25 Questions about Hanukkah, Answered!

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iStock.com/tomertu

From proper spellings and whether to call it a menorah or hanukkiah, to how to celebrate in space and where you can find a competitive dreidel game, we have the answers to 25 pressing questions about the Festival of Lights.

1. HOW DO YOU SPELL IT?

a
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According to the Oxford English Dictionary, variant spellings of the celebration include: Chanucha, Hanuca, Hanucka, Khanukah, and most every other combination imaginable, with the most common spellings today being Hanukkah and Chanukah. The reason for all the spellings is because Hanukkah isn't a native English word—it's not even from a language that uses the Latin alphabet.

When converting between alphabets, there is a choice whether to preserve the pronunciation or the spelling, and sometimes the results don't match [PDF]. In the case of Hanukkah and Chanukah, Hanukkah represents the spelling, while Chanukah more closely represents the original pronunciation, with a Ch like the Scottish pronunciation of loch.

2. WHAT DOES IT COMMEMORATE?

engraving of a menorah
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The story is that in the second century BCE Judea was under the rule of the Seleucid Empire. The Empire began forcing Jews to convert to Greek culture and religion, resulting in the Maccabee Revolt. Eventually the Maccabees emerged victorious and needed to rededicate the Temple and light the menorah. But there was a problem: They could only find one jug of oil that was still pure, which was enough for one day. Miraculously the oil lasted for eight days, which was enough time to get new oil. But historians still debate certain parts, such as how much of the Maccabee revolt was over Hellenization versus a power struggle between different factions of Judaism, and even when the story of the oil appeared in the record.

3. ON WHAT DATE DOES HANUKKAH START?

Hanukkah listed in a calendar
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According to the Gregorian calendar, in 2018 Hanukkah will begin on the evening of December 2, while in 2019 it begins on the evening of December 22 and in 2020 on December 10. The first day can fall anywhere from November 27 to as late as December 26.

4. WHY DOES IT ALWAYS CHANGE DATES?

Star of David on a ribbon
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It changes dates for the same reason that there are so many spellings—conversion issues. In the Hebrew calendar the first day of Hanukkah takes place on the 25th of Kislev each year. But unlike the solar Gregorian calendar, the Hebrew calendar is lunisolar, meaning that the Gregorian and Hebrew calendars don't perfectly correspond to each other. So while followers of the Gregorian calendar see Hanukkah moving around, to a follower of the Hebrew calendar, dates like Christmas move around—being celebrated on 7th of Tevet one year, and the 17th of Tevet the next.

5. HOW MANY ARMS SHOULD A MENORAH HAVE?

A stone menorah outside the knesset.
Benjamin, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This isn't as straightforward a question as it may appear. Outside the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) is a statue of a menorah with only seven arms. This represents the menorah of the Temple, which had seven arms and has long been one of the symbols of Judaism. And Hanukkah's miracle of the oil made use of the seven branched version.

6. SO HOW DID THE HANUKKAH VERSION APPEAR?

menorah against a dark background
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There are multiple hypotheses for the nine-branched menorah used for Hanukkah celebrations. One is that it was forbidden to make replicas of the seven-branched Temple menorah, so adding extra arms got around that prohibition. The other possibility is that the practicalities of an eight day celebration lent itself to a nine-branched menorah.

7. SHOULD I ACTUALLY CALL IT A MENORAH THEN?

a geometric menorah against a blue background
iStock.com/belchonock

According to historian Steven Fine, the Hanukkah fixture and many other types of lighting were all called menorahs until the late 19th century, when Hemda Ben Yehuda, the wife of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who was the driving force behind the reemergence of Hebrew as a language, decided that the Hanukkah lamp needed to be distinguished from the seven-branched menorahs that were starting to become widespread. Eventually, they came across a Balkan word, hanukkiah, to describe the lamp.

Today, some people maintain that menorah is fine to describe the Hanukkah candelabra, while others maintain that it should be referred to as a hanukkiah or chanukiah.

8. WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH THE MIDDLE CANDLE?

Star of David menorah
iStock.com/blueenayim

On a standard hanukkiah, one of the candles is raised, lowered, or otherwise separated from the other eight. This candle is called the shamash and is considered distinct from the main candles (in other words, on the first night of Hanukkah there are actually two candles lit—the first candle and the shamash). It serves multiple purposes, such as being used to light the other candles of the hanukkiah. The extra candle is also important because it's forbidden to use the main Hanukkah lights for non-religious purposes like reading or to derive a benefit from them. Part of the purpose of the shamash is to offload any benefit gained onto a non-important candle (although some Jews have other lights available to avoid even the shamash light).

9. WHAT DOES A TRADITIONAL HANUKKAH CELEBRATION ENTAIL?

a family at hanukkah
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While there are regional and even family differences as to specifics, one of the most common orders of events is that the shamash is lit, and then blessings, or brachot, are recited. On the first night there are three blessings, including the Shehecheyanu, which is only recited on the first night, meaning the other nights have two blessings. Following the brachot the candles are lit, and then traditionally Hanerot Halalu is recited and songs are sung.

10. HOW DO I LOAD AND LIGHT THE HANUKKIAH?

rabbi lighting a menorah
iStock.com/tovfla

According to the Talmud, this was a debate between two of the major sages of first century BCE Judaism, Hillel and Shammai, and their schools of thought Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. Hillel argued that on the first night, only one light should be lit (not including the shamash), and then on the second night two lights, and so on until eight lights are lit on the eighth day. Shammai argued for the reverse; on the first night eight lights should be lit, decreasing by one until the last day. Each side backed up their argument with theological evidence (Shammai compared it to the bulls of the Festival of Succot, where the sacrificed bulls decreased by one each day, while Hillel argued that holiness should increase, not decrease). A vote was held and Hillel’s thought won and is the common practice today.

So on the first day, one candle is placed on the rightmost holder on the hanukkiah and lit. On the second day, a candle is placed in the rightmost holder and then another candle in the second rightmost holder. When it comes to lighting, the order is reversed. After lighting the shamash, the newest candle is lit first and then the previous candle, and so on. So the hanukkiah is loaded right to left, but lit left to right.

11. DOES IT HAVE TO BE CANDLES?

a menorah that uses olive oil and wicks
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No. In fact, olive oil (with cotton wicks) is considered the ideal fuel as that is likely the oil used in the original miracle. Beyond that, beeswax candles and many other candles and oils are considered perfectly acceptable for use in a hanukkiah, as long as the light doesn't flicker. Where the debate occurs is in electric hanukkiahs. Some view them as a fine update on the tradition, especially for people who can't have or don't want open flames. According to Chabad.org though, there are issues. One of the major ones is that "fuel" (electricity) gets continually added, while one of the requirements of the lighting is that the required fuel needs to be present at the beginning, although they concede that battery-powered hanukkiahs likely fulfill this requirement. There are also issues with how the light is generated, so many people say to use electric hanukkiahs only for display purposes or if a traditional hanukkiah isn't possible.

12. WHAT HAPPENS ON SHABBAT?

lighting Shabbat candles
iStock.com/hameleonseye

Since Hanukkah ranges over eight days, it will inevitably overlap with the Shabbat (sunset Friday to sunset Saturday), which has its own lighting tradition. In that situation, the Hanukkah candles should be lit first, as it is forbidden to light candles after the Shabbat candles are lit and the blessings said. But to ensure that the candles last at least half an hour after dark, special candles are recommended.

13. HOW TRADITIONAL ARE LATKES?

plate of latkes with sour cream
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Not as traditional as one might think. Potatoes are native to South America and weren't encountered by Europeans until the 16th century. Before then, it's thought that latkes were based on an Italian ricotta pancake. Eventually the potato came to dominate, possibly thanks to the available frying oil. One theory for the change is that in Eastern Europe the pancakes were fried in chicken fat as opposed to a plant oils. As dietary laws prohibit Jews from mixing meat and dairy, the ricotta had to go, likely in favor of things like buckwheat. Meanwhile, another theory (not mutually exclusive) says that as crops failed in Eastern Europe in the mid-19th century, potatoes became a popular replacement crop. Come Hanukkah, people fried what was available to them.

