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A New Spin on Chanukah

Make the Festival of Lights meaningful even when the kids aren't around.

By Meredith Jacobs
Winter 2008

My parents no longer light the Chanukah menorah. "Why bother?" explained my mother. "You and your sister are no longer home. It’s just me and Daddy. Why should we bother? Chanukah is for kids."

Wow. I thought about that. I don’t think Chanukah is just for kids. I don’t want Chanukah to be just for kids. I want to imagine that one day, when Sofie and Jules are grown and have families of their own, Jonathan and I will still light the candles. (Of course, what I really want is for my future grandchildren to all live close enough to us that we light the candles with them, but that’s not the point.) The point is, what does happen to Chanukah when kids aren’t around? How can I make Chanukah meaningful to me?

It seems strange for me to even consider this—me, the "Modern Jewish Mom" who is always looking for ways to help my children connect to Judaism. However, if I only focus the holidays around my children, what will be left for me when they’re grown? The reality is, I need to start thinking beyond my children.

I loved Chanukah as a child, and not because of the presents we received. I loved to make presents. I would spend weeks in my room creating handmade presents for my family. I couldn’t wait to give them. Now, I still love thinking about Chanukah and planning and shopping and decorating and making latkes when the kids come home from school on the first day. Maybe this is what Vanessa Ochs writes about in her book Inventing Jewish Ritual (Jewish Publication Society)—that the schlepping and the shopping is as much a part of the ritual as lighting the chanukiah or saying the blessings. This makes sense. After all, there is the joy we get from the excitement and anticipation, the sense of connection to everyone else who is preparing for the holiday. Most important, there is a sense of purpose to our activity. Maybe that’s what we lose when children aren’t part of the holiday: the ritual of preparation. Maybe it’s a simple matter of making the effort to make the holiday special for us—whether there are children around or not—that will allow us to find meaning and connection. Maybe making latkes and spinning dreidels are more crucial than we realize.

"It’s always bothered me that the dreidel game is so lame and not for adults," declares Jennie Rivlin Roberts, founder of www.moderntribe.com. "My 3-year-old is just about the right age for it. It’s just a boring gambling game." And Roberts would know. She’s famous in Atlanta for the annual Chanukah party she’s thrown since her days as a single gal. Now that she’s married, she and her husband, Webb, continue to host the "big event of the year." The party is for their adult friends, and they’ve always put out dreidels and gelt, but, she says, "No one played…everyone just went right to the chocolate."

Until a couple of years ago. Roberts and her husband were in a book club, and after reading Positively Fifth Street, James McManus’ book about the world of high-stakes poker, they became big fans of Texas Hold ’Em poker. Then, one day, while driving home after visiting her husband’s grandfather, the big Chanukah party looming, Roberts said, "There must be a way to make dreidel more fun." During the six-hour drive, they came up with the rules for No Limit Texas Dreidel. That next Chanukah party, the Robertses and their friends stayed up until 2 a.m. playing. Her friend Reid, who was into indie games, encouraged her to manufacture it. Roberts had left the corporate world to stay home with her daughter, but her daughter was reaching the age where Roberts was ready to take on a new project. Reid’s nudging got her thinking.

But a strange hostess gift is what finally convinced her the time was right for No Limit Texas Dreidel. A non-Jewish friend brought a gift to the Chanukah party. As she handed it to Roberts, she apologized, explaining that there weren’t any other Chanukah-themed gifts at Bed, Bath and Beyond. When Roberts unwrapped the Latke Larry dancing doll, she knew there was a hole in the Chanukah market for a gift with more mature appeal.

The first year, Roberts and her husband manufactured Texas Dreidel themselves with friends and family assembling the kits from the 20,000 dreidels stored in the couple’s basement. They sold 1,000 games through ModernTribe.com. This year (their second), Roberts is working through a distributor, and 10,000 games will be available nationwide, including a deluxe party version for eight players sold exclusively at Bloomingdale’s.

Roberts elevates the simple game to an opportunity to connect with our friends. But when we study the history of the dreidel, we learn that the simplicity of the game belies its origins. During the Greek-Syrian regime, Jews were forbidden to study Torah. So, when the Jews gathered to study, they used the dreidel as a decoy. If a soldier was spotted, the books were concealed and the dreidels brought out, as if the gathering were assembled to play a game. In reality, the scholars were gambling for much more than gelt—they were risking their lives for the opportunity to study Torah. Remembering this and being grateful for their bravery definitely gives new heft to those little plastic dreidels we love spinning.

