Hanukkah evolves as part of holiday season
Growing up in the Jewish faith, Lauren McLeod has found memories of Hanukkah.
Every year there were eight days of presents, lighting candles and one big meal featuring potato latkes with applesauce and a main course of brisket.
There was no Christmas tree and the presents were small, but meaningful.
“It was just a nice holiday,” said McLeod, of Edgeworth, who serves as vice president and membership chair of the board at Beth Samuel Jewish Center in Ambridge. “It wasn’t like the rest of the world is, where Christmas is so overpowering, at times.”
When she married a Catholic man, they agreed their children would be raised Jewish. Yet her husband had so many fond memories of Christmas as a child that they later agreed to celebrate the holiday.
Christmas became a big deal in their home, too.
“It was a little different,” said McLeod, who doesn’t have those fond childhood memories of Christmas, like her husband does.
But the family enjoyed both holidays. McLeod went into her children’s schools to share the story of Hanukkah with youngsters, something her daughter does today.
Religious leaders agree Hanukkah, which begins the evening of Dec. 12 and continues through Dec. 20, has changed over the last several decades with the rise of interfaith marriage. They say people today also are looking more to celebrate the holiday in the community with their neighbors and friends, similar to how Christmas tree lightings and festivals are held across the area. Years ago, they stayed at home to celebrate.
“I certainly see a lot more activity in the Jewish community than there was years ago,” said Adam Hertzman, director of marketing for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. “Jewish families — and interfaith families — have realized it’s just a nice time of year to come together. Hanukkah is an opportunity to bring people together.”
Historically, Hanukkah wasn’t meant to be a huge holiday, Hertzman said.
Hanukkah, known as the “festival of lights,” celebrated with nightly menorah lightings, prayers and fried food, was promoted in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century by rabbis who “wanted a way to celebrate a Jewish holiday when Jews saw all of their Christian neighbors celebrating,” Hertzman said. “It’s grown over time.”
The holiday is “extremely kid-friendly,” Hertzman said, with dreidels and foods like latkes and sufganiyot, which are similar to jelly doughnuts. Each night during the eight-night holiday, a candle on the menorah is lit to commemorate victory over the Seleucids and that one cruse of oil meant to light a menorah for night that lasted eight nights.
Synagogues and communities across the Pittsburgh region have added many new events centered around Hanukkah — similar to those you’d see for Christmas, Hertzman said. Tying in those key elements, they hold candle lightings or latke dinners.
This gives families looking to celebrate Hanukkah an event to attend other than traditional tree lightings held in nearly every town.
But it’s OK to attend both, Hertman said.
“I don’t look at it as a competition,” he said. “I say the more community the merrier.”
Hertzman and his wife plan to go looking at Christmas lights “just because they’re beautiful.”
The Chabad of South Hills in Mt. Lebanon this year will add a second public menorah lighting event to bring the community together with crafts, raffles and food.
For nearly 20 years, the Chabad has held a menorah lighting event in the South Hills. It found a home for the event for the last four years on the second floor of the Galleria of Mt. Lebanon, where as many as 400 people gather for the lighting ceremony.
The ceremony brings together both those of the Jewish faith and those interested in seeing it in practice, Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum said.
“It just basically brings down the barriers,” he said.
This year, the Chabad will hold its first outdoor menorah lighting — with a 12-foot-tall menorah — in Dormont on Dec. 18 at 6 p.m. on Potomac Avenue.
“We’re really making it comfortable for people in any kind of situation,” he said.
A study completed by Pew Research Center in 2015 found that four in 10 Americans who have married since 2010 have partnered with someone of a different faith.
That can affect how holidays are celebrated.
That’s why the Chabad “strongly encourages people to marry within the faith, because faith is a bedrock of a marriage,” Rosenblum said.
If one parent isn’t raised in the religion they’re celebrated, “certainly you’re not going to carry on with the same fervor into the next generation,” he said.
In some families, if they don’t agree on what holiday to celebrate, in some instances, they just don’t celebrate any, he said.
However, others embrace both, Hertzman said.
Hanukkah serves as a nice time for families looking to introduce their children to the faith, or to themselves reconnect with the faith, he said.
Now that her children are no longer little, McLeod said both Hanukkah and Christmas are different. Her family often travels for the holidays and this year she plans on smaller, nicer gifts for the family.
But she set a basis when they were young. They know about Hanukkah and have those memories, just like she does.
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.