When I was a little girl, my sisters and I were vaguely aware that my parents were always squirreling away small gifts that they would unearth and hurriedly sort behind closed doors just before the first night of Hanukkah. I would sit outside that closed door, excited at hearing our parents murmur to each other as they decided which daughter would get which gifts – based on age and interests – and made sure each of us received at least one special item. Half the fun was the anticipation. There were no lists of gift requests in advance; after all, there were seven of us girls.
A favorite part of our Hanukkah celebration was turning out the lights in the dining room each night before we lit the menorah, then watching the candles glow in the dark. The sisters who could sing on key tried to lead the others. A family favorite, “Oh Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah,” we sang in Yiddish. Year after year, the Yiddish words evoked a bittersweet feeling on a happy holiday, connecting me with the grandparents I never knew.
In today’s world that doesn’t feel quite festive, can I get myself into a celebratory mood for Hanukkah?
Just as my parents hurriedly sorted the Hanukkah gifts they had stashed away throughout the year, I hope I can quickly sort through and put an eight-night freeze on the emotions I have experienced since the 2016 presidential campaign began – and ended.
Here’s what my family and I are going to do to make this Hanukkah a joyous one.
Night 1: Play games! After the blessings, songs, and gifts, we’ll get a game of dreidel going, followed by some of our other favorites – Bananagrams, Rummy Kub, Cards Against Humanity, and Scrabble.
Night 2: Remember the story of Hanukkah. Although historians debate the causes and outcomes of the war in which Judah Maccabee and his army defeated the Syrians, Hanukkah nonetheless evokes stirring images of Jewish valor against overwhelming odds – and allows us to kvell in the story of the single jar of oil that miraculously lasted for eight days.
Night 3: Tell jokes! What’s better for lifting our spirits than a good laugh? Ask everyone to bring a favorite joke or story to share.
Night 4: Make latkes and applesauce! Even though It’s easier to buy premade latkes, there’s something about peeling all those potatoes and apples that makes the holiday memorable for everyone, especially kids.
Night 5: Call people you love to say “happy Hanukkah!” I won’t even try to call every one of my sisters on the same night, but I will call my mother-in-law and a friend who is recovering from a car accident.
Night 6: Read a good Jewish story with your kids or grandkids. Whether it’s a classic – such as The Adventures of K’tonton: A Little Jewish Tom Thumb, a story from the All-of-a-Kind Family series, or one of the new kids’ Hanukkah story books – enjoy the time you spend together.
Night 7: Celebrate with community! I’m going to invite friends and neighbors, people from different faith and cultural backgrounds, to light the hanukkiyah and toast the holiday. On Friday night, we’ll take our Hanukkah menorah and candles to temple to join friends to light the candles together. See if there’s a latke party at a Reform synagogue in your neighborhood!
Night 8: Make the gifts you give personal. I’m going to write IOU gift cards to friends, neighbors, and relatives, offering my help with something I know they would enjoy or would be useful to them. Depending on your own expertise and interests, you can offer to set up a computer, fix a faucet, hang blinds, babysit, host a Shabbat dinner, deliver a home-cooked meal, buy groceries, tutor, vacuum, or hang shelves. I’m planning to gift time to teach others some of the things I enjoy – reading Hebrew, swimming, braiding a challah, crocheting a scarf, and doing yoga.
In tough political times, my parents used to tell us girls that the pendulum always swings back, and in the meantime, we must create our own corner of happiness in the world.
With that in mind, what will you do to make Hanukkah a fun and happy celebration this year?
Whatever it is, happy Hanukkah!