Top 8 (+1) Tips for Being the Best Non-Jew at the Hanukkah Party

Photo credit: flickr/Dr._Colleen_Morgan
Candles, songs and gelt. Sounds sexy.
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Mash-Ups are beautifully curious and eager to open their lives to traditions and cultures new to them. Of course, that also means we’re more likely than most to find ourselves stuck in a cultural faux pas. So on this, the first night of Hanukkah, our Jewish-American Mash-Up Franny Silverman offers her best 8 (+1) tips for being the best non-Jew at the Hanukkah party. This guide is in-law tested and Mash-Up approved. Keep it kosher, kids. If you’re headed our with your Catholic crew on Christmas Eve, you might also want to peep our 12 tips for being the best non-Catholic at Midnight Mass.

Oh, and if you still need to shop for those remaining nights of Hanukkah (with Christmas on the horizon!) don’t miss our gift guides. Here’s our 6 Mash-Up Kitchen Must Haves, our 6 Cookbooks for Mash-Up Foodies, and of course, our 6 Ideas for Mash-Up Kids.

Listen to our interview with Franny on the podcast for more meshugas on being the Best Non-Jew at the party

When my non-Jewish husband and I were just getting serious, we spent Christmas with my now in-laws. Christmas and Hanukkah aligned on the calendar that year, and my mother-in-law told me she was so excited to celebrate with us that she added Hanukkah decorations to her standard holiday décor of wreaths and nutcrackers.

Mind you, I have never had Hanukkah decorations. In my house growing up, decorations were for Christmas. And Hanukkah was no Christmas. I had no idea what to expect – blue and white tinsel? But when I entered the front door, there it was, wonder of wonders: a silver Menorah full up with 8 (+1) candles burning bright.

It was the… second night of Hanukkah? Or maybe the fifth? I don’t know, but it wasn’t the eighth night. No blessings had been said, but there they were, all flames a-flaming. I was deeply moved by this loving gesture. And I realized I had some light edJewcating to do.

1.  Relax. Hanukkah isn’t the Jewish Christmas.

Don’t overplay the day. Hanukkah is a super minor holiday. You may never have heard of Sukkot or Shavuot, but Hanukkah is basically like Groundhog’s Day compared to them. Everyone knows about it, everyone knows the ritual that goes with it, Hallmark even gets to make a few shekels selling Hanukkah cards and blue and white wrapping paper, but no one’s going to church over it. And when I say church, I mean synagogue, or temple, or shul (rhymes with school). These are appropriate names for the place where Jews worship and bar mitzvahs happen.  Not “Jewish church.”  Never “Jewish church.”

Blowing out the candles means you’re grinching on the miracles of Hanukkah.

2.  Don’t blow out the candles.

Hanukkah’s tagline is The Festival of Light.  That light comes from candles. Some say all the light is to help us deal with the darkness of the oncoming winter, some say it’s because the war (see below) delayed the celebration of the eight-day fall festival of Sukkot, but most agree that, true or not, Hanukkah celebrates two major miracles from an ancient time:

1. A teeny-tiny army of Jews defeats a ginormous army of Greeks/Syrians.

2. A teeny-tiny bit of super-holy olive oil unbelievably burns for eight days, just long enough to press more super-holy olive oil.

Blowing out the candles means you’re grinching on the miracles of Hanukkah.

Pro tip: Bring a lighter or book of matches to the festivities. I have participated in more than one Hanukkah candle-lighting where matches seemed as scarce as the super-holy olive oil of 160-ish BC.

3. Do the math.

All Jewish holidays start the night before. There are eight days of Chanukah, so that’s eight, count ‘em, eight “nights before.”  Each new day, we add another candle. However, each candle is lit by a single “helper candle.” So there are actually 9 candle-holders in total. On the first night, TWO candles are lit: 1 helper candle, the shah-Mahsh, and 1 candle for the first day. Which starts at night.

Every night we add a candle, adding from right to left and lighting from left to right.  Still with me? Great. [Editor’s note: It is possible you will be at a Hanukkah candle-lighting where you are the only person who knows this, because you just read this list. All Jews know we light candles. Few remember details beyond that.]

