In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

November 3, 2021

Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences: On celebrating the Festival of Lights across Hindu, Jewish faiths

By In the Loop

Mayo Clinic is a unique place: the culture, the values, the people. "Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences" explores the experiences of Mayo Clinic staff as they navigate life personally and professionally. Sharing these experiences increases understanding of others and ultimately contributes to finding connections, belonging and inclusion at work.

In this episode of "Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences," Sumathi Jayakumar, information technology service delivery manager in Media Support Services, and Cynthia Weiss, Public Affairs, share their experiences celebrating Diwali and Hanukkah — both referred to as the Festival of Lights. Jayakumar talks about Diwali and the meaning of the celebration in the Hindu faith. Weiss shares the history of Hanukkah and her traditions in the Jewish faith.

Listen as they share their experiences:

Read the transcript, edited for length and clarity:

JAYAKUMAR: I see so much similarities between different cultures and different regions of the world.

NARRATOR: In this episode, Sumathi, information technology service delivery manager in Media Support Services, and Cynthia, senior communications specialist in Public Affairs, share their experiences celebrating Diwali and Hanukkah.

WEISS: I celebrate Hanukkah. I'm Jewish. My husband is not Jewish, so we have a multicultural household. I am curious to learn a little bit about Diwali. I've heard that it's called the Festival of Lights, just like Hanukkah is.

JAYAKUMAR: Diwali is also called the Festival of Lights. Diwali signifies victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance. In different parts of India, Diwali is celebrated in different ways. 

They also called it Deepavali. "Deepa" means "light." "Vali" means "string" — a string or row of lights. That's why it's called Deepavali, Diwali, Divali. 

In India, each state speaks a different language, with a different accent. I'm from the southern part of India, and we call it Deepavali. So, it's one of the very popular Hindu festivals that is celebrated all over India and all over the world. 

When I hear the word, I really get excited. It takes me back to my childhood memory of how we celebrated with our parents when we were little. 

I migrated to the U.S. about 25 years ago. For many years, we didn't celebrate much because there are not many Indian families. And now we have about 400 plus families that live in the Rochester area. We get to celebrate in a very grand, different manner. So, it is a week of celebration during the Diwali time. 

WEISS: Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration that commemorates the rededication of one of the temples. In Hebrew, the word "Hanukkah" means "dedication." And Hanukkah is the commemorating, rededication of the temple. 

Two thousand some odd years ago, a Syrian king named Antiochus destroyed one of the temples and tried to get the Jewish people to follow and worship Greek gods. When the Jewish people were able to regain control, they found only a small amount of oil, which is what they used to make light back then.

There was only enough to last one day, and it would take them eight days to make more holy oil. But miraculously — which is why it's now called the Festival of Lights — that oil lasted for eight days, giving them time to make more. So we also celebrate the holiday for a whole week and commemorate that dedication of the temple. We light a menorah. 

I learned something new recently that all of our candelabras can actually be considered menorahs. But in Hanukkah, it's actually called a hanukkiah, which has nine branches. So eight — one for every day or every night. Then there's a space for a helper candle. We light one additional candle every night for eight days. Do you guys have a candelabra or something that you light, as well? 

JAYAKUMAR: We used to light an oil lamp in a clay-based cup. We have hundreds of them, and we decorate them around the house and inside the house. And we do the holi rangoli. Rangoli is an art form of coloring on the floor. During the festival — maybe the week before — we clean the house and start preparing for it. 

It's happiness around the house when these holidays come. We start preparing the lamps and decorating them. 

In different parts of India, they celebrated different days. Some do five. Some do 10. 

When I was growing up, we celebrated the one main day with decorations and lots of sweets and snacks that we make at home. We share gifts with friends.

This is a great opportunity to meet all our family that's far away. They travel and come — cousins and neighbors. We used to do a lot of fireworks outside of our house. It's a big festival. It's one national holiday in India. And everybody tries to get home and be with family on this day. 

WEISS: I would love to have had fireworks when I was growing up. We would get together with family and cousins, and aunts and uncles; exchange gifts; and have a big celebration. 

It's funny that you mentioned the oil because, as I mentioned, Hanukkah commemorates the oil lasting for eight days. We cook foods and enjoy foods that are cooked in oils. Two major ones are potato latkes. There's always one that I don't pronounce well — I think it's called "sufganiyot." Think of it like a tiny, jelly-filled doughnut. I've never made them. My grandmother never made them, and my mom never made it. We stuck with the traditional latkes. And, of course, the games, right? Playing the dreidel, which, honestly, I don't really know how that came to be, but we do play games.

It's always fun for the kids. I have an 11-year-old daughter, and, so, she plays. We make the dreidel sometimes out of different things, and you'd mentioned clay. I think that's a traditional one that we use. It's kind of interesting to hear how the cultures share a lot of similarities.

