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For the first time since 1888, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah fall on the same day.

It will be 79,043 years before Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah share the same date again -- and 57 years before any of the Jewish holiday’s eight days coincide with Thanksgiving once more.

Which makes this holiday of gratitude and celebration all the more meaningful to Jews, said Nancy Coren, spiritual lay leader at Lincoln’s Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she said.

For David and Julie Brockman, the event dubbed “Thanksgivukkah” is a chance to blend holiday traditions.

Their dining room table is adorned in blue and silver. Their menu is a mix of turkey, challah stuffing, sweet potato latkes, cranberry applesauce  and sufganiyot, a fried Jewish doughnut stuffed not with the customary fruit jelly, but with pumpkin mousse -- all served on blue china decorated with silver trees under a lit menorah.

The table decor combines the fruits of the fall harvest with the symbols of the Hanukkah holiday -- a strand of silver coins (symbolizing “gelt” or money) looped around eight silver candlesticks, representing a table-long menorah. From two tabletop trees dangle ornate Hanukkah “ornaments” created by world-renowned artist Christopher Radko.

Two holidays -- mostly secular in their origins -- share a perfect blend of focus -- family, friendship and heart-felt appreciation, the Brockmans said.

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Hanukkah always begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, which is based on the lunar calendar. The celebration begins at sundown the night before and continues until nightfall eight days later.

Hanukkah celebrates two miracles: The  victory of the Maccabees over their Syrian Green oppressors to regain their right to religious freedom in Israel and the story of the eternal light (menorah), which remained lit for eight days even though there was enough olive oil to keep the lamp lit for only one.

“Hanukkah is the story of oil,” said Rabbi Craig Lewis, of Lincoln’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (South Street Temple).

Because of that, oil is widely used in preparing foods for the Hanukkah celebration.

As holidays go, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are aligned -- in the recognition of religious freedom and the traditional celebrations focused on family, peace and togetherness.

“For Jewish people, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah have a common theme -- home,” Coren said. “Hanukkah also is very home-based. We light a candle, put it in the window, say a blessing, sing songs, eat good food and just enjoy it.”

The most important aspects focus on family, friendship and togetherness, Julie Brockman said.

* * *

Contrary to mass assumptions, Hanukkah is not the equivalent of “a Jewish Christmas.” On the calendar of Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is not even really considered religious -- or sacred, Lewis said.

“The fact that it is not even listed in the Jewish version of the Bible indicates it is not that major of a holiday,” Lewis said.

Equating Hanukkah to Christmas makes Lewis uncomfortable.

“The two holidays couldn’t be further apart in their thematics,” Lewis said. “Christmas is the birth of the savior. It’s a beautiful holiday steeped in meaning. It is also a time of fun and celebration.

“Hanukkah is a beautiful holiday steeped in meaning and celebration -- and the struggle for religious freedom,” he said.

Thanksgiving celebrates the pilgrims' arrival in a new land where they had religious freedom.

One tradition Hanukkah and Christmas share is gift giving. Jewish families frequently give one another small gifts each night of Hanukkah.

Traditionally, these were gifts of “gelt” (gold coins) given to those who had less. Today, those gold coins are typically covered in foil, which when peeled back, reveals a chocolate treat, Lewis said.

Gifting traditions vary widely among Jewish families. Coren said her kids grew up thinking everyone received socks and underwear for Hanukkah -- until they went to college and met other Jewish youth.

The idea of gift giving goes back to the core principle of sharing our joy and happiness with others by giving things to the people we love, Coren said.

“It is only one way of expressing happiness,” Lewis said.

For the Brockmans, Hanukkah is not about presents -- although there are gifts.

Hanukkah is symbolic, David Brockman said.

“Ending religious persecution, standing up to your enemy and overcoming adversity,” he said.

“Hanukkah is about being together, taking time out of the year to be together and be happy you are free,” Julie Brockman added.

And as with other religions, Hanukkah encourages people to share their blessings  through giving to those in need and the less fortunate.

At Tifereth Israel, there is a tradition in which children take one of their Hanukkah gifts, wrap it in festive paper and give it to a child in the community who might otherwise go without a present during the holidays, Coren said.

“A lot of families designate one night of Hanukkah to charitable giving rather than giving to each other. Helping those in need,” Lewis added.

This Thanksgiving, Coren and her family will spend the day with friends who arrived nearly 30 years ago as Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union. They fled religious persecution in a country where lighting a menorah and placing it in the window was not only illegal, but dangerous. To be with them in their Lincoln home as they light and display the menorah for all to see is truly coming full circle, Coren said.

“Hanukkah is really about not having to assimilate into the majority culture, of never giving up your beliefs,” she said. "On Thanksgiving, we are grateful for a place where Jews can be Jews -- it is also true of other groups in America.”

Reach Erin Andersen at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

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