Lighting the menorah surrounded by Christmas trees
Monday marks the last day of Chanukah, the eight-day Jewish holiday that commemorates the rededication of a temple in Jerusalem some 3,000 years ago.
The Aspen Jewish Congregation and Mountain Minyan hosted a get together on Friday, combining their regular Shabbat gathering with the final days of Chanukah. Attendees celebrated with music, community and traditional Jewish foods like latkes with sour cream or applesauce.
The Chanukah menorah, one of the most widely recognized symbols of Judaism in the United States, is a candelabra with nine branches. Jews light a candle each day of Chanukah to commemorate the miracle of one day’s worth of oil lasting eight days in the reclaimed temple so many years ago.
But for every family that celebrates Chanukah, the holiday can hold a different meaning.
“What’s wonderful about a tradition that is 3,000 years old is that there are actually a number of stories associated with Chanukah,” said Rabbi Shira Stutman of Mountain Minyan.
This year, the holiday held special significance for many Jews in the United States. After seeing a spike in antisemitic rhetoric on social media and prominent pop culture stars, most infamously Kanye, spewing hatred against Jewish people, visibly celebrating Chanukah felt more important than ever.
“I think the rise of antisemitism in America over the last number of years has led Chanukah, in an unfortunate way, to be even more meaningful. Because for the 2,100 years since 164 BCE, the Jews have been fighting to just be allowed to celebrate our religion without infringing on anyone else,” Rabbi Shira said. “And even in 2022, we still find ourselves working hard just to be allowed to be who we are.”
Still, Rabbi Shira counts the United States as a place where Judaism is safe to practice openly, relatively speaking.
“I still am very grateful to the United States — where Jews have been treated better than we have in just about any country that we have lived in, in the diaspora throughout the entirety of our history,” she said. “But at the same time, we are always conscious that there are people who don’t want us to be allowed to live our religion and our culture in the way that we’ve been doing for thousands of years.”
The Aspen Jewish Congregation considers the Roaring Fork Valley to be a safe, welcoming place for practitioners of Judaism. They said that swastika graffiti surfaces in school bathrooms most years, and that is alarming, but that young people can be taught out of hateful acts.
The exact dates on which Chanukah falls each year changes in accordance with the Hebrew calendar. It is celebrated on 25 Kislev of the Hebrew calendar, which generally hits around December of the Gregorian calendar.
Therefore, the holiday is often conflated with the Christian, and highly-commercialized, Christmas.
Jason Schnissel, executive director at Aspen Jewish Congregation, said the conflation of Chanukah and Christmas in the United States is not necessarily a bad thing.
“We were laughing at some of the decorations that we were hanging up for our Chanukah celebration tonight because you can walk into a HomeGoods and find them. And 20-30 years ago, you certainly wouldn’t,” he said. “I think that speaks to the commercialization of Chanukah in some way. I also think it speaks to the comfort that we as Jews currently have living in America, that we can go to any commercial chain store and find something to hang up on the walls.”
Aspen Jewish Congregation estimates that about 200-230 households from Aspen to New Castle comprise the Jewish community in the valley. Many of them will cook fried foods over the eight days of Chanukah, though exact dishes vary.
“Fried food and oil (recipes) changed drastically depending on where Jews were living. Potato pancakes became very popular in Eastern Europe because there were a lot of potatoes, but in other cultures where there was more cheese,” Rabbi Shira said. “In Arab Jewish cultures for instance, you’ll see a lot more fried cheese pastries, but the common link is always oil.”
The use of oil harkens back to the miraculous oil that kept the menorah lit for eight days.
Within the Jewish faith, Chanukah is not one of the major holidays. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year festival, and Yom Kippur, which follows 10 days after the new year, are considered among the holiest days in Judaism. They signify atonement and redemption.
But because of Chanukah’s conflation with Christmas in America, Rabbi Shira sees it as an opportunity for Jews in the country to pay special attention to an otherwise secondary holiday.
“It’s actually one of the blessings of living in America for us is that we get to celebrate a holiday that — in some places throughout our history —- was barely celebrated the way we get to do it here,” Rabbi Shira said. “So it’s the gift of living in America.”
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