Jewish Musings in Carbondale

Still here to tell the (hi)story

 Every year, we send a Chanukah letter to alumni of Chabad of SIU. Here's the letter from 2019:

Chanukah is coming up next week. Since it’s been a few years since you graduated Hebrew School, here’s a quick reminder of what this holiday is all about.

A couple of years ago, around 2200 or so, the Jewish people lived in the Land of Israel, happily serving G-d at home and in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The big world power at that time was the Seleucids (or (Syrian-) Greeks, if that’s easier to pronounce) who also took over Israel. At first that wasn’t a problem. Until the Greeks decided that they know best and therefore outlawed basic practices like keeping Shabbat, circumcision, kosher and studying Torah. They were all for philosophy and intellectual stimulation but to see the Torah as the G-d given wisdom that it is….neh, they disagreed with that.

What they might have glossed over during your Hebrew school days is that the situation on the ground was not pretty. Jews who dared disagree with the all-knowing, modern enlightenment of the Greeks were murdered by the thousands. Girls were attacked. Babies and children were slaughtered.

One day, the rational Greeks had had it with those ‘outdated Jewish rituals’ in the Holy Temple so they ransacked the Temple and offered a swine on the Altar. What especially irritated them was the concept of purity that the Jews hold on to. Why would Jews insist on only using ritually pure olive oil to light the Temple menorah? What’s wrong with using regular olive oil? What is ritually pure anyway? It’s not something you can scientifically prove. So as part of their mission to ‘re-educate the backwards Jews’, they broke the seals on all the jugs of ritually pure olive oil.

The Jews had had enough. They prepared for war by fasting and praying (because in order for a Jew to win in the physical sense, he needs to be strong in the spiritual sense) and attacked. And won from the physically-strong-but-spiritually-weak Greek army.

As soon as possible, the Jews liberated the Holy Temple and started cleaning it up. You can imagine how happy they were to find one small jug of oil that had not been touched by the Greeks. This one jug contained enough oil to at least light up the Menorah for one day and night. It would take 8 days to produce more. The Jewish people figured ‘we have enough for one day, might as well light it for one day. Whatever mitzvah we can do now, let’s do it. What we’ll be able to do tomorrow? We’ll worry about that then’. And so they lit the Menorah.

G-d appreciated their efforts and decided to reciprocate in kind. They go out of their way for Me, I’ll go out of My way for them. And so the oil lasted and lasted and lasted (and here’s where we write that word 8 times) for 8 days, until the new batch of ritually pure oil was ready.

To remember those miracles (the weak army winning, and the oil lasting) we celebrate Chanukah until today. In the exact same way we’ve been celebrating it for the past 2200 years. We’re still around, still keeping Shabbat, circumcision, kosher and studying Torah. And those Syrian-Greeks? They get studied by archeologists and history fans.

Get in on the 2200 year old game and celebrate Chanukah yourself! All it takes is a menorah and 44 candles. For more detailed how-to instructions, check out

With best wishes for a wonderful Chanukah,

Chanukah during COVID in 2020

 Every year, we send a Chanukah letter to alumni of Chabad of SIU. Here's last year's letter:

This year’s Chanukah (Dec.10-18) looks to be one of the most peculiar ones in modern history.

The ‘Festival of Lights’ conjures up images of family gatherings, passionate dreidel contests, latke frying (with the age-old discussion: dip it in ketchup? Applesauce? Sour cream?), donut consumption and of course, lighting the menorah together.

But with current health regulations in place, it seems like all this will have to happen in small, sometimes lonely circumstances. The good news is that as Jewish people, we actually already have experience with this. Just take a look at the original Chanukah story:

More than 2000 years ago, the Jewish people lived in the Holy Land under the rule of the Syrian-Greek. Not really nice guys, those Syrian-Greeks. They were of the opinion that the Jewish religion is way too outdated for their modern views (fun fact: over 2000 years later, we have the exact same religion, people still call us outdated, so there seems to be nothing new there) and thought a little friendly oppression would do the trick to squash Judaism. So, they outlawed things like keeping Shabbos, performing circumcision, studying Torah, all under penalty of death.

It was under these circumstances that the Jewish people had to find creative ways to keep up with Jewish practice. We can’t invite everyone for a cozy Shabbos dinner? We’ll do it quietly, by ourselves in our own home. Can’t gather for public Torah study? We’ll do it quietly, by ourselves in our own homes. Can’t make a grand celebration to welcome a new baby boy into the Jewish covenant? We’ll do a private ceremony with just the parents and the ritual circumcizor, by ourselves in our own homes. Because when we’re faced with a situation in which we can’t perform our Judaism in one way, we’ll do it in another.

Part of the story of Chanukah is that the Syrian-Greeks entered the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, ransacked the place and went berserk opening up every sealed jar of menorah oil they could find. They knew that when those jars where contaminated with spiritual impurity, the Jews wouldn’t be able to light the very public menorah in the Temple.

When the Jews finally reclaimed the Temple, the first order of the day was looking for pure oil. They found one tiny jar, enough to light the menorah for one day. Production of a new shipment of pure oil would take 8 days. They did the best they could under their circumstances and decided to light the menorah with the one jar they had. Miraculously, it lasted the full 8 days it took for new oil to arrive.

