Students celebrate ‘Thanksgivukkah’ at home and on campus

By Bridget Hynes

For Andrew Rudolph, freshman in LAS, the Thanksgiving dinner table this year featured a menorah alongside pumpkin pie — a combination that he has never experienced before. The occasion? “Thanksgivukkah,” the coinciding of Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah.  

This once-in-a-lifetime holiday, in which the first day of Hanukkah fell on Thanksgiving Day, has not happened since 1888, and will not happen again for another 70,000 years, according to Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, a founding director of Illini Chabad, a Jewish center on campus. Tiechtel said he thinks it is fitting that the two holidays are on the same day, since both have central themes of giving thanks.

Hanukkah, an eight-day celebration, commemorates a miracle in the Jewish faith in which one day’s worth of oil lasted eight days to light candles in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the amount of time it took to travel into the city of Tokea to make new olive oil, Tiechtel said. 

This miracle occurred when the Jews won the war and took back their temple from the Syrian-Greeks, who had overtaken it as part of their religious persecution of the Jews during the second century B.C. The Jews’ lighting of the candles in the temple signified the rededication and purification of their religious space. 

“Hanukkah is not only a Jewish message, but a universal message, especially in times like today when things are dark and things are challenging,” Tiechtel said. “We’re thanks-giving to God for giving us this opportunity to be free, to be what we want. So how beautiful is it when that comes together with Thanksgiving in the United States where we’re celebrating what we have in America, our freedoms, our opportunities?” 

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Sarah Stranieri, freshman in Engineering, said this year’s Hanukkah was different for her because she celebrated with her extended family. She said the holiday is usually a “home kind of holiday,” which she celebrates by lighting the menorah with her mom and brother. However, this year, Stranieri said the celebration was less private. 

“It was more like a party. I kind of liked that atmosphere of having tons of people around,” she said. 

Stranieri said her family gathered at her cousins’ house in New York and had latkes as a side dish at Thanksgiving dinner. Latkes, which are potato pancakes, are a traditional Hanukkah food usually followed with applesauce. 

Although Hanukkah traditions differ from family to family, some traditions include getting small gifts each night of Hanukkah and playing dreidel, a spinning top game that dates back to the Jews’ religious persecution by the Syrian-Greeks when Jews studied the Torah in secrecy. 

“They would post somebody at the door and if a soldier was coming by, they right away threw the scrolls under the table and brought out the tops to play,” Tiechtel said.

Today, pennies or chocolate coins called gelt are used to bet on the outcome of the dreidel’s spin. 

Rudolph, who said he enjoys playing dreidel, also ate latkes at his Thanksgiving dinner and said it was nice to have other options because he is usually not a big fan of Thanksgiving food. 

“I’m not a big fan of stuffing, so instead of that I ate latkes,” he said. “They made up about three-fourths of my plate. The rest was turkey.” 

Since the first four days of Hanukkah fell over Thanksgiving break, Rudolph was able to light the menorah with his friends on the first night of Hanukkah, which he said is something he has not previously done. 

In a similar way, Stranieri found this year special because not only was she coming back for two holidays, but she was also coming back from college for the first time. 

“It wasn’t just family that I hadn’t seen for a week or two — it was family I hadn’t seen for months,” she said. 

Tiechtel also said the timing of Hanukkah this year is special. 

“Hanukkah is the earliest it can possibly be and Thanksgiving is the latest it can possibly be,” Tiechtel said. 

Usually Hanukkah falls in December, but due to the Jewish calendar — which is a lunar calendar between 353 to 355 days — holidays vary. To make up for the 11 days lost each year, every two to three years is a leap year in the Jewish calendar. This year is a leap year, which means that this January, an extra month will be added to make up for the 33 days lost in these past three years.

“Next year Hanukkah will fall toward the end of December, the following year mid-December, the following year early December,” Tiechtel said. “This year it’s interesting because it’s before the holiday season. The Jewish kids get to celebrate their own holiday — this is Hanukkah time.”

For students who wish to celebrate the last four days of Hanukkah on campus, Tiechtel and Illini Chabad will be coordinating events Monday through Thursday, including Wednesday’s lighting of a nine-foot menorah on the Quad followed by the 10th annual Chanukah Bowl in the Illini Union. 

Illini Chabad will also be providing students with free menorah kits, which include a tin menorah with colored candles and a small dreidel. Every residence hall on campus will have space available to light the menorah, Tiechtel said.

Bridget can be reached at [email protected].