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Doing Hanukkah Big

Reprinted from The Boston Globe with permission of the author.

Nov. 12, 2000

I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but my Hanukkah dilemma definitely began when I was a little girl. I grew up in upstate New York with a Protestant but agnostic father, and no mother. I was only vaguely aware that my mother, who died when I was 3, was Jewish.

Hanukkah

There is, of course, my sixth-grade school photo, in which a delicate Star of David hangs around my neck from a thick leather rope. It had been a gift from my grandmother, my mother’s mother. I broke the thin gold chain by accident when changing my shirt. I was so intent on refastening the Jewish star around my neck that I used the only thing I could think of, a leather shoe lace pulled from my work boots.

There was the Yom Kippur I pretended to be sick so that I could stay home from school. I knew nothing more about the holiday except that the two Jewish kids in my class did not come to school that day. I wandered around an empty house wondering what I was supposed to be doing. But I was oddly gratified to know I would be counted as one of the three absent from school that day.

Now, jump ahead many years and I am married — by a rabbi — to a Jewish man whose family celebrated Hanukkah but with a "little" Christmas on the side. It was not the celebration of their neighbors: a Christmas that was holy and historic and deeply meaningful. It was a secular Christmas, more like the one I had had as a child — -mainly Santa Claus.

So naturally, my husband and I celebrated Christmas, a little from him and a little more from me.

We didn’t buy a tree, although I did decorate our front door with a wreath smelling of fresh pine and hung with red glass bulbs. We exchanged gifts on the morning of December 25. I played Bing Crosby records on my record player and I sang along like my father used to. It didn’t matter that I was Jewish. Did it?

In 1987 when my first son Sam was born, he was welcomed into the Covenant of Abraham with a traditional bris. Lucky for me (and my husband), Jewish law dictates that Judaism is passed on from one generation to the next through the mother — so my son is Jewish because I am Jewish — and I am Jewish because my mother was Jewish.

I liked knowing this, for no other reason than because being Jewish was my birthright. That it belonged to me and I belonged to it. It was a gift from my mother, like the necklace was a gift from my grandmother. Along came December 25, the first with our new son, and we had our little "Christmas." Santa arrived and filled our stockings. The following year, Sam made a menorah at his preschool — which happened to be at the JCC — so we lit that, too. This goes on for a while — a little "Christmas" with a little Hanukkah on the side.

"You don’t have to talk about any of this Santa Claus stuff when you’re at school. OK, Sam?" I told my son. I was clearly beginning to feel guilty but I tried to ignore it.

Over the next few years, along with Passover with my in-laws, Rosh Hashanah (when my second son, Ben was born) and Yom Kippur, which I have since learned a great deal about — celebrating even a "little" Christmas seemed more and more wrong. I felt more and more guilty. And so we decided to phase it out. And each thing we lost — the first to go were the red stockings, trimmed with white fur, embroidered with our names — I felt myself gaining. I was deciding who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. Only it had to compete with the Christmas I remembered as a child. I had to know I wasn’t cheating my children out of anything. I had to believe they weren’t missing anything. It had to be big.

The morning of our first "big" Hanukkah , we woke up early and ran downstairs to open our eight gifts a piece, all displayed in front of the fire place. And then there was the Hanukkah we tried having seven tiny gifts each night and then a whole big bunch the last night. By the time Sam was old enough to start Hebrew school, I knew this wasn’t going to work, not if I was going to be who I wanted to be. So who was it I wanted to be again?

I finally realized it wasn’t enough to try and force Hanukkah take the place of Christmas. I had to embrace Hanukkah for the festival that it is. I had to learn that Hanukkah is not a major Jewish holiday. Hanukkah is not nearly as important as the High Holy days or as Passover. It is not even as important as some of those holidays most people have never heard of like Sukkot or Simchat Torah. But it is important because it is the story of a near-assimilation, the story of Jews imitating the style and traditions of Greeks around them. It is the story of what happens when you forget who you are. There is also the one about a little girl with a tiny Star of David around her neck, who wanted so badly to know who she was.

Now, my boys are 13 and 10. We have a Hanukkah every year for eight nights in our house, and one of those nights we invite as many friends as we can. We have enough jelly doughnuts to give all of us bellyaches. My girlfriend makes her special potato latkes. We put out bowls of sour cream and apple sauce. We exchange small gifts. The kids eat chocolate coins and I spend the next week picking crumpled tin wrappers from the floor. I play my Klezhmer music CD on my CD player.

We light our menorahs to remember the miracle of Hanukkah, the oil that lasted for eight days. And all the small miracles that can happen in every life.

We are making our own holiday memories. Like the one night I put the menorah with all eight candles fully flaming in the dining room window, too near the tissue paper dreidels. Really, you hardly notice the charred wood windowsill at all since I’ve painted it. The paper dreidels disappeared all together.

Or like the first year Sam was able to recite all three Hebrew blessings. Better yet, the first year I was able to recite all three Hebrew blessings. We watch to see whose candle will be the very last to burn out and that person gets to make a special wish as the tiny spiral of smoke disappears up into the air.

When we drive through our neighborhood around the end of December, Ben is fond of pointing out houses that are decorated with sparkling strings of lights or colorful trees peering out of living rooms. His favorite are the homes with one single white light in every window.

But I am quite certain he is not jealous. He does not feel left out. He does not think he is missing anything. On the contrary, just as those people know who they are and are enjoying the beauty of their holiday, my children know who they are. And with that I believe I have given them a greater gift than could be unwrapped any December 25th, or any 24th of Kislev or any morning, of any life.

We are Jewish and we celebrate Hanukkah, not too big not too little. Just Hanukkah.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "Joy of Torah," a fall holiday that celebrates the completion of the yearlong Torah cycle and the commencement of a new one. Known in Hebrew as "magen David" (literally," shield of David"), it is more commonly recognized as the star of David, a six-point star. The symbol has origins in the Torah, and has been used as a symbol of Jewish identity and Judaism in Europe since the Middle Ages. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Yiddish word for a potato pancake, traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Nora Raleight Baskin

Nora Raleight Baskin is the author of four middle-grade novels: What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows, Almost Home, Basketball or Something Like It, and In the Company of Crazies. She is also the author of several short stories and personal narrative essays for adults. The Truth about My Bat Mitzvah will be published March, 2008 with Simon & Schuster. The following fall, Candlewick will be publishing Ms. Baskin's first YA novel, All We Know of Love. Ms. Baskin teaches writing through the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York, as well as creative writing to children, visits schools, and speaks to groups around the country.

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