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Celebrating Hanukkah in Austin? Do it virtually as a community or in person at home

Nicole Villalpando
Austin American-Statesman
The first candle of the menorah remains lit during an annual Hanukkah dinner party last year. This year, Hanukkah will be celebrated with the people in your household and virtually with the community.

Like most of the other Jewish holidays in 2020, Hanukkah, which begins Thursday night, is going to be different. Think virtual community candle lightings, as well as gathering in your house with your household members in person for actual candle lightings and connecting by Zoom or FaceTime with friends and family members not in your household. 

We've got this, Jewish Austin. After all, we've made it through 39 weeks of virtual Shabbat, plus virtual Passover Seders, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah.

Here are a few of the virtual events happening as well as a primer for non-Jewish friends to explain what this Festival of Lights is all about. 

A boy sings traditional Hanukkah songs during a menorah lighting ceremony outside the Capitol in 2017. This year the candle lighting events will be held virtually.

Virtual community candle lighting

Shalom Austin, the Jewish Community Center in Austin, hosts nightly virtual community candle lightings Dec. 10-17. Go to shalomaustin.org/candlelighting to get the link or view it on facebook.com/JewishAustin.

6 p.m. Dec. 10: The candle lighting also features a Kulanu Concert with music from Jewish congregations throughout Central Texas. 

4:30 p.m. Dec. 11: This program is designed for seniors in the community.

6 p.m. Dec. 12: Shalom Austin Jewish Family Service will honor volunteers in the community.

6 p.m. Dec. 13: PJ Library program, as well as the community's Jewish preschools and Shalom Austin, are putting together this program for preschoolers.

6 p.m. Dec. 14: The Jewish Day Schools create a program for the elementary schoolers.

6 p.m. Dec. 15: Austin's Jewish youth groups are putting this program together for teens.

6 p.m. Dec. 16: This lighting is being put together by young adult groups. 

6 p.m. Dec. 17: Community leaders will close out Hanukkah with this lighting.

Virtual congregational events

7 p.m. Dec. 10-17: Congregation Tiferet Israel offers CTI Chai Lights candle lightings virtually. tiferetaustin.org

6:30 p.m. Dec. 12: Congregation Agudas Achim offers Hanukkah Across Agudas with songs, games, a short film and discussion as well as a candle lighting. Link at  theaustinsynagogue.org

7 p.m. Dec. 12: Congregation Kol Halev's Hanukkah Celebration will feature songs and stories. kolhalev.org

5 p.m. Dec. 13: Congregation Shalom Rav virtual Hanukkah Party. shalomravaustin.com

5:30 p.m. Dec. 13: Temple Beth Shalom will hold nightly candle lightings at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 12-17. Each night has a different event such as games or a story or a song session. It finishes out with a party on Dec. 17. bethshalomaustin.org

6:30 p.m. Dec. 13: Congregation Beth Israel's Chanukah Celebration with songs, stories, preschool presentations and a candle lighting. bethisrael.org

6:30 p.m. Dec. 13: Congregation Shir Ami in Cedar Park's Chanukah party.  shir-ami.net

More:Austin holiday events in 2020: A guide to Christmas fun and more

Aaron Rogalski, left, 9, and his sister Elise Rogalski, 7, look at Hanukkuh books at their home in Leander in 2009. Many families are especially decorating for Hanukkah this year when they cannot travel to be with family or go to synagogues for the annual latke party.

More:Jewish families in Westlake find new meaning in Hanukkah during coronavirus

What you need to know about Hanukkah

How long does Hanukkah last?

Jewish holidays always start at night. This year, Hanukkah starts on Thursday evening and continues through the day of Dec. 18. It’s eight nights and eight days total.

Why does Hanukkah always seem to skip around the month of December?