I heard about another new spin on the dreidel game from Danny Weiss, assistant director of the University of Maryland (UMD) Hillel (www.marylandhillel.org). He told me that his students hold the world record for most dreidels spinning simultaneously for 10 seconds—603 dreidels. While we may not be able to gather enough friends to break that record, we certainly can take a lesson from another hit at UMD Hillel: Iron Latke, based on the Iron Chef television show. Invite friends over, divide them into teams, fire up the stove and pretend you’re on the Food Network. The challenge: to use the potatoes, eggs, flour, oil and an array of crazy ingredients to create the best-tasting latke.

Many of us probably don’t know that the latke was originally made not from potatoes but from cheese, and has a feminist history. The story is told that the brave Jewish heroine Judith, in order to save her people, fed cheese and wine to the Assyrian leader Holofernes until he fell into a deep sleep. Judith then took his sword and beheaded him. Now leaderless, the Assyrians lost the battle to the Jews. Eventually, potato was substituted for cheese to allow the pancakes to be eaten with meat. But, the story of Judith is a powerful one for women, not to mention a great excuse to host a wine and cheese party for all my girlfriends. After all, if the guys get a dreidel/poker night, we can have a girls’ night!

Joelle Yudin, a book editor living in Manhattan, has another powerful suggestion—to take a class in Krav Maga, Israeli self-defense, during Chanukah as a way of getting back in touch with our "warrior spirit."

Our warrior spirit. Isn’t that what Chanukah is about? The warrior spirit in the Jewish spirit, all the times in our history that we have fought simply to be. And we are all warriors in our own way, fighting for our family, fighting for the Jewish way of life.

It is this spirit we should all tap into during Chanukah, suggests Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein, founding rabbi of The New Shul (www.newshul.org) in Greenwich Village and author of Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing An Ancient Faith (St. Martin’s Press). He explains that Chanukah, more than any other Jewish holiday, has become a commercialized, vapid event that kids like, but that has lost its true meaning and import. And yet, Chanukah lends itself to reclaiming the bold spirit of Judaism at its core.

Judaism was founded by rebels. We were newly freed slaves who had nothing. We were surrounded by the superpowers of the time and yet had the audacity to introduce monotheism to a world that was still "bowing down to sticks and stones." What Yudin calls our "warrior spirit" and Goldstein calls "counterculturalism" suffuses the story of Chanukah. Viewed under this lens, Chanukah gives us the opportunity to recapture the audaciousness, the revolutionary spirit of our religion.

In Gonzo Judaism, Goldstein notes that current generations apply popular trends and strategies to Judaism in an attempt to help us reconnect. But, he writes, "Too many of these new models, if they’re not downright forced and stupid, demonstrate an inexcusable lack of imagination, and a number of the old ones are actually strikingly profound—all we need to do is tweak them and make them more relevant to our times."

And he practices what he preaches. The New Shul is famous for its deconstructed Chanukah celebration. Every year, the congregation gathers at Washington Square Park in downtown Manhattan. Together, congregants build an elaborate structure—not a traditional chanukiah, but a tent-like sculpture of cloth and steel. Hot chocolate and potato latkes make it a happening. When the sun sets, each attendee, adult and child, receives a small flashlight. The rabbi begins, offering a blessing, song, reading or poem (Dylan Thomas’ famous words are especially appropriate: "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light"). He invites all those assembled who have survived hardships in the past year to affix their lights to the structure. Eight times, the rabbi offers blessings, poems or songs, from the ancient to the modern. Eight times, the assembly is given the chance to place their lights as groups—new members of the congregation, families who have welcomed new children, those who have celebrated simchas. Good and bad are celebrated as acts of survival and strength with an overarching spirit of joy and community. At the end, the structure is lit with more than 200 lights. It’s not a traditional menorah, but an amazing, interactive event at which participants push back the darkness of the long winter night and their private struggles.

This postmodern menorah, Goldstein believes, reconnects his congregation with the ancient power of Chanukah and with the creative and countercultural ways of our ancient forbears. By reclaiming tradition rather than moving away from it, creativity trumps the current culture of narcissism and materialism. That’s what Judaism is about: David going up against the giant Goliath, not with massive weapons and physical strength but, audaciously, with a stone and a slingshot.

For those who do not live in New York, Goldstein suggests a smaller version of his congregation’s celebration. Gather family and friends and invite each person to bring an object and place it on the table near the chanukiah. The object should symbolize a challenge the individual has overcome. Each person can discuss his or her object or perhaps offer a reading or song before lighting a candle. In this way, everyone is able to connect, both communally and personally. This process, Goldstein explains, supplements and enhances our rituals instead of supplanting them.

December can be an alienating time for many of us. Surrounded by Christmas decorations and endlessly repeated strains of "Jingle Bells," we can feel as lonely as that token menorah the owners of the shopping mall feel obliged to put up. We’re faced again and again with how to answer the well-meaning stranger’s query of whether we’ve finished our shopping and are now ready for Christmas. The temptation is always there: to want to participate, to convince ourselves that Christmas is so commercialized and secular that we might as well join the fun.

