on 1 to 6. In dreidel you would spin the dreidel and it would land on one of the four sides with a Hebrew symbol on it.
Honestly I don't know how to play dreidel, but the men used to gather around and bet on the spins and this fooled the Greek soldiers into leaving them alone so they could secretly hold a service. Anyway that's the story I heard from my Grandmother and it made sense to me.
So in the dreidel game money was used as a prop. In later years when Chanukah was celebrated, children would be given coins or chocolate wrapped in gold foil to look like coins to play the dreidel game. When retailers and advertisers figured out that Jews could be convinced to spend Chanukah gelt on gifts so Jewish kids wouldn't feel deprived at Christmas, that's when giving gifts at Chanukah took off.
But what was the miracle, you ask? OK you didn't ask, but I'll tell you. The Jewish rebels led by a family named Maccabee attacked the Greek occupiers and drove them out of the Temple. That was probably miracle enough, but when they went to rededicate the Temple and light the lamps, there was only enough oil left for one day. By a miracle, the oil lasted eight days.
Huh, someone could have been sneaking in and adding oil every day. The Society for Humanistic Judaism claims the whole miracle was made up so Jews would keep celebrating the victory of the Maccabees in Chanukah.
But just think what if there really is miracle oil that could burn 8 times longer than regular oil. Maybe Chevron should be drilling for this stuff. We could fill up our cars and go 8 times further on a tank of gas and not even need a hybrid. Now that would be a miracle.