Hanukkah follows the Hebrew calendar. It’s always the 25th day of the month of Kislev. Because the Hebrew calendar is lunar based and includes leap months instead of leap years, it doesn’t line up with the solar calendar the secular world uses, but in general, Hanukkah usually starts sometime in the month of December. Occasionally it starts as early as the end of November or goes as late as the first week of January. In 2013, it just happened that the first day was Thanksgiving, creating the new holiday of “Thanksgivukkah.” In 2016, the first day was Christmas and the first night was Christmas Eve, but that’s just a coincidence.

What’s the story?

It’s a war story that’s been romanticized. Judah Maccabee and his four brothers led a revolt against the Assyrian Greeks, who had taken over Jerusalem in the second century BCE. The Maccabees won and regained control of the Temple. It had been trashed. They cleaned it up and went to light the ritual menorah lamp but could find enough oil to last only one night. The miracle was that it lasted eight nights, giving the Maccabees enough time to make more oil. We celebrate Hanukkah for eight nights because of this story.

Is it Hanukkah or Chanukah?

It’s Hebrew, so the correct spelling is in Hebrew letters. There are many transliterations. None of them are wrong or right.

Is Hanukkah a major holiday?

Nope. Yom Kippur and Passover are much more important. Hanukkah only became a big deal in the last century as Jews and Christians lived side by side and Jewish children felt left out. (But don’t tell that to any Jewish children; they love this holiday.)

Laura Sawicki uses the shamash in 2019 to light the first candle on the menorah during an annual Hanukkah dinner party.

What do you do with a menorah?

In the modern tradition, each night a special menorah for Hanukkah called a Hanukkiah is lit. The Hanukkiah holds nine candles, one for each night, and the Shamash, a helper candle that lights the other candles. On the first night, you light the Shamash first, and one candle on the far right side of the Hanukkiah. Each night you add a candle and light the newest candle first, moving left to right.

There are blessings in Hebrew or English to be said:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, she-asah nisim laavoteinu v’imoteinu bayamim hahaeim baz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in days of old at this season.

For first night only: Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higianu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.

What about presents?

Each family has a different tradition, but the most common is kids get a present a night for eight nights. The presents only happen after lighting the menorah.

Is there a Hanukkah Harry?

No, that’s a “Saturday Night Live” skit. Kids receive presents from their parents, grandparents, friends and others.

Is there a Hanukkah bush?

Not really, but some Jewish families do decide to have a small tree because they want a tree like their Christian friends.

Potato latkes are a traditional Hanukkah food. You can skip some of the grating and use hashbrowns.
Traditional Israeli doughnuts called sufganiyot can be made at home.

What do you eat?

Well, on Hanukkah, it’s all about the oil. There are two traditional foods. The first is sufganiyot, which are jelly doughnuts. The second is latkes, potato pancakes. You mix grated potatoes, diced onions, salt and pepper together, and add egg and matzo meal (or flour) until you can form a patty. Fry in a frying pan with about 1/8 inch of oil in it. Tip: Use shredded hashbrowns to skip the grating.

Need something more challenging? Try latkes made out of sweet potatoes, zucchini or squash.

Andrew Couch, 11, left, and his brother Ben Couch, 8, compete in a dreidel tournament at Recycled Read in 2014. You can play this game at home using pennies, M&Ms, raisins or Lego pieces as the poker chips.

What do you play?

Dreidel is the most common game. Each side of the dreidel has a Hebrew letter that stands for the phrase Nes Gadol Haya Sham (A great miracle happened there). You can play with as many players as you want. Each player should start with the same number of pennies, M&Ms, raisins or the traditional chocolate coins called gelt. Each player puts one penny into the pot in the middle. You take turns rolling the dreidel. If it lands on a Nun (which looks like a blocky backward C) you get none of the pot. If you land on a Gimmel (which looks like a blocky backward C with a tail), you get all of the pot. If you land on a Hay (which looks like an upside-down L with a small line to one side), you get half of the pot. If you land on a Shin (which looks like a W), you put one penny into the pot. You keep playing until someone has all of the pennies or until it’s time for bed.

Happy Hanukkah!