The Metzger family of East Cobb – Melanie, Kevin and their three children – will be lighting their Hanukkiah this weekend, sharing gifts and noshing on chocolate gelt and latkes.

Isaac Metzger is all smiles these days. Guess he knows there are some Chanukah gifts in his future. PHOTO / Gary Feinberg

Chanukah, the eight-day Festival of Lights, begins at sundown on Sat., Dec. 8, and Jews around the world will be celebrating.

“We get together as a family,” Melanie said, “and do the whole latke and gelt thing.” Her youngsters, Haley, Abby and Isaac, will also get a few gifts, but nothing “outrageous,” she said.

It’s a challenge, a balancing act of sorts for many families wanting to hold on to all the festive touches and traditions of the period while paying attention to the historic and spiritual dimensions of the holiday.

Maccabees and Oil

Chanukah, which means dedication in Hebrew, recalls the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after the military victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Greeks in 165 B.C.

The holiday is celebrated by lighting one candle the first night of the festival, two on the second, and so on, until eight candles are burning in a special candleholder, a Hanukkiah, on the eighth and final night.

The story includes a spiritual twist, based on a Talmudic legend, which details a miracle. When the Maccabees rededicated the Temple, they found only one small jar of sacred oil to be used to rekindle the holy menorah. The jar contained oil for only one night, but miraculously burned for eight, until fresh oil could be produced.

Message and Challenge

“One of the messages of Chanukah is that those who are devoted and committed can overcome great odds,” says Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim in east Cobb.

Haley Metzger (right) and her sister Abby know that Chanukah is not just about getting gifts. The girls used their own money last year to help foster kids and, this year, will be donating funds for needy families. PHOTO / Gary Feinberg

“Our challenge,” said Lewis, “is never to be intimidated by overwhelming odds.”

But practicing Judaism and observing Chanukah in America, particularly in the Deep South, can be intimidating. A sense of purpose and sense of humor can help.

“When my daughter Jill was small we were at the mall and she saw Santa,” Lewis said. “She wanted to sit on Santa’s lap, like all the other kids. But I told her the line was way too long and perhaps we could just walk by him and wave. She was okay with that. She waved and Santa waved back. It worked.”

Eights Day of Gifts

Not so easily handled, however, is the issue of gifts. For centuries, Chanukah was a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, a time to recall the might of the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil.

But in the 1920s in America, some Jewish parents started doing for their children what their Christian neighbors already were doing each Christmas. That link – the giving of gifts – continues to this day.

“We don’t want to make Chanukah all about presents,” Melanie Metzger said. “But it’s hard. We do little gifts; nothing big and outrageous.”

She’s also managed to turn the holiday into a teaching moment, helping her youngsters understand that Chanukah can also be about reaching out and helping families in need.

“It’s important the kids learn about giving to others,” Metzger said.

A year ago, the children bought gifts with their own money for a holiday charity, Clark’s Christmas Kids, a program sponsored by Clark Howard and WSB-TV. This year they’ll be donating money for needy families through their school.

Religious Freedom

Given the challenges – and opportunities – of Chanukah, the good news remains that Jews today in America and most others countries around the world are free to celebrate the ancient holiday in any fashion they wish.

Menorahs pop up on town squares now, alongside Christmas trees and Crèches; Chanukah songs – “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” – have become almost as ubiquitous as “White Christmas” and “Frosty the Snowman”; and, for better or worse, the two holidays have often been mashed together into a secular winter festival that is saluted with the generic greeting of “Happy Holidays”!

That’s not always been the case. Anti-Semitism made it difficult for Jewish communities to worship and honor their traditions for thousands of years. It was the Maccabees who stood their ground and faced off against the Roman.

So it’s important that we take a little time each year to recall their struggles and triumphs, Rabbi Lewis thinks. After all, he points out, “The very first message of Chanukah is religious freedom.”

BY RON FEINBERG / Web Editor