I’ve written recently about how I celebrated Chanukah as a child and growing up. I’ve included two of those links below. Some of those traditions I’ve brought to my own family, but because of our interfaithness I’ve added and tweaked some of them over the years.
In some ways it was easier to celebrate Jewish holidays while growing up Jewish in primarily Jewish neighborhood. In those early, formative years, our neighbors were mostly Jewish, and so we all celebrated the same things. It wasn’t until moving at the end of fifth grade that my new friends celebrated something different. I don’t even recall if the schools were closed on Christmas before; I imagine they must have been, but it wasn’t until my own kids were young that I realized that schools didn’t close for the High Holy Days. I would keep my own kids home, and the only time there was a dispute with the school was when my middle son went to kindergarten and the first day of school was to be on Rosh Hashanah. I discovered another Jewish family and I joined them at the Board of Education meeting to change the first day of school. We did. But it was met with a plethora of excuses on why they should not change the status quo. It was demoralizing and it instilled in me a more vocal advocacy than I’d had before.
As the only Jewish family in our schools or the only Jewish teacher when I taught, it’s fallen to me to have to explain Chanukah, and unfortunately the expectation is usually how it fits into Christmas, which of course, it doesn’t. It would even be doubtful if Jesus observed/celebrated Chanukah; It’s always been considered a minor holiday.
This is my daughter’s dresser. I don’t know how her clothes fit in here. With the closet and the pjs under her bed, sweaters in the basket next to the dresser, she manages to get it all in. Mostly. This was my dresser when I was a baby, but what I remember this dresser most for was hat it sat in the living room of our NYC apartment (and later of our suburban house). In our two bedroom apartment it was placed against one long wall directly across from our green patterned sofa. During Passover, we’d walk along it on our way to leave a glass of wine for Elijah on the radiator.
In front of the radiator was a television stand, one of those carts with wheels that our television sat on. I remember sitting on that sofa watching Fonzie jump over a shark on Happy Days (although I think that it’s the sofa I’m remembering and not the apartment.) I also remember spending a day or two curled up there, under a warm blanket when I was sick and stayed home from school. It is a comforting memory of warm soup or mashed sweet potatoes with butter and the television.
Behind the television cart is a medium sized picture window that I can still see my brother and I looking out of while we were home with the chicken pox. When we recovered, my sister got them. Some things we didn’t mind sharing more than others.
What I remember most about that dresser, though is the three little piles of Chanukah presents on the floor in front of it, waiting to be opened each night after we lit the candles on the menorah. The menorah was placed on the dining room table on a small sheet of aluminum foil. My mother would never put the burning candles on the dresser; they might start a fire. As the oldest and the only one attending Hebrew school as it were, it was probably my job to do most of the lighting. The candles came in a box of forty-four, different colors that were randomly chosen each night and lit, reading the prayer from the side of the box. We might sing a song and play dreidl. My cousins lived in the same garden apartment complex so they were probably around more often then not. We went to the same shul where we learned the songs and traditions of the holidays. I thought I remembered it differently but when I saw those cousins recently they had the same memories of music in the school basement and we kids not being allowed into the temple on the High Holidays. We used to play in the parking lot, which seems a ludicrous idea today.
Describing the gifts as a pile makes it seem much bigger than it actually was. Yes, there were eight gifts, but they were all small things. Each one wrapped carefully in white paper adorned with multi-hued blue Stars of David and dreidls. We would of course get dreidls and gelt, probably on the first night. One of my favorite things about celebrating Chanukah today is the taste of the gelt. It’s not anything fancy or special but it tastes exactly the same as it did when I was a schoolgirl. My kids wonder why I won’t share mine with them. After all, they each get their own bag of gelt.
Choosing which gift to open was a several minute decision making process. Picking each package up, shaking it slightly, bringing it to my ear as if I would hear something or smell something underneath the packaging and the paper. Nothing was hidden; it was all wrapped around whatever the shape of the package was. Shake the rectangular box. Should I open the Barbie doll shaped package? Or the Barbie doll clothes shaped package? There might have been puzzles and books too. No Nintendo. No tablets. No smartphones. What a simple, beautiful time that holiday was. Everyone in our court had an electric menorah in their windows or their curtains were open and we could see the candles burning deep inside their apartments.
There were also latkes to look forward to. They came from a box, but after mixing and refrigerating and then frying them in the pan, they were as homemade as they could be. The house smelled of the oil, and they were eaten hot with applesauce and sour cream. Back then, they were the only thing that I ate sour cream with. When I cook them today for my family, I still use vegetable oil. They are the only things that I cook in vegetable oil. I tried olive once, but the smell didn’t work for me, so I went back to the usual vegetable oil and they were perfect. Applesauce and sour cream could give any kind of potato pancake that latkes taste, even frozen or those triangles from Arby’s, but there is nothing like the real thing, frying them alongside the burning candles on the dining room table.
For the holiday we celebrate in our family with my children, we keep Chanukah separate from Christmas. That is my personal thing; pet peeve if you will; the one tradition I don’t want to share. I’m fine with families that celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas; we’re one of them, but I prefer to keep the two separate even when they fall in the same week. My personal feeling is that it keeps their significance and their importance significant, and important. For Chanukah, we don’t give eight presents anymore. Some years they might get one larger gift on the first night, but most years they get a new dreidl and a bag of gelt. Some years they get stickers or pencils or an extra something, but we still keep it a little simpler.
Simple, minimalist, centered on the eight candles burning like they kept the fire burning in the temple for eight days until the oil could get there. Just like Christmas, it is a reminder of a time long ago, a history that we forget too often, and the simplicity of working together and taking care of each other.
That’s what this dresser reminds me of – my family and all the special things they taught me, especially when they weren’t trying to teach me anything at all.
Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.