Ask a Rabbi: Hanukkah Edition

Rabbi Mona Alfi #bosslady






By Co-Editor Rachel Smith

Does this Menorah make me look Jewish?

Yay, Hanukkah! Eight or some-odd days where Jewish kids get hella presents and decorate their houses in blue and white!


Who the hell knows!  But we have approximately two songs (Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel and that one Adam Sandler beat) to prove that it’s a real thing.

OK, so maybe even I could use a refresher course on exactly what we’re celebrating here. Enter: my fabulous female Rabbi, Mona Alfi, of Congregation B’nai Israel who is here to drop some knowledge on us so we can all sound hella smart the next time we see a bearded stranger playing folk music on our roof.

Wait. Your Rabbi is a woman? 

Yezzir. Women can be Rabbis and yes, mine is the best, and yes, she loves my tattoos and non-kosher wine consumption, and yes, she was like, the first religious leader in Sacramento to marry same-sex couples and has been a longtime, VOCAL champion of equal rights for ALL, and yes, being Jewish and having this chick as my religious teacher and friend is amazing, and yes, I can call her a chick because that’s how amazing she is. And no, I still don’t know how to properly use commas.

OK, I’m going to stop talking to myself now. Let’s get this Shalom show on the road.

Rachel: First of all, thank you for taking time out of your busy Rabbi-ing (?) to help explain Hanukkah to our readers. I’m so excited to introduce you to the Girls on the Grid community because you are literally the coolest religious leader ever, not to mention you wear fabulous shoes when reading Torah.

Rabbi Alfi: My pleasure Rachel! But this would have been a better discussion over a little schnapps.

(I mean, could she get any better?)

Rabbi’s beautiful boys with their Menorahs and yummy food.

Rachel: Let’s dive right in. Can you explain exactly what Hanukkah is? Many people think it’s a Christmas for Jews, even though one has nothing to do with the other.

Rabbi Alfi:  Chanukah (or Hanukkah) is actually a minor holiday for Jews.  It’s only been amped up by American Jews in the last 50 years because it’s at the same time as Christmas. It’s kind of an ancient Independence Day celebration commemorating when the Maccabees (a rag-tag group of Jewish rebels) recaptured our Temple in Jerusalem, cleaned it up, and rededicated it for us to be able to use it again.  Chanukah actually means “dedication.” Chanukah is about light and hope during dark times, and it’s about fighting for religious freedom and maintaining one’s Judaism against the pull of assimilation, and rededicating ourselves to Judaism.

(Cool, I didn’t even spell Chanukah right. We’re off to a banner start. Anywho, when the Maccabees reclaimed the Temple, they only had enough oil to light up the place for one day, but it ended up lasting eight. Holla! Or should I say – Challah! Hence, eight days of celebration, lighting candles each night, and eating foods drenched in oil. See: Menorah – that thing we light – and latkes – the “Jewish hash browns”)

Rachel: Some of my friends are jealous that we get eight days of presents. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t received eight Hanukkah presents since 1996. What do the presents represent?  

Rabbi Alfi: The presents really are about keeping up with Christmas, and are not part of the traditional Chanukah celebration.  When I was a kid we would get a gift every night, but one night might be chocolate, other nights would be some new clothes (usually something I needed like a coat or pajamas or even socks), and then one really nice gift on the last night.  When I first had kids we would go overboard on the gifts, but then we quickly realized that was a bad idea and now give a lot of family gifts (like board games, art supplies), things we can do together.  But I do like giving the kids clothing on one night though, it’s tradition.

But the focus of the holiday shouldn’t be on gifts, it should be on the telling of the Chanukah story, lighting the menorah, spending time with family and friends, and eating an immense amount of food that has been fried in oil. Most Jewish holidays incorporate the giving of tzedakah (charity) as part of the celebration, and a lot of families also make sure that they dedicate at least one night to giving to those in need, or volunteering at a shelter or food kitchen.

(Her story just reminded me of one Hanukkah many years ago when my mom handed me a huge wrapped box and told me to go open it somewhere private. My spoiled ass assumed it was probably something too-legit-to-quit and she didn’t want my sister to get jealous. The contents of the box? Jockey underwear.)

I was born on the first night of Chanukah, 1985. In 2012, my birthday fell on the first night of Chanukah again!

Rachel: Why does Hanukkah fall on a different date every year?

Rabbi Alfi: Actually Rachel, Chanukah starts on the same day every year, the 25th of Kislev! (You need a Jewish calendar to figure out when that lands on the Western calendar, but it starts roughly some time from the end of November to the end of December).

(I just got served. Seriously, how did she ever let me have a Bat Mitzvah?)

Rachel: OK, let’s back up for a minute. Why is Hanukkah (Chanukah?) spelled a few different ways?

Rabbi Alfi: There are several different ways to transliterate Hebrew into English, some are academic formats, others are just easier for the layperson to be able to read.  The first letter of Chanukah is a “Chet” and there is not a corresponding letter in English, and you need a lot of phlegm to say it the right way, so some people take the easy way out and make the first letter sound like an “h.”  I was taught that any spelling that had 8 letters was correct.

(Wait, I have amazing phlegm. CHANUKAH it is from here on out)

Rachel:  What do you do to celebrate Chanukah?

Rabbi Alfi: We try to celebrate each night with friends and relatives or at the synagogue.  I cook a grotesque amount of fried food, play dreidel with my kids and go overboard making our home look festive.   Here’s a great website for Chanukah recipes, activities, and “how to” information: They even have a virtual menorah you can light!

At least they got the spelling right… #kosherfail

Rachel: Chanukah related-ish, people want to know: why don’t Jews eat bacon? I mean, most people know it’s because bacon isn’t “kosher” so I guess the real question is – what does kosher mean?

Rabbi Alfi: “Kosher” means fit, and it comes from the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) where God tells us what animals are “fit,” or not “fit,” for us to eat.  The Bible doesn’t give us a reason for kashrut, other than because God said so. But for me, it’s about making eating a “mindful” practice, and being conscious about where our food comes from, how it’s being grown or raised, and thinking about what we put in our bodies.

Here’s a fun little video that sings about what animals are kosher and which are not.

I do recommend turkey bacon however. Tasty, kosher, and it can be a healthier option.

Rachel: Farm-to-Fork at it’s finest! One last thing which is 100% Chanukah related. Does this hot, progressive-looking Jew belong to our synagogue and if not, can we recruit him?

Rabbi Alfi: {crickets}

(Womp. Looks like I’ll be lighting the Menorah alone this year.)


There you have it folks! Hope you learned a little about the Jewish holiday of CHANUKAH. Let’s eat – L’chaim! 

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