14. HOW DID CHEESE ALWAYS END UP ON THE MENU?

tray of cheese and wine
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The 16th century Rabbi Moses Isserles wrote "There are those who say to eat cheese on Hanukkah because the miracle was done through milk, which Judith fed the enemy."

The Judith in question was a beautiful widow in the town of Bethulia. As the town was under siege, the story goes, she went into the enemy camp and fed the enemy commander salty cheese to get him thirsty, then wine to get him drunk. After he got suitably drunk Judith cut off his head and ended the siege of the town.

According to NPR, despite the events of the Judith story taking place centuries before Hanukkah, medieval Jews began conflating the two, turning Judith into a close relation of Judah Maccabee. Judith's close association with cheese made it a natural Hanukkah dish.

15. WHY SO MANY FRIED FOODS?

frying latkes in a pan
iStock.com/lisafx

Fried foods are a very traditional part of the Hanukkah celebration for Jews around the world, and this is for a very simple reason—to recognize the miracle of oil.

16. WHAT OTHER TRADITIONAL FOODS SHOULD I MAKE FOR HANUKKAH?

plate of Sufganiyot for Hanukkah
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Gil Marks's Encyclopedia of Jewish Food contains several other traditional Hanukkah foods from all over the world. These include zangula, a type of fried batter from North Africa; sefengor kindel, an Algerian plum filled fried dough; and even a Yemeni dish called laches djezar, which Marks describes as a carrot sauté.

17. WHAT'S THE STORY BEHIND THE DREIDEL?

dreidels on a lit background
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The dreidel is a traditional spinning top game. The top has four sides each with a letter on it, and depending which side comes up after a spin, the player has to do nothing, put a piece into a pot, or get some or all of the pot. The traditional story is that the letters represent the phrase nes gadol haya sham or "a great miracle happened there," in reference to the Hanukkah miracle of the oil. Some versions go further, saying that the top was a tool persecuted Jews used to study the Torah. But modern historians tend to doubt this story, suggesting that it traces to a top game called teetotum or just totum. These tops traditionally had the letters of the action (Take all, take Half, Nothing, and Put) and when this was adapted for the Hebrew alphabet, the current dreidel appeared.

18. ARE THERE UNNECESSARILY COMPETITIVE DREIDEL LEAGUES?

Child spinning a dreidel.
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND, AFP/Getty Images

You bet: Major League Dreidel. In 2008, NPR explained that the contest, which featured such athletes as Tasmanian Dreidel and Jewbacca, wasn't the same as the traditional game. Instead, "Spinners compete on how long their dreidel spins on progressively smaller surfaces." And the puns don't stop at the player names: their "court" is referred to as the "Spinagogue," also the name of their tabletop game. This year, the Major League Dreidel championship will be held in Austin, Texas on December 1, the night before Hanukkah begins.

19. WHERE DID HANUKKAH GELT COME FROM?

bag of hanukkah gelt
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There are several different origin stories for Hanukkah gelt, the foil wrapped chocolate coins of every Hanukkah celebration. One version says that it derives from the coinage that the Maccabees minted after independence. Another story relates it to the word hinnukh, or education. This hypothesis says that due to the pronunciation and possible etymological relation between hinnukh and Hanukkah, coins were given to teachers and students at that time of year. There are other possibilities, but these were all real coins. According to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, the chocolate may have come from an entirely different holiday figure: Santa Claus. The books says that in Belgium and the Netherlands people celebrated St. Nicholas' feast day on December 6 by giving both chocolate and real coins to students and children, although they caution "it would be a mistake to draw too close a connection between this Christian tradition and Chanukah gelt." No matter what, the first Hanukkah chocolate gelt is believed to have been from a chocolatier in the 1920s.

