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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

The Miracle of the Oil
December 18, 1999

The Hanukkah Prayer

Each night of Hannukah another candle is lit and a prayer is sung.

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"Happy Hanukkah!!!" Benjamin screamed as he ran down the stairs. "I'm so excited... it's my first Hanukkah in Israel! I bet we'll get tons of chocolate and presents tonight!" His little sister Emily smiled in anticipation.

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It's time to learn about Hanukkah!
Benjamin and Emily were lucky kids. Their parents had sent them to visit their Aunt Irit and Uncle Ayal in Israel for the holidays this year. While their friends had to keep going to school in cold New York, they got to take a small vacation to sunny Tel Aviv. Here everyone knew what Hanukkah was; they didn't have to explain it to their classmates and friends. All the kids here were on holiday too, so they could find lots of playmates. They arrived on the eve of Hanukkah, and as soon as the sun set they ran to the kitchen to see if it was time to light the menorah. Their other relatives and friends of the family had come to join them to celebrate the first evening of the holiday together.

"MMMMmmmmmmmmmmmm... what's that smell?" asked Emily. Irit was frying some yummy smelling goodies.

"I'm making latkahs for Hanukkah," she replied dropping another potato pancake in the oil to fry.

"Yum! Latkahs and applesauce are my favorite!" said Benjamin.

"Applesauce... hmmmm... you Americans have strange ways of doing things," smiled Irit. "We generally eat them with sour cream, but I'll look for some applesauce for you if you like."

As soon as the latkahs were ready, Irit stacked the plate and brought them over to the table. "Let's light the menorah. Who wants to lead us in the prayers?"

Vocabulary Box

menorah - a candle holder with 9 candles used during the 8 days of Hanukkah
dreidel - a 4-sided toy marked with Hebrew letters and spun like a top in a game of chance
scant - scarce, not much

Emily and Benjamin smiled shyly at each other; neither of them could remember the right words to the prayer for Hanukkah. So their uncle lead the prayers and everyone else joined in, thanking God for the miracles and good fortune of the past and of today. They then continued by singing a song... Benjamin and Emily knew the tune well. "I never even knew this song had words!" Benjamin thought to himself while humming along. After lighting the first candle of the menorah the family enjoyed the latkahs and some tasty jam filled donuts and laughed and told stories.

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Lighting the Menorah
After hours of waiting in anticipation, Emily finally blurted out, "When do we get to open presents?"

"Presents? Well, isn't us all being together enough of a present?" smiled Ayal. "Okay... here you go." He handed them each three chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil.

"Gelt? Hanukkah gelt? Is that all we get? Is that just what you do for the first evening, then work in the real presents every other night?" asked Benjamin in shock.

"What do you mean by REAL presents? Hanukkah is a time of joy and family, it is the festival of lights, not a time of shopping and buying name brands."

Benjamin and Emily went to sleep disappointed that night. They had enjoyed playing games and singing songs with their relatives, but their thoughts were on their friends back home.

"I wonder how many of my friends got the new Sony Playstation game…" thought Benjamin.

The next day Benjamin and Emily sulked as they wandered quietly around the house. Their cousins Sharon and Tomer had gone to the community center to play with their friends, but they didn't feel like joining them.

"I've got an idea, let's make menorahs, so that tonight we can light your new creation!" suggested Irit, gathering art supplies.

"No that's okay, I don't feel like it." Benjamin replied as Emily nodded in agreement.

"Okay that's enough sulking out of you two. Hanukkah is supposed to be one of the funnest times of the year for young kids like you. Why aren't you out playing with the other kids? What's the matter?" their uncle finally asked.

"What's the point of praying and lighting the candles every night if you don't get presents for each night?"

"Is that all Hanukkah is to you two? Is it nothing more than a time of receiving presents?" asked Ayal.

"I've heard that's all that Christmas has turned into in Europe and America," said Irit.

"Do you see Hanukkah merely as the Jewish Christmas?"

"Well...yeah! Except we get 8 days of presents instead of just one!"

"I think it's time we shared a little story with you two about what Hanukkah is really about. Hanukkah is based on events that happened over 2,300 years ago..." explained Irit.

