How to Host a Great Hanukkah Party: Eight Ideas with an Interfaith Twist
The Jewish festival of Hanukkah began last night, and as is our custom here at IFYC when religious holidays roll around, we'll gather to mark the occasion. We have a religiously diverse staff, and chances are your workplace does too. We've found these holiday events are a great way to show respect for different traditions and make everyone feel included.
Sometimes we get a thoughtful lesson in a staff meeting, like this reflection on the Jewish high holidays. A few weeks ago a Hindu colleague invited his mom to talk about the history, foods and customs of Diwali. (One takeaway: Moms of all religions work very hard to make holidays special.) These events aren't only about faith; our humanist and secular colleagues get opportunities to share too.
In honor of the eight nights of Hanukkah, our Jewish colleagues shared eight tips for hosting a wonderfully welcoming, interfaith Hanukkah party.
1. Lights. You don’t have to be Jewish to make your own Chanukah candles. Our colleagues Orly did this last year and her family loved mixing colors to make different patterned candles. The tradition of lighting candles each night of Hanukkah can be traced to the holiday’s origins in the 2nd century B.C.E., when a group of Jews fighting to preserve their distinct religious practices reclaimed the Jerusalem Temple from Greek rulers. After rededicating the temple, they lit an oil lamp that miraculously burned for eight days straight. (Hanukkah comes from the Hebrew word for “dedication.”)
2. Latkes. Jewish chefs fry foods in oil during Hanukkah as a nod to the holiday’s origin story, and these potato pancakes are often on the menu. My colleagues are planning a friendly “fry-off” this year to see whose latkes best capture the Platonic ideal of light-fluffy-crispy-crunchy. Our family’s favorite recipe comes from “Jerusalem,” a cookbook by Israeli-born British chef Yotam Ottolenghi and his partner Sami Tamimi, a Palestinian Muslim.
3. Conversation. The Hanukkah story can be a great conversation starter, one that goes far beyond ancient temples and oil lamps. Start with my colleague Noah Silverman's great piece from 2020 on Hanukkah and culture wars, or discuss how American presidents have marked the holiday and read Lighting the Menorah: Celebrating Hanukkah at the White House by the White House Historical Association. You can talk about the importance of building coalitions, whether it’s wise to wait for divine intervention in response to crisis, or how much you can adopt new cultural norms and still hold to distinct religious practices. These questions all mattered to the Maccabees, the Jewish family that led the revolt in the 2nd century B.C.E.
4. Games of chance. The classic Hanukkah dreidel game is easy and fun for all ages. For the backstory, check out Gyration Nation: The Weird Ancient History of the Dreidel. To start your own game, our colleague Hannah created this handy guide and found a virtual dreidel to spin: First, please gather up 20 pennies, nuts, chocolate chips, buttons, candy, paper clips, or other small items to use when playing the game. These are the game pieces. Each player begins the game with an equal number of game pieces -- about 10-15. At the beginning of each round, every participant puts one game piece into the center “pot.” In addition, every time the pot is empty or has only one game piece left, every player should put one in the pot. Every time it’s your turn, spin the dreidel once. Depending on the side it lands on, you give or get game pieces from the pot.
Nun means “nisht” or “nothing.” The player does nothing.
Gimel means “gantz” or “everything.” The player gets everything in the pot.
Hey means “halb” or “half.” The player gets half of the pot. (If there is an odd number of pieces in the pot, the player takes half of the total plus one).
Shin means “shtel” or “put in.” The player adds a game piece to the pot.
If you find that you have no game pieces left, you are either “out” or may ask a fellow player for a “loan.” When one person has won everything, that round of the game is over!
5. Holiday cheer. Our colleague Orly recommends Elfster — and name-checks Jon Lovitz’s iconic Saturday Night Live character— for anonymous “hush hush Hanukkah Harry” gifting. And in a creative twist on another holiday’s custom, her parents always make sure to put up the “chiseltoe (pronounced like the “ch” in chanukah)” — a decoration they hang over a doorway like mistletoe.
6. Music. Hanukkah music comes in many genres. Here are some of our favorites:
“A Great Miracle: Jeremiah Lockwood’s Guitar Soli Chanukah Record,” a new collection of mellow holiday guitar solos by an innovative scholar, composer and musician.
“Hanukkah Blessings” from the Barenaked Ladies holiday album.
The Maccabeats, a Jewish a capella group, have two Hanukkah albums. Here’s the original from 2015.
Adam Sandler’s original “Hanukkah Song.”
For more musical fun, the team at Kveller curated a list of Hanukkah parody songs, from a Hamilton tribute to "Bohemian Hanukkah," an homage to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." Kveller's guide to making the Shabbat table welcoming for non-Jewish family members is helpful for Hanukkah too.
7. Sugar. Enlist your guests to decorate sugar cookies cut in festive Hanukkah shapes, and consider passing out some Hanukkah gelt. From the Yiddish word for “money,” gelt are foil-wrapped chocolate coins used while playing dreidel (or, per my family's custom, eaten straight from the bag, no dreidel required). Our favorite are Trader Joe’s “coins of the world,” a generous kosher collection in a tidy gold mesh bag, a bargain at $1.99.
8. Naps. We wrap up our list with some wise interfaith holiday advice from our colleague Rachel: “Plan for a nap time afterwards! After consuming that many fried foods, folks will need a little time to rest their eyes!”
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.