Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, began at sundown on Dec. 16, 2014 and runs for eight days with menorah lightings and celebrations around the world.
Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the second century B.C.E. during the Maccabean revolt against oppressive Greek rulers. Jews celebrate the holiday by lighting a nine-branch candelabrum, commonly called a menorah, and by giving gifts and playing a game with a spinning top called a “dreidel.”
According to the White House blog, President Obama declared, “We’ve koshered the kitchen and set up the menorah.” And then, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed hundreds of guests at the White House for the second night of Hanukkah.
Joined by the First Lady and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, President Obama retold the story of Hanukkah, “a story that took place more than 2,000 years ago, when a small group of Maccabees rose up to defeat their far more powerful oppressors.”
In the face of overwhelming odds, they reclaimed their city and the right to worship as they chose. And in their victory, they found there wasn’t enough oil to keep the flame in their temple alive. But they lit the oil they had and, miraculously, the flame that was supposed to burn for just one night burned for eight. The Hanukkah story teaches us that our light can shine brighter than we could ever imagine with faith, and it’s up to us to provide that first spark.
The President also took time to highlight a new Hanukkah story: the return of American aid worker Alan Gross from Cuba.
“After our many months of discussion with the Cuban government, Alan was finally released this morning on humanitarian grounds,” the President said:
He’s going to be getting the medical attention that he needs. He’s back where he belongs — in America, with his family, home for Hanukkah. And I can’t think of a better way to mark this holiday, with its message that freedom is possible, than with the historic changes that I announced today in our Cuba policy. These are changes that are rooted in America’s commitment to freedom and democracy for all the Cuban people, including its small but proud Jewish community.
Rabbi Shavit Artson led the blessings and lit the menorah — one of four brought from Israel to the White House this year. The menorah came from bilingual Jerusalem school Hand in Hand, and was built by both Jewish and Muslim students following a devastating arson attack. As the President put it, “Each of its branches are dedicated to one of the values their school is founded on — values like community and dignity and equality and peace.”