20. WHY ARE THE COLORS BLUE AND WHITE?

Israeli flag flying near a rock wall
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Likely because of the Israeli flag. In the 19th century, the Jewish poet Ludwig August von Frankl wrote that "blue and white are the colors of Judah," likely basing the assertion on the Jewish prayer shawl the tallit. Eventually, the colors became associated with Israel and Judaism, and eventually Hanukkah.

21. WHAT'S THE TALLEST HANUKKIAH IN THE WORLD?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg attends the menorah lighting in New York City in 2013.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg attends the menorah lighting in New York City in 2013.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The largest hanukkiah in the world is generally thought to be in New York City near Central Park, which stands at 36 feet high, weighs two tons, and has been a New York fixture since 1977.

There's a reason that the hanukkiah is only 36 feet tall. That’s the generally agreed limit on how high above ground the candles are supposed to be placed, because any higher and people won't be able to look at the lights. This causes a problem for Jews living in a high floor of an apartment complex. According to New York's Lincoln Square Synagogue, people in this situation should place the hanukkiah by the front door as opposed to in the window. But they say some authorities maintain that if there are apartment buildings opposite that are clearly visible from your apartment, the window is an acceptable place for the hanukkiah.

22. HOW DO ASTRONAUTS CELEBRATE HANUKKAH?

Astronaut Jeff Hoffman works on the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993.
AFP/Getty Images

In 1993, astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman went up to help fix the Hubble Space Telescope. But he wasn't going to let that ruin the Hanukkah celebrations. The mission broadcast him playing with a dreidel as he attempted to "reinterpret the rules for space flight, since there's no up or down." He then broke out a small hanukkiah, although he refrained from lighting it.

23. AND HOW ABOUT IN ANTARCTICA?

moonrise in Antarctica
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In 2015, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory published a blog post detailing how Hanukkah was celebrated at McMurdo Station. And there were problems. The first is that for safety reasons, open flames (like from a candle) are banned [PDF]. Special dispensation had to be granted for the hanukkiah that required the fire marshal to be present and it be lit in the McMurdo galley. The other issue was lighting the candles at sunset—in the Antarctic summer, there is no sunset. According to blog author Jenna Kloosterman, one person argued that they should go with New Zealand sunset, another voted for Jerusalem time, and someone else suggested United States sunset. In the end, Kloosterman says, "we just had to go with the time that the fire marshal was available, which was 7:15 p.m."

24. BUT WHAT IF YOU CROSS THE INTERNATIONAL DATELINE?

menorah lights on a skyline
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According to Ohr Somayach's "Ask The Rabbi," there are a few possibilities for how to handle traveling and Hanukkah (but you should consult your own Rabbi for specific cases). The first case involved someone who is traveling. Ohr Samayach recommends appointing an agent to light the hanukkiah in the traveler's home and recite the brachot when lighting both the traveler's hanukkiah and the agent's personal hanukkiah.

But if the traveler crosses the International Dateline and skips one of the nights of Hanukkah, Ohr Somayach recommends that the agent light a hanukkiah without a corresponding bracha (the singular form of brachot).

25. WHAT'S CHRISMUKKAH?

Hanging a Star of David on a Christmas tree.
Bodo Marks, AFP/Getty Images

Chrismukkah is a portmanteau of Christmas and Hanukkah introduced in 2003 on the TV show The O.C. But that wasn't the first time those two holidays were combined. In late 19th-century Germany, the term "Weihnukka" appeared, combining Hanukkah with Weihnachten, the German word for Christmas. But according to Cary Nathenson in the Journal of Jewish Identities, Weihnukka had little to do with celebrating the day, writing "The Christmas these Jews celebrated was less about the birth of Jesus Christ than it was about fitting in with neighbors. Christmas was widely seen as belonging to and defining of the German nation rather than a religious festival, and therefore celebrating the holiday was just something that 'real' Germans did, regardless of their religion."

