Weekly Reflection 12.11: On Hanukah1 Traditions

I’m struggling with what to write here because there is so much I want to say but no way that it all fits together2. What I really want to share, I guess, is my personal experience with Judaism, with being a Jew3 in the US, and with being an Israeli Jew growing up in America, all through the lenses of Hannukah4 celebrations.

Before I get into all that, I want to direct all of you to the latest episode of The Goldbergs in which Beverly struggles with maintaining her family traditions while surrounded by the glitz and glamour of the Christmas celebrations going on around her. The part I most relate to is Pop’s pushing that Bev preserve and pass on her family traditions to show respect for her family and the struggles they faced. To be honest, family is the main reason I follow the traditions and celebrate the holidays the way I do. I also believe that this notion of respecting those that came before us by celebrating with their traditions is applicable to all cultures and religions and is a beautiful way to bring cultures together.

So what is Hanukkah like in my family? Well, to be honest, it’s changed a lot over the years. In Israel it was Chanukah shows in school filled with holiday songs5 and the excitement of sufganyot in every bakery – something which I took for granted until our first winter in Phoenix when we got jelly donuts6 for the first time. That was the first year I was the only Jewish person in my class. I still remember my teacher, Mrs. Rife, scrambling to throw together an appropriate craft for me to do while all the other students in my class made bottle cap ornaments.

Fast forward a few years to Massachusetts where we lived in a community bursting with American Jews. When the holidays came around everyone asked me what I was getting for Channukah and telling me how lucky Jews were for getting eight days of presents instead of one. Oy vey! I was so confused! I had never received gifts on Chanuka7 and still haven’t since then. In my family, and most Israeli families I know, gift giving is not a part of the celebration of the miracle of lights. The only thing I ever got was (chocolate) gelt to play dreidel with. Though I truly don’t even remember playing the gambling version of dreidel. I mostly remember eating my chocolate, being very careful to preserve the gold wrapping, and trying to see who could spin the dreidel the longest or who could get their dreidel to spin upside down or who could make their dreidels spin after a few hops8.

The next big transition for me was when I went off to college. Since Hannukah9 and Christmas often don’t line up10, college was when I started missing the celebration with my family. I was off in college in Pittsburgh, and my parents had moved to Oregon. Luckily, I had a good number of Jewish friends in college. But intimidated as I often was, and still usually am, by large masses of American Jews celebrating holidays differently than I do, I mostly just skipped over the holiday unless I was home. It’s not like we were technically allowed to light candles in the dorm. Especially not nine of them!

It was around this time that my sister started making her own sufganyot for the holidays, being unsatisfied, as we all were, by the jelly donut option. See sufganyot, unlike jelly donuts, are yeast donuts which lend the thing a wholly different flavor. It’s from my sister that I picked up the tradition of sharing my holidays with my friends. And when I moved to Michigan for my first job after graduation that’s exactly what I did. Here I was back to being the only Jew I knew. Which I think I was actually more comfortable with because it allowed me to celebrate my holidays exactly how I wanted, exactly as my family had done, without having it questioned by other Jews, because the non-Jews just didn’t know! So for my first Hannukah in Michigan, which once again fell before our Christmas shutdown, I invited all my close friends over to my apartment for food and a candle lighting. I made latkes and borrowed my sister’s sufganyot recipe for the first time. Thankfully she had also given me her old Kitchen Aid mixer which helped a lot! I had to buy a candy thermometer and keep the oil at the right temperature. But my house smelled like oil and sufganyot. It was probably the most correct way to celebrate the holiday, which after all is a celebration of oil as well as light. When everyone came over they brought their own contributions. My favorite, by far, was the pack of Hebrew Nationals that was contributed.

And then there was this year, the first year I was home for Hannukah in seven years. Portland is a place where my parents have made a real home for the first time since we moved to the US seventeen years ago. They have a built themselves a little community. Actually they have a few little communities, but the one I missed the most was the Israeli community here. Yesterday we had a couple of Israeli families over for the fifth night of Hannukah. One was a family we have known since I was a little toddler in preschool with their oldest son. The other is a family that my parents met here in Portland. Only the parents came which was kind of strange for me. I always consider myself a kid. If given the choice I would probably sit at the kid’s table at holiday gatherings. The last time we had family from Israel visiting I ended up making drawings with the youngest one. I still feel awkward with adults. But the thing is, I am an adult. So yesterday as everyone gathered my mom made rakott krumpli, a Hungarian dish she usually prepares at much more food-centric holidays like Passover and one which totally fails to celebrate oil as it’s drenched in butter, and bought mini sufganyot because the woman hates anything that resembles baking. And we did it how Israelis do. We lit the menorahs11, my mom stumbled over the kidushim12, we hummed Hannukah songs while discussing our lives: how my deaf dog is so well behaved13, how everyone got their green cards15 and how difficult it was, car shopping, book and show recommendations16 and a little argument about one of the stories in Genesis.

Hannukah, its story, and the meaning behind its symbols was never discussed. You see, secular Israelis take their Judaism for granted. In Israel you are in the midst of the religion every day of the year. Holidays, their meanings, and their history are discussed at school. There is no Hebrew School to attend, regular school covers all of that stuff. In Israel, if you are Jewish, you are easily living your religion with little conscious effort. Here it’s more obvious when holidays are about, more planning has to go into it, I usually google a lot about holidays because I missed a large part of that education having moved here for third grade. So yeah, while I spend a lot of time learning the history of my people, I still enjoy the traditions that my family has developed over the years. Next year will be different. Well, it’ll be the same with a little more tacked on because my family loves adding to our traditions so long as we preserve the ones that already exist. How does your family celebrate the holidays? What are some of your favorite traditions?

Footnotes:

  1. How do you spell this anyway?!
  2. I actually wrote two completely different first drafts of this post. This is based on the second.
  3. Yes it is ok to call a Jewish person a Jew. Yes I have been asked this. Honestly, the question makes me smile.
  4. Imma just spell it a different way every time. That way I’ve got to be correct at some point.
  5. Yes people, there are many many Chanuka songs.
  6. Not the same!
  7. Starting to run out of spellings here…
  8. Dreidels kind of feel like the yoyos of the holiday season over here!
  9. This spelling seems the most right to me.
  10. Waddup Thanksgivvukah?!
  11. I lit the kid’s one because it was my first menorah and I was the closest thing to a kid there.
  12. That’s usually my role!
  13. He was exhausted from doggie day care yesterday.
  14. Not me people, I was born here.
  15. Like a million conversations happening at the same time.
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