For us here now in the U.S., the biggest change from when I grew up is things have become a little bit more commercialized. When I grew up, we didn't get gifts necessarily every night. I don't know about the Hindu calendar, but the Jewish calendar actually goes off of a lunar cycle. So Hanukkah changes. It's anytime between late November and all the way into late December and January. It's based on what's called the 25th day Kislev, which is the name of the Hebrew month. This year, it starts Nov. 28.

JAYAKUMAR: We also follow the lunar calendar. So each year the date varies. This year, it falls on Nov. 4. Usually, it falls between mid-October to mid-November. 

I remember my childhood — that exciting waiting, counting days. Ten more days to go, five more days. 

We all wear new clothes on the day of Diwali. We make sure that the shopping is done before Diwali and get excited. When we were children, everything was exciting — fireworks, clothes, food, music, dance, family get-togethers. It is a great memory. We wanted to keep that culture going in Rochester. It's been almost 25 years. 

The first few years, we didn't get to celebrate much. During Diwali, we make phone calls, and talk to all our friends and family, and send greetings.

Now the community has grown bigger in Rochester. We have more than 400, 500 families who live here. They are from India, and most of them work here at Mayo Clinic. We have created a different opportunity to celebrate Diwali. And we also want to educate our children and keep up the tradition. 

On Diwali day, we celebrate at the temple. We do pooja, honoring goddess Lakshmi, who signifies wealth and prosperity. So we do the pooja, and many community members attend the prayer at the temple.

After the prayer, we have great food and community fireworks. All the children come together, and there are all these hand-held fireworks that we buy during July 4 and save them for Diwali. We have all our children experience the same celebration that we used to have when we were growing up. 

We also have a big community event because we want to invite all the families in Rochester to attend. They may not be from India, but they might be interested in knowing and celebrating with us. We invite our colleagues and friends to attend.

We have a lot of cultural activities, and the children perform dances on the stage, as well as Indian traditional music and Indian traditional food. So that's a great way to get exposure. 

The last two years, during the pandemic, it has been very challenging. We all celebrated within the family. We did Zoom calls to families and friends. We have Indian sweets delivered from India. It's very interesting to try sweet snacks from different regions.

WEISS: It sounds really interesting — all the things that you do in the community. Hanukkah is kind of a minor holiday when it comes to the Jewish festivals. But it's obviously one that I think people know really well because it falls during Christmas. 

How you observe your faith may determine how you celebrate. Again, this is a minor holiday for us. So it's not something where we're going to go to the temple for two days in a row and pray over certain things. Whereas Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, we are.

This is much more of a celebration. It's an opportunity to get together and dance, and sing and do things together. 

In Jacksonville last year, we were able to visit one of the area parks where the Jewish community organized what they called a gelt drop. They flew in a helicopter, and all the kids and families gathered. They lit this giant 6-foot-tall menorah, had music and food. Then they dropped candy — or gelt as it's called — from this helicopter. And all the kids were running around trying to pick it up. 

At our temple, we have a community Hanukkah party. We would all bring our individual menorahs. We would all bring potato latkes that we cook — different recipes, different styles. You can make them with plain potatoes, sweet potatoes, have them with different toppings. It is just a personal choice. And we all gather. They'd set up tables. The kids would get the dreidels to play and raisins instead of money. Like Diwali, it's just a wonderful holiday to bring about togetherness, and celebrate friends and family, and commemorate certain things. That's what it's all about. Right, Sumathi?

JAYAKUMAR: Yes, all about food and dance, music, happiness. I think that's the common denominator. Everywhere, it is bringing family together.

WEISS: Bringing the light. I'm curious. In Hebrew, "Chag Sameach" is a Hebrew greeting of "Happy holidays." Otherwise, we just say, "Happy Hanukkah." Is there a particular greeting that you say to each other with Diwali? 

JAYAKUMAR: "Happy Diwali." Simple. 

Often, in a local newspaper, there are pictures from the big cultural event. Also, at Mayo, during the Festival of Cultures, we make sure that we have information about different festivals, cultural activities, food and different sightseeing places in India. 

We dress up, wearing Indian clothes. The most popular question asked is, "Why do you keep a dot in your eyebrows?" That is called "bindi." It signifies married women. 

We try to educate our employees, and it's helpful. They ask very interesting questions about the culture. Because we see a lot of patients from different cultures, it's important to educate our employees. Advance Happy Hanukkah to you.

WEISS: Likewise, Happy Diwali. 

NARRATOR: Reflect on their conversation. What are the similarities and differences in how you celebrate your culture?


Tags: Mayo Clinic Employee Experiences, Staff Stories, Working at Mayo Clinic

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