This story was first published in 2017.

15 Scientific Ways to Relax for National Relaxation Day

iStock/anyaberkut via Getty Images
iStock/anyaberkut via Getty Images

Today is National Relaxation Day, so you have a great excuse to take it easy. Here’s how science can help you have the most laid-back day of the year.

1. Get a house or office plant.

Spending time in nature improves your overall wellbeing, but it turns out even just a little greenery is great for your health. Studies have shown patients in hospital rooms with plants report lower stress. Even just stepping into a lush space can reduce your heart rate. Plus, plants are effective at increasing oxygen and clearing out toxins, which should help you breathe easier—literally.

2. Avoid screens before bedtime.

Artificial light from TV and computer screens affects melatonin production and throws off circadian rhythms, which messes with your sleep. Studies have found that young adults were more likely to suffer from sleep disorders, high stress and even depression if they reported intensive use of cell phones and computers at night.

3. Eat a banana.

Potassium helps your body regulate blood pressure. Keeping that under control should help you bounce back more quickly from what’s got you stressed.

4. Indulge in some citrus.

Still hungry after that chocolate and banana? Try citrus. Recent studies show that vitamin C helps to alleviate the physical and psychological effects of stress.

5. Listen to classical music.

Portrait of a beautiful young woman lying on sofa with headphones on and closed eyes, relaxing
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Any music you enjoy is bound to make you feel better, but classical music, in particular, has been shown to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and even decrease levels of stress hormones.

6. Drink green tea sweetened with honey.

Green tea contains L-theanine, which reduces stress, and honey—unlike cane sugar—has been shown to counteract free radicals and reduce inflammation, which is sometimes linked to depression.

7. Give yourself a hand massage.

Especially if you spend all day typing, hands can get really tense. A quick massage should be doable at your desk and if you incorporate some lavender-scented lotion, you’ll get extra relaxation benefits.

8. Lock lips with someone.

Romance is relaxing! Kissing releases oxytocin, a chemical that is shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

9. Chew some gum.

No matter what flavor it is, the act of chewing gum has been proven to lower cortisol and improve reported mood.

10. Blow up a balloon.

Young woman blowing up a blue balloon against a yellow background
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Reacting to stress with short, shallow breaths will only exacerbate the problem—your body needs more oxygen, not less, to relax. Blowing up a balloon will help you refocus on your breathing. No balloons around? Just concentrate on taking a few deep breaths.

11. Mow the lawn.

Research shows that a chemical released by a mowed lawn—that fresh-cut grass smell—makes people feel happy and relaxed. Plus, knocking it off your to-do list will give you one less thing to stress about.

12. Find something to make you laugh.

Watching a funny video online does more than just brighten your afternoon, it physically helps to relax you by increasing the endorphins released by your brain.

13. Grab some chocolate.

What’s also good at releasing endorphins? Chocolate. Studies show that even just 40 grams of dark chocolate a day can help you de-stress.

14. Focus on relaxing all of your muscles.

Take a break from whatever you’re doing and, starting at your toes and working upwards, spend a few moments slowly tensing, and then releasing, the muscles of each part of your body.

15. Take a mental vacation.

Man takes a break from work to meditate at his laptop
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If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, take a moment to close your eyes and picture a particularly relaxing scene. It may sound cheesy, but numerous studies show that just a few minutes of disengaging from your stressors rejuvenates your ability to tackle the work.

5 Fascinating Facts About Middle Children

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francisgonsa/iStock via Getty Images

Full House's perpetually neglected Stephanie Tanner, The Brady Bunch's embittered Jan Brady, Downton Abbey's tragedy-prone Lady Edith Crawley: For many people, these are the images that pop into their heads when thinking of the stereotypical middle child. In TV shows and movies, they’re often used as comic relief, always stuck in the shadow of their other, seemingly more important siblings. But the reality is far more generous to middle children.

