The people of Pakistan celebrate Hanukkah

Jewish Holidays: Your Jewish host family celebrates these festivals

Published on September 26, 2019

One of the most exciting aspects of an au pair year is getting to know other traditions and ways of life. If you want to go to the USA as an au pair, it is possible that you will find your new temporary home in a Jewish host family. Depending on whether and how strongly your host family practices their faith, you will then be able to experience completely new holidays and rituals instead of well-known festivals such as Christmas or Easter. Today we would like to introduce you to a few Jewish holidays that you can look forward to in the au pair year!

Rosh HaShana - the Jewish New Year in autumn

Rosh HaShana literally means "head of the year" and represents the beginning of the Jewish calendar. This is based on the phases of the moon, which means that all holidays are flexible. Rosh HaShana begins on September 29th in 2019 and on September 18th in 2020.

Like all Jewish festivals, the New Year festival begins on the eve of the actual holiday. If Rosh HaShana takes place on Thursday, for example, the celebrations begin on "Erev Rosh HaShana" - on Wednesday evening at nightfall.

Rosh HaShana is celebrated for two days. It usually begins with a large feast. Traditional dishes such as round challah bread (symbolizing the cycle of a year), pumpkin, sweet dishes such as dates or pomegranate seeds are served. The latter are a symbol of many good deeds in the new year.
Another tradition is to eat apple wedges dipped in honey, because they promise a “sweet new year”. As a traditional New Year greeting one wishes "Shana tova umetuka!" (Happy New Year!).

On both feast days - as is always the case for Jewish holidays - the women of the house light candles, accompanied by certain prayers. Attending church services in the morning in the synagogue is also mandatory for believing Jews on Rosh HaShana. The central component is the repeated blowing of the shofar - an old musical instrument made from the horn of a ram. According to the Torah, it is a commandment to hear the Shofar horn on Rosh HaShana.

Hanukkha: The festival of lights in winter

Of all the Jewish festivals, the Hanukkah festival is probably the one you will most likely be familiar with. This is because American Jews in particular celebrate Hanukkah extensively and you may be familiar with it through films and series. In fact, the eight-day festival of lights is of less importance in the Jewish faith, because it is not one of the high holidays. This is also due to the fact that not a religious commandment, but a historical event is celebrated.

The background of the Hanukkha festival is the liberation of Jerusalem from the Greek conquerors. According to tradition, only a tiny amount of consecrated oil in the temple survived the siege. But this was enough like a miracle, so that the seven-armed candlestick (menorah) - which must never go out - continued to burn.

It is customary to light another candle on the 9-armed candlestick (Hanukkiah) every evening, always from right to left. Each candle is lit with the same "servant candle", which is then enthroned in the center of the candlestick. Accompanying this, one speaks the Hanukkha blessing and then sings various songs.
To commemorate the consecrated oil in the temple, Jews at Hanukkah also eat foods baked in fat such as donuts / donuts ("Sufganiyot") or potato pancakes ("Latkes").

Due to the close proximity to Christmas (November or December), most secular families in the USA also celebrate Hanukkah. It is common for children to receive gifts on the occasion, like at Christmas. The traditional greeting is "Chanukah sameach" or simply "Happy Hanukkah"!

Passover: The spring festival of unleavened bread

The Passover festival (Pesach, Passover) is one of the most important festivals in Judaism. It is closely linked to Christian Easter and takes place around the same time period (March or April). On Pesach, Jews around the world celebrate the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian captivity for eight days. In addition to attending the service, the highlight is the large feast on the eve of Passover - the so-called "Seder".

The common (several hours) dinner with the family follows a fixed ritual sequence (described in the "Haggadah"). During the seder traditional dishes are eaten in a very specific order. Furthermore, the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt is read aloud, prayers are said and Passover songs are sung.

A Seder bowl with symbolic dishes such as salt water, herbs and matzo is placed on the festive table. During the entire Passover festival, believing Jews are not allowed to eat leavened bread. That is why you will only find matzah (singular: matzah) in your host family during Passover week. These thin and hard bread cakes are somewhat reminiscent of crispbread and do not have that much taste. Tip: But they taste great with Nutella!

Popular dishes such as “Matzah balls” (often as a filler in soup), Charoset (paste made from nuts and dates) or “Gefilte Fish” (a kind of fish ball) are also on the Pesach menu. The traditional greeting at this time is “Chag Pessach Sameach” or just “Happy Passover!”.

You may find it a little difficult to understand the Hebrew prayers and blessings during the Seder (many Haggadot have English translations). Nevertheless, participating in a seder is a particularly exciting and solemn experience that you will certainly remember for a long time.

Of course there are many other Jewish festivals such as Purim, Yom Kippur or Sukkot. Whether your host family celebrates this depends primarily on how religious they are, of course. We hope, however, that we were able to give you a little insight into our highlights and that we could make you curious about many exciting new experiences.