The first candle will be lit on the Chanukah menorah (chanukiah) on Wednesday, November 27, the night before the observance of the American holiday of Thanksgiving. This calendrical phenomenon won’t happen again for another 79,000 years!
I have known of families that have observed Chanukah early while children and grandchildren were visiting during Thanksgiving. This year, those same families can share Chanukah while enjoying a holiday during which Americans commonly extend their hospitality for a festive meal and celebration. Perhaps sweet potato latkes (potato pancakes are one of the foods eaten on Chanukah) are in order!
Recently, the Pew Research Center published “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” evaluating the results of surveys that were completed in recent months This study characterized an identity among Jewish Americans that mirrors the themes of both Chanukah and Thanksgiving, including consideration of others, an appreciation of freedom, and being grateful for what we have.
Chanukah, often called the “Festival of Lights,” commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem as a Jewish place of worship in 165 B.C. after it had been taken over by the Syrian Greek rulers of Judea three years earlier. The Jews of that time realized that they needed to assert their right to be different and pride in their tradition in order to survive.
Thanksgiving's origin story portrays the process of developing cooperation between European newcomers and Native Americans.
The Thanksgiving proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War sought to unify the nation in one celebration of gratitude among all citizens.
Embedded in that declaration was a hope for an end to the conflict between North and South so that Americans could turn, once again, to an appreciation for the bounty of the earth.
According to the Second Book of Maccabees (in the books of the Apocrypha), the Jews who had retaken and rededicated the Temple in 165 B.C. in late fall/early winter, decided to observe the Feast of Booths, Sukkot, the harvest festival that had occurred two months earlier (before the fighting had ended). In that celebration, Chanukah took on the same theme of gratitude for the produce of the land which we mark on Thanksgiving.
The Pew survey noted that the Jewish community in the United States espouses the values of leading an ethical/moral life, working for justice and equality, combating hatred, being intellectually curious, and even having a good sense of humor. While the question "do you light the candles on Chanukah?" was not part of this study, it is likely that, in 90% of homes where at least one family member is Jewish, there will be a menorah burning brightly, perhaps visible to passersby.
The prayer that is recited right after lighting the candles notes that the lights of the Chanukah candles are holy, sacred and special. The glow emanating from the menorah is not to be used for any task or work. The lights of Chanukah signify the importance of preserving freedom and of retaining a connection to a time-honored heritage.
I recently came across an evening prayer in the Reform Jewish prayerbook as I was reading through the service with my seventh grade students. These words can voice our gratitude for what we have, as individuals, as families, and a community:
"We are called unto life, destiny uncertain,
yet we offer thanks for what we know:
for health and healing, labor and repose;
for renewal of beauty in earth and sky;
for that blend of human-holy which inspires compassion;
for eternal, promising light.
For beautiful, bountiful blessing,
all praise to the Source of Being."
May we ever be grateful for the gifts we enjoy!