"For want of a national soil, Jews in the Diaspora could not build national structures. So they built out of the substance of time. They took a specific day of the year, and kneaded and molded it until they fashioned it into an edifice. Thus each Jewish holiday is a whole construction."
– Bialik. q Karu. HaBoker, May 21, 1950
Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights. It celebrates a miracle: In 165 BCE, the Maccabees led a band of Jews in battle against invading pagans who had desecrated the Temple. They found only one day's supply of oil for the Temple's eternal light. Miraculously, the supply lasted eight days, until more was procured. A menorah is lit for eight nights. Dreidle games, and food fried in oil are customary.
Pesach or Passover is named after the "passing over" by the almighty of the Israelites' homes during the tenth plague. Eight-day festival celebrating the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The Haggadah (holiday book), recounting the story, is read at the Seder (ritual meal). Matzah (unleavened bread) commemorates the haste in which the former slaves fled Egypt. Celebrated by Reform Jews for 7 days. Begin counting the Omer on the second day of Passover.
Purim, The Feast of Lots, recalls the rescue of Jews from annihilation in ancient Persia, as recorded in the Book of Esther. Haman cast lots to choose the day for his plot, which was failed by Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai. Celebrated with festivity, costumes, and noisemakers, and the reading of the Megillah of Esther. Hamantashen (three-cornered pastries) are the traditional food. Mishloach manot (gift packages) are exchanged and gifts are given to the poor. The day beforehand is the Fast of Esther.
Rosh Hashanah or the Jewish New Year, begins a ten-day period of repentance and prayer that ends on Yom Kippur. Celebrated with synagogue attendance, feasts, and apples dipped in honey to the hope for a sweet year to come.
Rosh Hodesh, the Jewish New Month:
Shabbat is the most important holiday. It commemorates God's day of rest on the seventh day of Creation. Weekly, from sundown Friday, until after dark on Saturday.
Shavuot is the Festival of Weeks. It marks the end of the counting of the Omer, which began on the second night of Passover and recalls Moses' receiving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments. The Megillah of Ruth is read. All night study of the Torah is customary. Confirmation ceremonies, dairy foods, honey and floral decorations mark this holiday. Observed by Reform Jews for one day.
Shemini Atzeret is the Feast of Conclusion, the day people leave the sukkah and resume the holiday in their own home. Prayers for rain, psalms of thanksgiving and joy, and yizkor memorial prayers) are recited.
Simchat Torah, the Rejoicing for the Torah, marks the end of the annual Torah reading and the beginning of the cycle for the coming year. Celebrated with singing, processions with the Torahs, and flags. Reform Jews celebrate this with Shemini Atzeret.
Sukkot, the Festival of Tabernacles, is named for the booths the Jews lived in during their Exodus from Egypt. Commemorated with temporary dwellings decorated with fruits and vegetables. The holiday is also marked by processors with the lulav (palm branch with myrtle and willow) and etrog (citron fruit).
Tisha B'Av, the Fast of the Ninth of Av, is a day of mourning to commemorate the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, many of which coincidentally have occurred on the ninth of Av.
Tu B'Shevat is the New Year of the Trees and marks the arrival of spring in Israel. It is celebrated with picnics, planting trees, and eating fruit.
Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is marked by memorials and dedications to those who perished in the Holocaust.
Yom Hazikaron, Israel Memorial Day, is a day of remembrance for all those who died serving Israel. Yom Hazikaron concludes with a siren blast as stars appear in the sky and Independence Day begin.
Yom Ha'atzmaut is Israel Independence Day. It is celebrated by Jews around the world.
Yom Yerushalayim or Jerusalem Day is the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem during Israel's 1967 Six Day War.
Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and marks the end of the 10 days of repentance. Spent in fasting and prayer. The end of the holiday is signaled by the sounding of the shofar (the ram's horn).