Last year, I promised to stop spending the holiday season defending Hanukkah from the influence of Christmas. I said then, “When I see stores selling Hanukkah stockings, Hanukkah tree toppers, and Hanukkah tinsel or wreaths, I’ll take a deep breath and not let it send me into a tailspin of worry about the future of pluralistic Judaism. It means I will remember that it’s not Bed, Bath and Beyond’s responsibility, nor Amazon’s, to preserve the logical thematic separation between Hanukkah and Christmas.” Since then, I’ve made progress, though I still did get a twitch in my eye every time I saw someone on Facebook claim, even jokingly, that Starbucks ought to make a Hanukkah cup.
I think it’s Jewish parents’ job to make Hanukkah special in our homes. It’s not our schools’ jobs, not the job of the people who decide on decorations at the mall, and not the job of corporations selling coffee or anything else. But how do we do that? How do we glean personal and communal meaning from Hanukkah without making Hanukkah’s tagline “It’s not Christmas”?
I think we do it by making a major effort to stop going through the motions during Hanukkah. Let me restate that. I, Nina Badzin, need to stop making Hanukkah a going-through-the-motions holiday—not just for the kids, but for me, too.
I find it easier to get to a deeper level for other Jewish holidays. Before Rosh Hashanah, I think about my plan for the next year and why I (hopefully) deserve another year in the Book of Life. For the whole month before and leading up to Yom Kippur, I think about people I owe apologies to and actively encourage my kids to do the same. On Sukkot we build a sukkah in our backyard and actively—that’s the key word here, actively—reflect on how secure our lives have been in terms of a warm home, plentiful meals, and how we can give to others without the same blessings. Passover lends itself easily to discussions of gratitude for our freedom and concern for those without it.
Hanukkah, however, has always felt like an afterthought. Other than the basics of lighting candles, giving sensible gifts, and eating latkes, gelt, and sufganiyot, I can’t say I’ve done much (nor has my husband) to discuss the meaning of Hanukkah like we do with other holidays. What a missed opportunity! If we’re going to stand around the menorah for eight nights in a row and sing the prayers as well as a few songs, but do it with no intention to make it mean something, then I’m not sure why we bother. Those candles are just sticks of wax unless we make them stand for something more. The menorah itself is a pretty art piece unless we, the adults in the house, translate the ritual into something than can matter to us and our kids today.
So yes! This is the year I’m done with a go-through-the-motions Hanukkah. And this isn’t even a rant against gifts. The gifts are not the problem with Hanukkah any more than overblown parties are the problem with a go-through-the-motions bar mitzvah. What we’re missing is both education and mindful intention. The education has to come first. If we as parents don’t know why we’re lighting those sticks of wax and putting them in that beautiful menorah, then the first order of business is to learn the story of Hanukkah, and not a cutesy version either.
I’m not going to bog down this post with details of the 25-year historical war story from around 168 B.C.E. because there are excellent sources out there and tons of them at that. Like plenty of Jewish adults, I’ve learned the details of that history numerous times, but this year I want to examine a few important pieces of the story each night.
So one evening, before we light the menorah, we can talk about the mitzvot (commandments) Jews were forbidden to perform before the Jewish rebels succeeded. Another night we can talk about the Jews who assimilated completely into Greek culture and speak about the difficulty of staying Jewish when the tide of the majority culture seems easier. (This is specifically self-serving for my family because we don’t let our kids play on teams that have games on Shabbat, a major challenge for us as non-Orthodox Jews.)
I would love to hear some discussion ideas from other parents. What else can we discuss about Hanukkah before we light the menorah so that we have those ideas in mind as we see the flames? I’m thinking one topic a night, and I don’t want to throw around buzz words like “miracle,” “festival of lights,” and “dedication” without helping my kids understand the layers of miracles that happened then and what it meant (and means now) to keep Judaism hidden in the darkness.
Help me? Thank you in advance and Happy Hanukkah!