Reflecting on Jewish identity

As Jewish people around the world celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah, many living in the United States likely will reflect upon the challenge of maintaining their religious identity, said a local rabbi.

In the Hanukkah tale, "the Jewish people were fighting for the right to be Jewish," Rabbi Mark J. Panoff recently told about 20 high school sophomores in the confirmation class at Temple Isaiah in Fulton.


Confirmation class involves students learning how Judaism plays a role in their lives.

Hanukkah, which means "dedication," began at sundown Tuesday and lasts until Dec. 15. It celebrates the victory more than 2,000 years ago of a band of Jewish fighters, the Maccabees, who recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem from Syrian-Greek invaders.


The menorah miracle

According to the Hanukkah story, after the Maccabees entered the Temple and cleansed it, they found a small amount of oil to light the menorah. Miraculously, the oil lasted eight days.

During the holiday, Jewish families light the menorah, exchange gifts and reflect on the significance of Hanukkah, also called the Festival of Lights, through blessings and songs.

Traditional foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (fried jelly doughnuts) are prepared and eaten, and children play games.

Fight for identity

Panoff explained that when the Jews fought the Syrians they were fighting for the right to use Jewish names, to be circumcised and to study the Torah, among other things.

"This is an old story ... but the theme of this holiday is with us after 2,000 years," he said.

Panoff said Jewish people account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population. He added that Jews whose spouses or friends have different faiths often wrestle with maintaining their beliefs.


Becca Epstein and Rachael Lisman, both students in the confirmation class, said they are committed to being Jewish.

"I'm in the B'nai B'rith youth organization," Becca said.

Added Rachael, "I think just coming to confirmation class and Hebrew school every Sunday" demonstrates her commitment.

Following traditions

Panoff also talked to the students about the traditions of Hanukkah, including how to properly light the candles on the menorah.

Playing the dreidel game -- a simple game of chance using a spinning top -- is another tradition associated with the holiday.


"This game has nothing to do with the Maccabees. ... It comes from the broader culture," Panoff said.

Each player starts with 10 or 15 tokens, which can be pennies, foil-wrapped candies, raisins or other items.

The four-sided top is marked with Hebrew letters: Nun, or nothing; Gimmel, take all; Heh, take half; and Shin, put in.

Players spin the top and must do what the letter states.

After explaining the game, Panoff asked the students if they wanted to play.

"Yeah," they said in unison as they crowded around a table and began the game.


When Panoff's turn came, he was victorious after spinning Gimmel, which meant he took the jackpot of pennies.

"If any of you want to play and up the stakes, just come see me," he jokingly told them.

On a serious note, he added that Judaism does not condone gambling because "it's gaining something without work."

"Gambling, like other things, can become an addictive habit," he said.

A time for song

Singing is also important during Hanukkah, Panoff said.


The bubbly students were eager to sing at least two of the songs on a list Panoff gave to them, including "I Have a Little Dreidel" -- a song many of them learned in nursery school.

And, after the wave of his hand, they all sang:

I have a little dreidel,

I made it out of clay;

And when it's dry and ready,

Then dreidel I shall play.


O dreidel, dreidel, dreidel

I made it out of clay

O dreidel, dreidel, dreidel

Now dreidel I shall play.