Every year, Jews celebrate their festival of lights, and every year, countless Jews and non-Jews stumble over the same question: How do you spell it?
In Hebrew, the name Hanukkah (חנוכה) derives from the word “dedication,” because the holiday marks the rededication of the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem by Judean rebels in the second century BCE. As legend has it, they sought to light the temple’s ritual candelabra—or menorah—but could only find one day’s worth of undefiled oil. Miraculously, that oil burned for eight days, hence the holiday’s duration.
(Now, if you are clever and have too much time on your hands, you might be wondering: Why celebrate for eight days when the first day wasn’t a miracle? Shouldn’t the holiday actually last for seven? In which case, your punishment is to read this book with 500 answers to that very question.)
But while the holiday’s name makes perfect sense in Hebrew, it has long confused everyone in English. I’m not entirely sure why, as spelling it seems pretty straightforward to me:
If it’s any consolation, it’s not just you who has trouble with this question. The president of the United States can’t seem to decide how to spell the holiday either:
For the record, sources close to the White House tasked with handling queries about the most sensitive subjects explained to me that they deliberately went with “Hanukkah” for the English spelling, but switched to “Chanukah” when transliterating the Hebrew phrase “Chanukah Sameach,” which tracks with their usage in the president’s official C/Hanukkah statement.
Kamala Harris Lights the Menorah
President Biden wasn’t the only one getting into the festive spirit. On Sunday night, Vice President Harris marked the holiday with her Jewish husband, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, who shared the moment on social media:
The image of the vice president celebrating the Jewish holiday was remarkable for being unremarkable. In many countries, and for many centuries, Jews and their practices have been unwelcome, leading Jews themselves to keep a low profile to avoid ruffling the feathers of those who despise them. America in 2021 has many challenges, but also many unique strengths, and its unaffected embrace of Jewish visibility is one of them.
But that wasn’t all there was to this story.
I heard through the Deep Shtetl grapevine that there was more to this menorah lighting than met the eye—so I dug up the details. It turns out that this was no ordinary menorah. It belonged to Aaron Feuerstein, a textile businessman who famously refused to lay off any of his workers after a fire devastated his plant in 1995. A graduate of Yeshiva University, Feuerstein continued to pay his employees even when they didn’t have a plant to operate, declaring, “I’m not throwing 3,000 people out of work two weeks before Christmas.” The Boston Globe dubbed him “the mensch of Malden Mills,” and he was honored by President Clinton at the 1996 State of the Union address. Then, this past month, he passed away at the age of 95.
According to sources familiar with what transpired, staff members working for the vice president and second gentleman were casting about for potential menorahs for Hanukkah when one staffer came across Feuerstein’s obituary. The VP’s office approached Feuerstein’s rabbi at the Young Israel of Brookline—the Massachusetts synagogue Feuerstein’s father had co-founded—and the rabbi connected them with the family. Soon enough, Feuerstein’s own simple menorah found its way to Washington and the vice president’s residence, where it was used to mark the beginning of Hanukkah. The moment was celebrated not just by Jews on social media, but by Feuerstein’s granddaughter, who had painted the menorah for her grandfather.
A Reminder and a Request
This is the last edition of Deep Shtetl before we go behind The Atlantic’s paywall—and what better Hanukkah gift to get yourself or someone else than a subscription to The Atlantic and Deep Shtetl? You’ll get access not just to this newsletter, but to all the quality journalism produced by The Atlantic every day. Sign up using this link and I’ll get a referral credit, so it would make a lovely Hanukkah present for me as well.
Thank you for reading, and chag c/hanukka/h sameach!