Thoughts On This, the Last Night of Hanukkah

Tonight is the last night of Hanukkah, and my obsessive side is very satisfied to discover that I have exactly the right number of leftover candles accumulated over the past several years to fill our Hanukkah menorah. Each package of Hanukkah candles comes with exactly the right number to get you through the holiday. But in practice, at our house, each year we celebrate one or two nights at the homes of other families, and don’t light our own, so the extra candles roll around in my tea cupboard. This year, in deference to the economy and the state of the planet, we used the assorted candles left behind from past years. The mismatched theme seemed to fit our family:  jazzy and colorful, if a little untidy.

Hanukkah was appropriately low-key this year. We gave our teenagers glow-in-the-dark Silly Putty one night, and fuzzy pyjama pants another night. My husband contributed some cool light-up “party rats” that you clip on the end of each finger “for night blogging.” I’ll have to borrow those.

On one night, instead of giving the kids gifts, we made a donation to our friends who run FairVote, a group trying to upgrade American democracy by getting rid of the electoral college. This is a political cause my teens understand and support. Another night, we gave our Hanukkah donation to the winter Special Olympics, the charity designated by my son’s ski club this season.

Perhaps because this is my first Hanukkah in the blogosphere, I have been reading a lot (some of it disturbing, wise, funny) about the multiple meanings of Hanukkah. I realize that by emphasizing the “light in darkness” theme, I risk being accused of watering down or avoiding the historical and political origins of the holiday because I’m a half-educated half-Jew. Or worse, I could be accused of “settling for” the theme Hanukkah shares with Christmas and the solstice as part of a least-common-denominator homogenization, rather than wrestling with the distinctive and sometimes difficult meanings that are unique to Hanukkah.

I am wrestling though. For instance, we have guests coming to celebrate with us tonight, so I printed out copies of the three English verses of Ma’oz Tzur as written out in gorgeous script years ago by my Episcopalian mother. (Note:  rather sad that children cannot read cursive any more). This hymn has its origins in the 13th century, and it appeals to me because it seems to fulfill a requirement for ritual storytelling, and it emphasizes the theme of religious freedom, which appeals to me as a religious renegade.

My family sings all three verses, because that’s the way we’ve done it for generations, and because it is somehow pleasurable to rub up against the difficulties of the text, like worrying a loose tooth with your tongue.  We sing “and thy word broke their sword,” even though none of us believe that the almighty, if he/she exists, takes sides in (dubious) military battles. We sing “priests approved in suffering” even though it triggers uncomfortable associations with the victim mentality. And we even sing “children of the martyr race” in the final verse, even though it conjures up the deeply problematic “chosen people” issues, and the martyr complex, and the persistently pernicious idea that Judaism is a race (or even ethnicity).

Someone has written a new, more politically-correct lyric to replace that last one..subbing in “children of the wanderers.” One year, I gently suggested this change, but my father, never a big change advocate, was staunchly opposed. So I have retreated to singing, and wrestling with, the old lyric. For one more night. And then it’s on to wrestling with Christmas.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Hanukkah Chronicles: Midweek Interfaith Glitch

In the darkened dining room, our family of four gathers around the Hanukkah candles, gazing into the flickering flames and pondering our favorite, inspiring final phrase from “Rock of Ages“:  the part about “tyrants disappearing.” We have hit a groove on night four, with everyone remembering all three verses, and my husband’s gorgeous harmonies giving our a capella rendition real depth.

Then I stride into the living room and face the empty evergreen branches. “Okay, now we have to switch from the Jewish channel to the Christian channel and trim this tree.”

My fifteen-year-old daughter looks up in dismay.  “Mom, too abrupt! I hate when that happens.”

Epic fail, as the kids would say.

I am trying to provide an unvarnished depiction of the benefits and drawbacks of choosing to raise children with two religions.  Clearly, this was a moment when the drawbacks came into clear focus.  As an interfaith child, I have been celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah all my life. I’m supposed to be the expert on this. How did I find myself at this awkward moment? I was trying to do too much, failing to provide enough space for the two holidays without creating a distressing mash-up.

So here’s the good news. We have managed to say a blessing over the candles and  sing each night of Hanukkah, and there have been joyous and tender moments. On the first night, my parents, alone in Boston, got on the speaker phone so that we could sing all three verses of “Rock of Ages” in English together, my family’s tradition. In a year when the holiday does not fall during a school vacation, we appreciate the technological assist in  connecting my children to their only Jewish grandparent at Hanukkah.