Sara Schwimmer’s answer to this urge was to create www.popjudaica.com, an e-retail site filled with paraphernalia to help Jews have just as much fun with their holiday decorations and other kitsch as their non-Jewish friends. Schwimmer credits her mother, a passionate Chanukah decorator, with inspiring her. (Even her mom’s Victorian dollhouse is treated to a special Chanukah makeover—the male dolls sport mini-yarmulkes; a tiny menorah and Chanukah presents fill a table; a doll-sized pan of latkes sizzles on the stove.)

Schwimmer searched for fun Chanukah chazzerai (stuff) for her Web site, from menorah string lights to the "Let There Be Light" flashlights. But it’s the 3-D glasses she wears during the holiday season that allow her to revision the world. When you put them on and look at a source of bright light, you see glowing Jewish stars. Last year, she and her husband hopped the subway and went to Rockefeller Center. Gazing at the huge Christmas tree with their glasses on allowed them to see a beautiful display of Chanukah lights! Thanks to the glasses, a simple walk through your neighborhood at Christmas time allows you to see Chanukah as only a Jew can.

As Lisa Alcalay Klug, author of The Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe (Andrews McMeel), puts it, "It’s really about being comfortable in your own skin, knowing where you come from and expressing pride in who you are." Klug, like Schwimmer, celebrates Chanukah kitsch in the Heebster-chic style in which many young Jews today own their Jewishness. Kitsch becomes cool and Chanukah hip.

While Chanukah is the Festival of Lights, and hanging blue and white twinkle lights around your house is definitely a hoot, Chanukah is, at its heart, about the beauty of a simple flame.

The story of the miracle of the oil was created by the rabbis in part to temper the rebelliousness of the story of the Maccabees. The fear was that we Jews would continue to put ourselves in harm’s way. The story of the oil reminds us of the role God plays in our lives. But the two stories do not have to be mutually exclusive. There is room for the audacious and room for the miraculous. Anita Diamant and Karen Kushner suggest in their newly revised How to Raise a Jewish Child (Schocken) that we invoke God in Chanukah by remembering the little miracles in our daily life. Rather than focusing on the gifts, ask everyone celebrating to consider if miracles only come in big packages—long-lasting oil or the Red Sea parting—or if, perhaps, we can find holiness and a sense of amazement in everyday life. This is an especially relevant exercise for us as adults. In times of darkness, we need to focus on the tiny flickers of light that are there, if we only keep our eyes open for them.

The candle is a powerful symbol. The act of lighting the flame is a metaphor for hope and optimism in the face of darkness. Imagine what must it have been like for our early ancestors to rely solely on candles, oil lamps or firelight to pierce the darkness of a long winter’s night. Set aside one night of Chanukah where your home is lit only with candles. Buy gorgeous beeswax candles or make your own by rolling sheets of wax around wicks. Or use this wonderful suggestion from Klug: "Line up nine glasses. Fill each with two inches of water and 1/4-inch extra-virgin olive oil. Drop in a floating wick to create a Chanukiah—a Chanukah menorah. Add food coloring for a rainbow of flames!"

I think of the beautiful children’s book One Candle (HarperCollins) by Eve Bunting. Bunting tells the story of Chanukah with her grandmother. Her grandma would always request a potato and a bit of butter. As she hollows out a small hole in the top of the potato, she recounts the story of her days in the concentration camps. She tells how she and her sister Rose would steal a potato and a bit of butter from the kitchen. As desperately hungry as they were, they didn’t eat the potato. Instead, they carved a small hole in the top, dropped in the butter and took a small thread from their clothes to serve as a wick. In this way, they fashioned a candle for Chanukah. Every Chanukah since, Grandma and Great-Aunt Rose make this one candle and light it to remember "being strong in the bad time and remembering it in the good time. And for the women in the barracks and the others who didn’t live to come out."

This is why we celebrate Chanukah, whether or not we have children with us to celebrate. Keep the joy—sing the songs, spin the dreidels, give the gifts, eat the latkes. Remember the Maccabees and embrace your warrior spirit. That is what Chanukah is about. It is about the warriors in our history who fought for our right to observe our rituals and be proud of who we are. It is for everyone who struggles and fights and survives. It is about our strength and our boldness and our audaciousness. For all of this, we must continue to light the Chanukah flame.


Meredith Jacobs is the author of The Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat (HarperPaperbacks) and is the publisher of www.ModernJewishMom.com. She is currently at work with her daughter, Sofie, on Dear You, Love Me: A Mother-Daughter Journal (Chronicle Books, spring 2010).


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