Chanukah lasts eight days and begins on the 25th of the Hebrew calendar. This year, the holiday starts on Tuesday, Dec. 12 and ends on Wednesday, Dec. 20.
Sophomore Rachel Benezra-Devine said people in the Jewish community seem to consider Chanukah a minor holiday, compared to others such as Passover and Yom Kippur.
“I think [Chanukah] has kind of evolved when it comes to America,” Devine said. “I think Christmas is such a big deal that Chanukah has become such a big deal. I don’t think originally it was supposed to be this one big holiday.”
Devine is a member of Hillel, a Jewish cultural club at Western. She does the membership outreach for the club, and considers being Jewish a core part of her identity.
“I think a lot of people just see [Chanukah] as almost like a Jewish Christmas,” Devine said. “They don’t necessarily see the uniqueness. I don’t think people know the story behind it.”
Chanukah took on a new meaning for Jewish immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Jewish holiday became more commercialized because of its proximity to Christmas, according to the American Jewish Historical Society.
Today, Chanukah seems to be more about tradition than religious affiliation for some.
“I have family [who’s] more religious Jewish and they don’t really think of Chanukah as that big of a deal,” Devine said.
She said her friends and family celebrate Chanukah in a variety of ways. Some family members don’t observe the holiday, while others throw massive parties with friends and family. Some people just light the candles on the menorah, while others keep to themselves.
“For me, I think it’s just another time of year to be around people you love and show people you care about them,” Devine said.
Growing up, Devine and her family would adorn their house with Chanukah-themed decorations. Her mom would even decorate with Devine’s childhood arts and crafts. They eat latkes, exchange gifts and sometimes play dreidel.
Freshman Emma Mittendorf said she and her family celebrate a little differently.
Mittendorf and her family celebrate Chanukah by having a family dinner on the first night, and by decorating their house with a Chanukah bush.
“It’s a Christmas tree decorated Chanukah, with menorahs and Stars of David and blue and white lights. My dad always wants to buy a Christmas tree and decorate the house for Christmas because that’s how he was raised,” she said. “He was raised Methodist during the 1950s, and me and my sister don’t identify with Christianity at all. We’d prefer not to do a tree, but it’s mostly we do it for my dad, and then just sprinkle Judaism on top of it.”
She also thinks of Chanukah as more of a tradition than a big holiday.
“Chanukah is one of the littlest holidays on the Jewish calendar,” Mittendorf said.
She said Chanukah has only become commercially important because of its proximity to Christmas.
“It’s a familial holiday,” she said. “I mean, there’s a lot of religion about it, but it’s not the same as Passover or Yom Kippur, where you go to Synagogue or you go to a dinner. There’s a lot of structure around it. It’s pretty individualistic.”
Mittendorf and her sister grew up with a lot of choice regarding religion. It has only been in recent years where she and her family have started attending public Chanukah events.
“I would describe it as not traditional, but it is very much so based on tradition,” Mittendorf said. “You know when something is just a part of you? And it’s not really something you can just toss off. Being Jewish is a very integral part of my identity. Not necessarily religiously, but I love the beauty of what its essence is.”
Sophomore Molly Schwartz said being a part of Hillel and Chabad has helped her feel more comfortable being herself.
“Being Jewish, to me, just sort of means having a family,” she said. “Even when you’re somewhere you don’t know anyone, you come in and you just have a family and people you can hang out with. People who understand where you’re coming from.”
Schwartz, a transfer student from Washington State University, said she didn’t feel comfortable being Jewish there.
She began to feel more proud of her Jewish heritage once she joined Hillel and Chabad.
The origin of the Jewish holiday began with two miracles over 2,300 years ago, said Rabbi Avremi Yarmush of the Rohr Center for Jewish Life.
The first miracle occurred when the Greeks controlled the Middle East. In one kingdom, King Antiochus IV ruled over the Jews. He resented the Jews and wanted everyone in his kingdom to follow the Greek philosophy.
Then, a small group of Jews led by Judah Maccabee decided they were going to fight for religious freedom. The Jews won the war against the Greeks and their independence.
The second miracle happened soon after.
The Jews needed to light the menorah inside the temple in order to rededicate it. However, they could only find one bottle of pure olive oil in the temple. One bottle was only supposed to be enough to last the flames one day. It took seven days to get more oil pressed and delivered from the orchards. The single bottle of oil lasted for eight days, the second miracle.
It’s a Chanukah tradition to light a menorah for eight days. Each day of the holiday, everyone is supposed to light a candle on the menorah.
“The point is every single one of us has something to give to the world,” Yarmush said. “A lot of times we feel like we give what we have on a daily basis. And we get ourselves, so to speak, locked into that idea…but Chanukah says, ‘No, you have a light to give. Yesterday you gave one light, today you give two. Tomorrow, three.’”
Yarmush has been a part of the Rohr Center for Jewish Life, also known as Chabad, for eight and a half years. Chabad provides Western and Whatcom County’s Jewish community with Torah study and weekly dinners to observe Shabbat, or Judaism’s day of rest. It also hosts holiday events and helps Western students who have been affected by antisemitism on campus.
Chabad is hosting a public menorah-lighting ceremony in Red Square at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 12. A Chanukah party will follow the ceremony.
During Chanukah, the role of the rabbi is to teach and encourage people to celebrate it, Yarmush said.
“The most important thing, I feel we offer, is a home away from home,” Yarmush said. “Jewish kids are coming to Western. They’re leaving their parents’ home and they have tradition, religion and ethnicity that is different from the people around them.”
Yarmush said there are roughly 750 Jewish families in Bellingham and between 500 and 600 Jewish students at Western.
“Always increase in how much goodness and light you’re bringing to the world,” he said. “Never feel comfortable with what you did yesterday. Be appreciative of what you did yesterday, we light a candle for it. But today, you could do more.”