“When your Catholic niece shows her Muslim best friend how to play dreidel, you know it’s been a good Hanukkah party,” I remarked to my husband as I put the Gary Rosenthal Love Menorah back in its usual prominent display position on the back wall of our kitchen and rounded up what was left of the gelt. Through the sliding door, I could see the shimmery snow that had blanketed our backyard the night before gently melting under the sun of an unseasonably warm winter day — weird weather for late November, 2021 on the east coast. When I was a child in the ‘70s, I would trudge through near-blizzard conditions, wrapped in layers and stuffed into snow boots, to share in my childhood best friend’s evening Hanukkah celebrations. They generally culminated in a rousing round of dreidel — or perhaps a white-knuckle game of Sorry — which began moments after her grandmother lit the candles on her menorah. On those nights, I fell asleep with a belly full of buttery green beans with lokshen and gold-wrapped chocolates.
I wasn’t raised Jewish, and I didn’t discover my Jewish ancestry until later in life. But despite this, the connection to Jewish traditions, and to the warm and generous people who shared them, helped shape my formative years. The Torah instructs us to welcome and care for the stranger 36 times. As a recipient of this mitzvah, I’ve benefited greatly, particularly before I was even Jewish. While I cannot say I learned a lot about our religion as a child, I did learn about cultural traditions and values. Being welcomed, and learning to be welcoming in return, gave me the curiosity to seek out diverse friend groups as I grew up — to enthusiastically try various cuisines, to travel and to investigate histories that have gone unwritten.
After my conversion to Judaism, it was important to me to share Jewish traditions with my family members, just as they were once shared with me. Our family had Jewish friends who often brought their traditions to our holiday tables: cherry strudel with tissue paper-thin flaky layers, smoked white fish with crystalline eyes, sweet noodle kugel, cinnamon rugelach, and many more favorites. And we brought our food traditions to their tables as well. To this day, I have relatives who make stuffed cabbage every fall, not knowing that this long-held family tradition originated when my Lithuanian Catholic grandmother would help her Jewish best friend make the dish for Simchat Torah.
While I had shared other Jewish traditions with my non-Jewish family members in the preceding months, last Hanukkah was the first one after my conversion. I wanted to acknowledge it as a transformative holiday in my youth, and to share my love of it with the next generation of children so they could experience that warm, cozy, joyful feeling that the holiday brings.
In planning for my Hanukkah celebration, I took a quick survey of what my family wanted to eat. “Latkes” were unanimously requested. So I geared up in my apron and tichel, shredded my way though a mountain of potatoes and par-fried the lovely savory treats. The whole house smelled of oil and onions. For days.
Right before the party, I finished off the latkes in the oven so they would be hot when the guests arrived. I also had two kinds of lox —the good lox that you only get for special times — and toppings galore. Of course, we had the applesauce vs. sour cream debate, which remains undecided one year later. I also put out cheese, crackers and crudité. While the reheated latkes were still delicious, they are better straight out of the hot oil, with their crispy edges and soft, creamy interiors. I took great pleasure in giving everyone the food-fueled Hanukkah joy that I remember so vividly.
Latkes were followed by dessert of adorable custom-made cookies frosted in shades of blue and white.
Then, out came the dreidels of various sizes: some were filled with candy, and one even flashed multi-colored lights when it spun. There was a quick but brutal argument as the kids competed for it, but in the end, they decided to share their bounty.
When they grew tired of gambling, I gave each of them a handmade gift from Etsy that they opened while sipping cups of molten lava-temperature milk, each containing a hot chocolate bomb courtesy of my sister. My nephew immediately burned his tongue and spent the remainder of the party with an obvious lisp — not that you could hear him over the Hanukkah playlist I was streaming on loop.
All in all, it was a very good party.
While I am so thrilled that my nieces and nephew get to learn about many different faiths in the excellent schools they attend, getting to experience first-hand this most enchanting, charming winter holiday is something I know they will remember. And when they do, I hope that it will make them better guests, better allies and adventurers who make friends with everyone they meet. I’m sure the Jewish women who helped raise me wanted the same for me.