Samuel Stern
Rabbi in the heartland of the USA

Topeka United: A Movement for Peace

Logo of Topeka United

Rabbi Sam Stern spoke at the annual Topeka United holiday event; below is his speech delivered on 12/14/22:

Hello, my name is Rabbi Samuel Stern of Temple Beth Sholom of Topeka, and I am honored to join Topeka United this evening to talk a little bit about the Jewish winter holiday of Chanukah.

In today’s world, where people of different faiths and backgrounds live and work together, it is essential to celebrate and appreciate the diversity of our communities. Hanukkah is a beautiful reminder of the resilience and faith of the Jewish people, and I hope that by sharing this holiday with you, we can all learn from and appreciate one another’s traditions and beliefs.

Chanukah is an 8-day-long festival in the Hebrew month of Kislev, which is why the holiday moves around each year on the calendar. “Chanukah” means dedication in Hebrew, referring to the rededicating of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean victory in 164 BCE. The story goes that the Maccabees in Jerusalem, after defeating the Seleucid Greek army against overwhelming odds, had only enough oil to light the Temple’s menorah for a short time. Still, their oil lasted eight nights until new supplies could be brought to keep that lamp lit. That miracle is why we light eight candles on Chanukah.

When we light the candles, we start by lighting one candle the first night and increase the number by one each night, leading to the eighth night and a full chanukiah shining brightly (a Chanukiah is a menorah with nine branches, and a menorah just means lamp in Hebrew). In one of our holy texts, the Talmud, the great Rabbi Hillel is asked why we start with one candle and build to eight rather than starting with eight and dwindling down; Hillel responded that we should all strive to be ma’alin b’kodesh (increasing in holiness), rather than decrease, and so we start with one lonely candle, and night by night the light grows. According to Jewish tradition, we can only behold the beauty of the menorah’s flame, and we cannot use it for utility.

When it comes to food, there are many traditional dishes, almost all fried in oil, because of the miracle! Latkes, fried potato pancakes, are traditional for Jews who lived in central and Eastern Europe. Jews who lived in Spain might eat bimuelos or zalabia, which are fritters in syrup. Kurdish Jews make a carrot fritter, and Jews worldwide enjoy jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot. All fried in oil, all very tasty.

Gift-giving was not always a part of the Chanukah celebration but was a popular addition in modern times. Giving gifts during Hanukkah and giving charity reinforces a theme of the holiday, which is spreading light and joy in a season of cold and darkness.

Jewish American families will sing traditional songs like Rock of Ages (Maoz Tzur in Hebrew), I am a little dreidel, or Ocho Candalikas. And we will play traditional Chanukah games like dreidel, eat foods fried in oil, and enjoy light and warmth during the long winter months.

This year, families will gather for Hanukkah, beginning this coming Sunday night, and make memories again.  I appreciate that our communities have joined together this evening to show mutual support, respect, and curiosity about each other. Thank you, Chag Sameach, and happy holidays!

About the Author
Samuel Stern is the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom of Topeka, Kansas. Ordained by HUC-JIR in Los Angeles in 2021, Rabbi Stern has participated in numerous fellowships, including with AIPAC, the One America Movement, and the Shalom Hartman Institute, and has been published in the quarterly journal of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.