Studies have shown that middle children are exceedingly independent and creative, with certain leadership qualities that their firstborn and last-born counterparts can’t match. Some of our most important world leaders, artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs occupy this oft-mocked middle spot, but from most accounts, it’s a breeding ground for success. Here are five fascinating facts about middle children.

1. Middle children may be endangered.

There was a time during the first half of the 20th century when having three to four children was seen as the ideal number for parents, with 35 percent of moms between 40 and 44 having four children or more. Those numbers have been reversing for several decades—and now, the average American family consists of 3.14 people. On top of that, only 12 percent of women in their early forties have four children or more.

More people are going to college, taking longer to become financially settled, have easier access to birth control, and are embarking on demanding careers that put family life on the back burner. In addition to having children later in life, the average cost of raising a child has increased dramatically over the generations, so one or two kids might be all some couples can afford. These factors all add up to create smaller families, which means we’ll likely see fewer middle children throughout the country in future decades if these trends continue. And without them, we’ll lose out on all of the remarkable traits seen below.

2. Middle children can have first-rate negotiation skills.

Despite the common perception of middle children being resentful of their siblings and never getting enough attention from their parents, Katrin Schumann, co-author of The Secret Power of Middle Children, has done extensive research on the subject that found the plight of middle children may actually be a positive thing later in life. One such trait is their ability to negotiate.

“Middles are used to not getting their own way, and so they become savvy, skillful manipulators,” Schumann told Psychology Today. “They can see all sides of a question and are empathetic and judge reactions well. They are more willing to compromise, and so they can argue successfully. Since they often have to wait around as kids, they’re more patient.”

3. Their low self-esteem might not necessarily be a bad thing.

Yes, the middle child may suffer from low self-esteem when compared to their siblings, due to their “their lack of uniqueness and attention at home,” according to Schumann. However, this doesn’t have to be a negative thing as it helps keep their ego in check.

“Also, self-esteem is not as critical as our society believes,” Schumann explained. “Having an accurate sense of your self-esteem is more important than having high self-esteem. Surprisingly, new studies show that high self-esteem does not correlate with better grades in school or greater success in life. It can actually lead to a lack of perseverance in the face of difficulties.”

4. Middle children tend to be faithful in their relationships.

Dr. Catherine Salmon, Schumann's co-author on The Secret Power of Middle Children, found that 80 percent of middle children claimed they have never cheated on their partner. This is compared to 65 percent of firstborns and 53 percent of last-borns who said they were never unfaithful to their long-term partner or spouse. This, of course, led to separate studies confirming that middle children, and their spouses, were happiest in marriage when compared to other birth orders.

There is a catch, however: Schumann said that while middle children may be the happiest and make for satisfied partners, two middle children might not make an ideal match: "An Israeli marital happiness survey shows that middles are the happiest and most satisfied in relationships, and that they partner well with firsts or lasts—but less well with other middles, because they may both avoid conflict."

5. Some of history's most important leaders were middle children.

Though the conventional numbers have established that most U.S. presidents are firstborns, Schumann contends that half of our Commanders-in-Chief are actually middle children. In an interview with NPR, she revealed that the connection between the presidency and middle children was obscured for years because of one strange quirk: firstborn girls weren’t traditionally counted as older siblings. Instead, firstborns were only taken into consideration when it came to males.

In general, it's difficult to nail down certain presidential birth orders, as the middle child blog SmackDab puts it: "George Washington’s father had four children with his first wife before the first President was born. Washington was the first of six children from his father’s second marriage. So was he the first born or the fifth born?" Still, if we're to take conventional wisdom and a loose definition of what a middle child is (basically anyone not the oldest or the youngest), then it turns out that 52 percent of presidents were born in the middle, including Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Abraham Lincoln.

It's JFK in particular, Schumann concluded, who displayed many of the traits typical of a middle child during his years in office, citing his ability to communicate and negotiate even under the most stressful of conditions.

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