And from then on, every year, every Jewish household lit a menorah in their own home for 8 days, commemorating this miracle. From trying to squash the communal grand menorah, it led to every single home lighting their own! Instead of extinguishing one menorah, they caused millions to be lit around the world!

That is something we can learn a lesson from, especially this year. We can’t gather in large celebrations (not quite under penalty of death, rather out of respect for local health authorities) but we could make sure that every single Jewish household, no matter with how many occupants, will light their own menorah, celebrate Chanukah in solitary style. Because nothing and no one can stop us, not a tyrannical Syrian-Greek army, nor a tiny COVID-19 particle.

[Just one request: if you do end up having to celebrate completely by yourself, don’t argue too loud about your latke dip preferences.]

With best wishes for a happy and healthy Chanukah,

Oh dreidel dreidel dreidel

Every year, we send a Chanukah letter to alumni of Chabad of SIU. Here's this year's version:

Chanukah starts Sunday evening, November 28 and we light the last candle on December 5th.

It’s been a while since Hebrew school and you might be getting a little fuzzy on the how and why of Chanukah (hey, we won’t tell anyone!). The how is pretty easy:

1)    -  Light a menorah each night of Chanukah, following the instructions on the QR code     

2)     - Indulge in the customary oily foods, like donuts and potato latkes

3)      -Play a game of dreidel (sevivon, in Hebrew)

To get to the why, here’s a crash course in Jewish history. Over 2000 years ago, the Jewish people lived in Israel under the rule of the Syrian-Greeks, not to be confused with the modern-day Syrians or Greeks.

They were quite bossy rulers and insisted on everyone following their way. It was either ‘Go Syrian-Greek’ or….death. As you can imagine, it was not too pleasant to be living Jewishly in an open way. We’ll gloss over the gory details but suffice it to say, thousands of Jews were killed. Others opted to go for full blown assimilation, and yet others managed to practice their Judaism secretly, risking death upon discovery. So how do we get from such a tragic situation to the fun holiday of Chanukah?

Well, first things got even worse. The Syrian-Greeks decided to invade the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, desecrate it, sacrifice a pig to their idols and defile every jar of olive oil they could find, to prevent the Jews from lighting the Temple Menorah, which was lit every day. And that’s when the Jews had had enough. Under the leadership of a group of priestly brothers, the Maccabee’s started fighting back. Without any prior training in warfare, without sufficient weaponry but with a strong dose of faith in G-d, they set out to recapture the Holy Temple from the unholy invaders. And they were successful (reason 1 why we celebrate Chanukah).

Have you ever been told ‘Go clean up your room!’? And you feel like that task is way too daunting? Imagine what the Maccabee’s felt upon entering the Temple and seeing what awaited their cleanup crews! But they got to work right away (and no, that’s not why we celebrate nowadays. You don’t have to go clean your room now) and managed to get rid of a whole lot of the mess. One problem remained- they were only able to find one little jar of pure olive oil, exactly enough to light the Menorah for 1 day. And getting new oil would take 8 days… So they lit it, with that one little jar. And then that one little jar lasted for 8 days, until the new oil arrived (here we have reason 2 why we celebrate).

That explains why we light a menorah, and it also explains why we eat oily foods. But where does the dreidel come in?

During the times of Syrian- Greek oppression, Torah study was forbidden. When the children were studying, they would keep a dreidel nearby. Whenever a soldier was spotted coming too close for comfort, away went the study books, out came the dreidel. Nothing to see here, sir.

If we take a closer look at the dreidel, there’s actually plenty to see. First the obvious – it has 4 sides, each with a letter: Nun, Gimmel, Hey, Shin.  That’s the game instructions in Yiddish right there. Gimmel stands for Gantz, meaning the whole thing. Hei is for Halb, meaning half. Nun stands for Nisht or nothing. And Shin is for Shtell arein or put in.

It also happens to be an instruction for the game of life. Sometimes we experience Gimmel days. Everything is going great, we feel like we have it all. We have our Hei days, when things are going quite well. The Nun and Shin days describe those days when we just want to ignore the alarm clock and hide under our blankets.

But each of these letters represents only one face of the Dreidel — only a single angle or perspective of the whole. Because really, the 4 letters are an acronym, they spell out a verse in Hebrew.

“Nes Gadol Hayah Sham - a great miracle happened there" This refers to the great miracle of Chanukah that occurred in the Holy Land. They were definitely having quite a few Shin days. But the Maccabees did not dwell on the fact that they were being oppressed and persecuted. They focused on the Gimmel that was on the other side of the Shin. And then they acted to turn the situation around, to bring out a Divine miracle and G-d’s salvation.

Whatever letter we seem to be getting at a particular point in life, it's all part of one Dreidel. And that Dreidel is telling us that miracles happen. We can transform the dark situations of life into the bright light of the Chanukah Menorah. This depends on our faith in Gds plan, and our commitment to spin down the path He sets out for us.

Wishing you a wonderful Chanukah!


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