Friday, December 4, 2009

The Meaning of Khanike

This is the first of what may become a somewhat regular weekly post on the intersection of religion and my family history research. No guarantee that it will be every week, though it is on a topic that interests me, and intersects often with my family history research, so there's a good chance I will be able to come up with something to say. I will try to time the posts for early afternoon on Friday. The Jewish sabbath (Hebrew: 'shabbat') lasts from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.

Khanike is a week away. It begins next Friday night, December 11. I suspect some readers are a little puzzled. You've probably seen the holiday spelled many ways, but I deliberately chose one of the least common. However, paradoxically, it may have more scholarship behind it than the more common spellings.

Hebrew word: חנוכה

Hebrew uses a completely different alphabet from English, so any English spelling is a phonetic approximation. Arguably, as long as the spelling suggests the correct pronunciation, it's legitimate -- though some spellings may become more common than others through use.

There's a problem with this. Biblical Hebrew doesn't use vowels, and Modern Hebrew rarely uses them. If there were vowels, they would appear as dots and dashes below the letters. So sometimes there is debate over the proper pronunciation of the Hebrew words.

Khanike is the spelling that was determined by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research as the closest approximation of the Yiddish or Ashkenazic pronunciation of the Hebrew word. It differs slightly from more common pronunciations. But besides liking it for being slightly unusual, and for having scholastic research behind it, I also like it because there is no way for anyone to confuse the opening 'Kh' with the soft 'Ch' in 'Chair.' And I cringe whenever anyone pronounces it that way. (How a phonetic spelling that is so easily misunderstood became so common I will never know.)

One of the traditions associated with the holiday is lighting the 9-branched candelabra and setting it in the window of your home. (It's either called a 'Hanukiah' or a 'Hanuka menorah.' Often the latter is shortened to just 'menorah', but there is also a 7-branch Shabbat menorah.) Why is the Hanukiah set in the window? Some say to publicize the miracle of the holiday. Though I was taught it was also a display of one's religious identity, as one of the main themes behind the holiday is to stand against forced assimilation. The holiday celebrates the victory of the Maccabees and their followers over King Antiochus' attempts to force them to bow down to a Greek idol, as well as other attempts to eradicate the religion. And I was taught that hiding who we are is one step closer to forgetting who we are.

I believe I was given a gift either in December of 1976 or January of 1977. I'm not sure, because my birthday falls in January. However, there is a photo of me with the gift, and the writing on the back says 'Age 8'. I turned 8 on January 21, 1977.

Regardless of when I received the gift, I feel the photograph can be used as an illustration of the meaning of Khanike.

The thoughts of the 8 year old child are clear 33 years later. I know I'm 'supposed' to wear this underneath my sweater, but I want everyone to see! I'm sure that excitement wore off after a few days. My older siblings would have exerted enough peer pressure and ridicule otherwise to get me to conform to fashion. So the photograph was likely taken the day I received it, or shortly thereafter. Because of this, and because it's clearly (from the background) a professional photo, I suspect it's a birthday photo, and a birthday gift.

The symbol at the end of the chain is the Hebrew word 'Chai.' It means 'Life. (Those familiar with the musical Fiddler on the Roof may recall the song lyrics, "Li Chaim, Li Chaim, To Life, To Life, Li Chaim." You may not have realized it was a mini-language lesson.) 33 years later there is still a chain around my neck. The chai has been replaced with a mezuzah. I've told many friends that I've worn a necklace since age 13. It's not too surprising that I would recall the gift as one I got for my Bar Mitzvah, but this is further evidence that personal narrative isn't always an accurate source of information.

This entry was also written as a submission for the 19th edition of the Smile for the Camera Carnival - theme: Gifts.

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