Archived Story

Hanukkah celebrates freedom of religion

Published 12:56pm Thursday, April 11, 2013

Column: Guest Column, by Taryn Israel Nechanicky

Last December I received an electronic greeting card from the college I attended and noticed the multiple specific holidays listed and languages used.

The card mentioned holidays of various religions such as Christianity (Christmas), Judaism (Hanukkah), Buddhism (Bodhi Day), Jain, Zorastrian, Hindu (Diwali), Islam, Sikhism, pagan (winter solstice), and Ba’hai. They also mentioned Kwanzaa, an African-American cultural celebration.

Taryn Israel Nechanicky
Taryn Israel Nechanicky

There are also cultures and faiths practiced by people in Albert Lea that are relatively new to me. Examples are Druze (a religion) and Karen (an ethnic group and language). Whether in December, or during the other months of the Gregorian calendar, there are religious and cultural festivals celebrated by people of the world’s religions and cultures.

Knowing that this diversity exists is inspiring to me, especially at times of year when much of popular culture centers around Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter.

As a member of the Human Rights Commission of Albert Lea, I was tasked with sharing information about religious diversity, specifically about holidays celebrated around December. The goal of the Human Rights Commission of Albert Lea is to educate people to prevent discrimination. We aim to foster a community of civility and inclusiveness, a community that is welcoming, curious and engaged in continuous learning about people of diverse gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, ability, race, language, nationality and religion.

December is the month when Christmas occurs. I can say with certainty that the majority of the Albert Lea Tribune’s readers, if asked to state their religion, would reply with Christian and are familiar with the holiday of Christmas, its meaning and associated traditions, whether religious or commercial.

Among the various Christian denominations, though, there are diverse ways of celebrating Christmas. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and people in some other Christian denominations believe in Jesus, but they do not use symbols typically associated with Christmas such as Christmas trees, Santa Claus and reindeer. Some Latino cultures celebrate Las Posadas, and there is the Swedish tradition of St. Lucia.

The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah also often falls in December. The Jewish calendar follows a lunar cycle, so Hanukkah is celebrated on the same day of the Jewish calendar each year (the 25th of Kislev), but this corresponds to a different date each year on the calendar used in the United States. In 2012, Hanukkah was celebrated from the evenings of Dec. 8 through Dec. 15. The holiday commemorates an event in Jewish history, when a small group of Jews fought a large and powerful group of people who ultimately destroyed the great Temple of the Jewish people.

In the temple, a menorah was always lit, using a special oil. In cleaning up the remains of the destroyed temple, the Jews found a small amount of oil, enough to light the menorah for only one day. One of the Hanukkah miracles was that the oil lasted for eight days, allowing for time to procure more oil.

To commemorate the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days, we celebrate Hanukkah by lighting candles in a menorah for eight nights, each night adding one more candle, until on the last night, all candles are lit.

Other traditions associated with Hanukkah are eating potato pancakes fried in oil (to commemorate the oil miracle), called latkes, or fried doughnuts, called sufganiyot. Dreidels, a small spinning top are associated with the holiday, too. The dreidel is inscribed with a Hebrew letter on each side, and is a reminder of the great miracle that took place.

Interestingly, Hanukkah is never mentioned in the Bible, but rather is mentioned in ancillary texts and is a relatively minor holiday. There are no requirements to refrain from work, as there are in other Jewish holidays. Major holidays in Judaism are Rosh Hashanna, Yom Kippur and Passover, which recently was celebrated.

I enjoy the larger message or meaning of Hanukkah, which is freedom of religion. At the time of the Hanukkah story, the rulers of the land where the Jews lived forbade Jews from practicing their religion, and speaking their language. Many Jews took on the customs of the conquerors in order to survive, as happened in future periods like the Inquisition and the Holocaust for Jews (this week was Yom Hashoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day), during slavery for African Americans, and during the conquering of Native American lands by European people (think about the boarding schools for tribal children).

This meant not just assimilating but forgoing their traditions and converting religions.

Thankfully, in the United States, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees religious freedom, stating, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

I have explained a little bit about Hanukkah, a Jewish holiday, as I am Jewish. Personally, I enjoy learning about religious, ethnic and cultural traditions different than my own.

We have an opportunity to do so in Albert Lea. On Tuesday, Adeel Ahmed will speak about Islam at Southwest Middle School’s auditorium from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Come to learn some facts and myths about this ancient religion, one practiced by Minnesotans across the state. I wish all of the readers of these words compassion, peace and love, as we continue to learn about each other, both our differences and similarities.


Taryn Israel Nechanicky is a member of the Human Rights Commission of Albert Lea.