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A long time ago...
The two children came and sat around their aunt and uncle as they read them the story of Hanukkah from a large picture book. "You see a long time ago, the powerful Greek empire took control over this entire region. Back then this area was called Judea and it was ruled by a Syrian king who was loyal to the Greeks named Antiochus. Antiochus ordered all the Jewish people to reject their God, their religion, their customs and their beliefs and to worship the Greek gods. Many of the Jewish people refused to comply with the Greek rule and to worship the pagan Greek gods. They held faith in their belief in their one God. One of most outspoken of those was a man named Judah.

Judah and his four brothers formed an army and named it 'Maccabee' which means hammer. Many other brave Jews joined the Maccabees and after 3 years of fighting, they were finally victorious. They had driven the Syrians out of Israel and reclaimed their sacred Temple in Jerusalem. The Maccabees marched to Jerusalem to clean the Temple and remove the hated Greek symbols and statues. On the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev (which falls around the month of December), the temple was ready and Judah and his followers wanted to rededicate the temple by lighting the eternal light, known as the N'er Tamid.

The N'er Tamid, which is present in every Jewish house of worship, should never be extinguished--once lit, it should be allowed to burn until it runs out. Judah and his followers only found a small jug of oil, so the oil lamp was filled and lit, and everyone expected that it would quickly die out that very day. That's when the miracle of the oil occurred. For the scant oil did not run out on the first day. The sacred flame stayed lit for 8 days! Thus to this day Jewish people all over the world celebrate Hanukkah for 8 days, lighting a candle on the menorah each night, to commemorate the miracle of the oil and the triumphant victory the Maccabees."

Benjamin and Emily were amazed. They had heard the story before in Hebrew school back home, but they never paid much attention to it. Now they were actually here in the land of Judea. "You mean the temple in Jerusalem used to be full of statues of Greek gods?! Our ancestors actually stood up to the powerful Greek empire?! The N'er Tamid stayed lit for 8 full days?!" the children exclaimed.

"So you see... Hanukkah, which literally means 'rededication', actually has nothing to do with getting new clothes or toys," said Ayal.

"Why do people make latkahs? And eat donuts?" Emily asked.

"The latkahs and donuts are made in oil, so we like to enjoy them during this time of year as a symbol of the miracle of the oil."

"And the chocolate coins wrapped in gold? What do they have to do with Hanukkah?"

"Well, actually the giving of coins on Hanukkah started in Europe, when children just like you felt sad that they didn't receive presents the way their Christian friends did on Christmas. So Jewish families started giving gelt and a bit of money to the children, but that is still not the main objective of the holiday." explained Irit. "Hanukkah is a wonderful and joyous occasion where families like ours are lucky enough to get together and celebrate and sing. It can be an especially fun time for kids your age if they don't spend the whole week sad!"

Just then Sharon and Gidon came home laughing from the community center. "Let's make dreidels, we brought home all materials!"

Emily and Benjamin had played with dreidles at home before, but they had never actually made one. The four of them traced and cut and glued and decorated and in no time at all they each had made their own beautiful dreidels.

"But wait a second... the dreidel has the wrong letters on it," noticed Benjamin.

"No it doesn't," said Sharon. "The four letters on each side of the dreidel say a Great Miracle Happened Here."

"Ohhhhh... I get it. Our dradles back home say a Great Miracle Happened THERE. I can't believe I'm actually HERE now!"

The children laughed and had fun seeing whose dreidel could spin the longest. That night they all went out to see the Festigal - a week long Festival during Hanukkah for kids. The big celebrities around Tel Aviv come and perform songs especially for the occasion and the kids get to vote on which act was the best. The next day they all went to the park where games had been set up for the holiday.

Within a few days, Benjamin and Emily were singing along with all the songs and the prayers, and leading the family in lighting the candles on the menorahs they had made.

When the week finally did come to an end, Benjamin and Emily sadly said goodbye to their relatives and all their new friends. "All the new Nintendo and Playstation games in the world wouldn't add up to the fun I had this week!" exclaimed Benji. "Yeah, I can't wait to show all my friends back home the dreidel and the menorahs - they won't believe I made it!" said Emily.

After over 2,300 years, the miracle of Hanukkah continues as two kids from New York find that joy doesn't always have to come with a name brand...


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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