4. Don’t ask how to spell Chanukah.

I mean Hanukkah. I mean Khanuke. It’s a Hebrew word. The proper way to spell it is in Hebrew. So spell it wrong, but spell it strong.

5. Feel the spirit.

The ritual of candle-lighting is accompanied every night by two blessings and on the first night, it’s accompanied by three. No one expects you to know these blessings, or to know Hebrew. Just be engaged. All we’re doing is thanking the universe for our blessings. Then we move on to latkes.

6. Clear your throat.

You know when you have phlegm in your throat and need to hack it up? Yeah, that is the sound of Hebrew. And Yiddish. That sound is the sound of “Hanukkah.” Once you’ve practiced a few times, brush up on your vocab.

Chanukah — The Jewish Festival of Lights.

Menorah — The candelabra that was burning in the ancient Temple as the Eternal Light.

Shamash/Shammes — The “plus one” candle that sits apart from the others and is used to light them.

Dreidel — Yiddish word for little spinning tops used to play gambling game by the same name. Usually plastic, sometimes wooden, rarely made out of clay contrary to the song lyrics made famous by South Park.

Gelt – Yiddish word for cash. American Jews use this word in reference to gold chocolate coins in little mesh bags. That you can now get gourmet and fair trade.

Latke — Yiddish word for potato pancake fried and served on Hanukkah with sour cream or applesauce.  First name of endearing immigrant character from the 70s/80s TV show, Taxi. Glorified hashbrowns.

Sufganiyot — Hebrew for jelly doughnuts. One of the top 3 reasons to celebrate Hanukkah.

Judah Maccabi – The hunky Jew hero of the Hanukkah story, leading the small army to reclaim The Temple from the enemy army. Maccabi means hammer in Hebrew.  See: Adam Goldberg movie from the early aughts.

7. Pre-game with Tums.

Hanukkah food begins and ends with oil. (See: Tip #2, Miracle #2.) Typically taking center stage at the Hanukkah meal are the latkes, greasy potato pancakes served with your choice of sour cream or applesauce. Unless you are my bubbe (grandmother), in which case you smother your latkes in sugar. The other food-of-choice for Hanukkah celebrants is jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot.  This is basically an Israeli custom adopted by the wisest of American Jews. Pop a Tums, wear loose-fitting clothes and prepare for grease stains.

8. Bring your gambling game.

Legend has it that when Antiochus IV’s Greek/Syrian army was taking over Jerusalem, roasting pig (not kosher) in The Temple, and banning Jews from any Jewish worship or study, wee Jewish children in the ancient Judean hills would hide in caves and study their little monotheistic hearts out. If enemy soldiers came by, they would break out their little spinning tops and some loose change or marbles or whatever rugrats of ancient times gambled with and act like they were just, you know, gambling. Who knows what really happened, but somewhere along the way, Jews kept the story of the spinning tops, called dreidels. Expect to lose some money.

Plus 1. Let it go.

Make no assumptions.

Jews come in all shapes, sizes and colors. We are Persian, Spanish, Chinese, Arab, Ethiopian, and more. We are not all from Eastern Europe and we do not all think like Woody Allen. So anything goes. Don’t expect a Hanukkah bush. Don’t be shocked if there is a Hanukkah bush. Don’t expect bacon-topped latkes. Don’t be shocked if there are bacon-topped latkes. Don’t expect all the dudes to be wearing yarmulkes. Don’t be shocked if there are dudes wearing yarmulkes. Don’t be shocked if there are women wearing them, too.

And if you’re feeling Scrooge-ey because this list didn’t address the one question you had: What do I bring as a gift to my hosts?  Here’s a place to start. But the truth is, a bottle of wine or some gourmet gelt is totally kosh.

Franny is an artist, actress, and the director of youth education at Kolot Chayeinu in Brooklyn. She is a social justice activist and mom to the effervescent Sunhillow Belle, aka Sunnybunz.

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