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Winona Jews celebrate 'Thanksgivukkah' (11/27/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Photo by Chris Rogers
     he traditional Hanukkah game of dreidel has its roots as a cover for clandestine worship gatherings. From left to right, Samantha Krause, Cara Luebke, and Max Saucedo practice.
The crisp sizzle of potato latkes frying on a griddle and the mouthwatering anticipation of an impending feast have long characterized one of the iconic moments of Hanukkah celebrations for Winona Jews since they were small. This year, latkes will have to compete with pumpkin pie, and lighting menorahs with snapping wishbones.

For the first time in nearly a century, American Jews will observe the beginning of Hanukkah and carve their Thanksgiving turkeys on the same day. At Winona State University (WSU) the Jewish Student Organization, also known as Hillel, is embracing what pop culture fanatics have dubbed "Thanksgivukkah."

"As a club we're taking advantage of it," said Hillel President Cara Luebke, relating the group's plan to maximize the opportunity for promoting their club and showcasing their heritage to non-Jewish peers. The group will host a Thanksgiving and Hanukkah party next Thursday with a mash-up of traditional foods: sweet potatoes will replace ordinary spuds in latkes at the event, turkey will stand in for chicken in matzo ball soup, and their version of the Hanukkah noodle casserole, kugel, will evoke the New England settlement with cranberries instead of raisins.

Menorahs, games of dreidel, white elephant gift exchanges, door prizes and decorations the Jewish student group is going all out to commemorate the "once in a lifetime experience" of combined Hanukkah and Thanksgiving celebrations. Take-home dreidels may be gimmicky, they admit, but promoting their culture and heritage is a task with serious meaning for Hillel members.

"One of the great things these students are doing is being visible to other Jewish students and making Jewish culture visible and understandable for students who haven't grown up around Jews," explained Hillel advisor Dr. Colette Hyman.

Luebke has had fellow students ask her, "'You're really Jewish? Like in 'Rugrats' or '8 Crazy Nights?'" The Nickelodeon cartoon show and Adam Sandler's animated Hanukkah film are the most exposure some of Luebke's classmates have had to Jewish culture.

Coming from a family where blintzes and brisket were regular holiday fare, and Saturday was the Sabbath, to a new life in a city without a synagogue, was a tough adjustment for some of the Jewish WSU students.

"When I first got here the freshman college experience you kind of lose your way a little bit," Luebke said. "I felt like Judaism brought me back. In order to stay here I felt I needed that connection."

The lack of a synagogue or active Jewish community in Winona discouraged Hillel member Jaron Arbet as a freshman, as well. "It created a conflict of identify, because I identify as being Jewish but I couldn't do any Judaism-related things," he explained. Now, he and his fellow Hillel members regularly hold traditional Kiddush brunches before traveling to synagogue or celebrating Jewish holidays.

"It's given me a way to relate and express a part of myself that feels strongly about being Jewish," Arbet said. Having Hillel "has made the process of becoming the adults we are growing up to be easier," he added.

Hillel member Jessie Illian agreed, "It's nice to be able to hang out with other Jewish people. It brings me back where I belong."

A once (or twice) in a lifetime cultural merger

"Thanksgivukkah" may have inspired dozens of clever culinary amalgamations, but how well do they fit together culturally? The holidays have distinct histories: Hanukkah is a celebration of the victory of Jewish rebels over oppressive Greek occupiers while Thanksgiving commemorates an abundant harvest feast between newcomers and native peoples. The sentiment is the same, though, said Hyman. Hanukkah, she explained, "is celebrating the reestablishment of our sanctuary," the temple in Jerusalem. "It's a celebration of gratitude; Hanukkah means 'dedication.'" In that way, she added, "it parallels Thanksgiving; they dovetail."

Students agreed. Hanukkah is about "spending the time with family and exchanging gifts," said Hillel member Samantha Krause. "And food," others chimed in. Despite the two holidays' different histories, today "both of them are heavily associated with food and spending time with family," Illian pointed out.

What does feel strange to the Jewish Winonans is having Hanukkah this early. "I think it's weird. I'm used to having it in December," Illian said. "My mom sent me her Hanukkah list and I thought, 'This can't be right,'" said Luebke.

According to the Hasidic Jewish heritage organization Chabad.org and the New York Times, the last time Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah coincided was 1918, and it will not happen again until 2070. Like other Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is based on the Jewish calendar, a hybrid of lunar and solar calendars, so the timing of the holiday changes from year to year. This year features one of the latest dates possible for Thanksgiving and one of the earliest for Hanukkah.

The fact that Hanukkah usually falls closer to Christmas is part of the function of the holiday in modern American society, according to Hillel members. The eight day-long festival of lights is not a religiously important holiday, they said. "Mostly it's our Christmas," said Max Saucedo. "The American modern culture has forced it to be a big holiday. You need an answer to Christmas," Illian explained.

Historically, the menorahs enter the Hanukkah story after the ancient Jews overthrew the Greeks who had taken over the temple in Jerusalem. The victorious Jews wanted to light new candles to rededicate their defiled temple, but only found enough oil to last a day. Miraculously the oil burned for eight times that long, long enough for a fresh shipment of oil to be brought to the temple. Modern Jews light a candle during each day of Hanukkah to remember the rededication of the temple.

Illian related a story of how dreidels, four-sided tops with Hebrew letters used in a betting game of the same name, became part of the Hanukkah story. During the Greek occupation, Jews were forbidden to worship together or read the Torah, so they would hide out in the hills to practice their faith. If Greek soldiers came riding by, they would quickly hide their Torahs and pretend to play dreidel as an excuse for their secluded gathering, Illian said.

Guests at Hillel's "Thanksgivukkah" feast will get a chance to compete for chocolate coins in games of dreidel and join in optional fundraising games with door prizes. Donations benefit the club, and will help pay for synagogue memberships and other group activities. The feast is Thursday, December 5, at 6 p.m. in the Tau Center on WSU's West Campus. Everyone is welcome. 

 

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