On another night, we celebrated, as we do each year, at the home of some of our closest friends, a rare Jewish/Jewish family in our town. They spoiled us with both white potato and sweet potato latkes (not the kind from a box that I make). And we joined in the  hilarious and frenetic Hanukkah klezmer dancing traditional in their family.

The bad news is that it is even harder in an interfaith family to meet the challenge of making time, with school events and lessons and meetings and homework, to fit in a meaningful Hanukkah moment. And that’s where I screwed up. I saw a window in the calendar, a night when we did not have particular plans beyond lighting the candles, when I thought we could get the tree trimmed. The tree had already been waiting on the porch for several days, and was now sitting patiently inside on its stand in the corner. The nakedness of the tree had started to feel like a silent rebuke. Was I giving space to my husband, to my children, to anticipate Christmas?

In other ways, I had already minimized some of the Christmas anticipation to make more room for Hanukkah and simplify the season.  I decided years ago that we would not light Advent candles, or open a daily Advent calendar, even though these are lovely traditions, precisely because I wanted to clear space for Hanukkah.And the truth is that I felt the candle-lighting Advent tradition, in particular, felt too close to Hanukkah in its form.

So on night four of Hanukkah,  I moved a little too quickly into Christmas mode, and everyone felt it, including me. The fact that we all noticed, that it felt like a rough transition, does, ironically, reassure me that the overall plan is working. These are substantive holidays, with deeper meaning, for me, for my children. If they were superficial celebrations, the transition would not have mattered so much.

After a few awkward moments, we got into the festive trimming mode. Nat King Cole helped, as did the memories unwrapped with each ornament. Our cat hid inside an empty box and played with the crumpled newspapers. Our dog, who has perpetually worried eyebrows, paced about and looked vaguely concerned by all the unfamiliar objects. My son’s analysis: “Kitty is Christian, and the dog is Jewish.” We strive for balance, even in our pets.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

Why Interfaith Kids Love Hanukkah (Even If They Get Christmas Too)

Last night on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart was bemoaning the fact that his interfaith kids ditched Hanukkah as soon as they found out about Christmas (his wife is Catholic). I suspect this was just schtick, or perhaps he’s not trying hard enough on the Hanukkah end of things.

Interfaith parents tend to fear the commercial and emotional juggernaut that is Christmas in America. Whether they are raising their kids with both religions, or raising them as Jews with inevitable exposure to Christmas through the extended family, it is hard to believe at first that Hanukkah can, well, hold a candle to Christmas.

I know, it shouldn’t be a popularity contest. Christmas is second only to Easter in theological importance for Christians. Hanukkah, well, it’s a celebration of a military victory that occurred long after the Torah was written. So it’s probably not in the top ten Jewish holidays in terms of religious significance.

But here’s the funny thing: children love Hanukkah. Whether or not they get eight nights of presents, they love Hanukkah. Whether or not they celebrate Christmas, they love Hanukkah. I grew up celebrating both, my children grew up celebrating both, and I can tell you that you really don’t have to fear the Hanukkah versus Christmas smackdown. Here are five reasons why:

  1. Given half a chance, most children actually love a quiet moment of contemplation with the nuclear family, with the lights dimmed, and the allure of fire. That’s why our favorite memories of Christmas may be decorating the tree, not opening the presents. Hanukkah provides eight opportunities for this magical moment. Even if a couple of nights get lost to busy schedules or Hanukkah parties, most folks can pull off more than one night together gathered around the menorah.
  2. Kids love the actual lighting of the candles. They love the routine, the anticipation of one more candle each night, getting their hands on the candles and controlling the fire at an age when you otherwise probably wouldn’t let them anywhere near such a thing.
  3. Kids love latkes. They’re fried, they’re bland, they come with applesauce. What’s not to like? Whether you bleed grating your knuckles into the potatoes, or use a box-mix to make the mushy variety like I do, kids (and grownups) devour them. I don’t fry anything the rest of the year—it’s messy and fattening. But for Hanukkah, I fry, and the kids go wild when they smell the sizzling oil. It may not be that healthy, but if the dinner consists of latkes, applesauce and salad, you don’t end up overstuffed and groaning like you do after Thanksgiving or Passover. It’s a perfect weeknight meal.
  4. Kids really do appreciate savoring one gift each night, as much as they also appreciate an orgy of gifts on Christmas. Our family tradition is to hunt for the Hanukkah present, which creates huge excitement for little kids. Some nights, they know it will be a “small gift” night, maybe Silly Putty or a roll of lifesavers. It’s enough, and they still have the thrill of hunting for it.
  5. Eight nights leaves room to think about tzedakah, or charity. Early on, we declared one or more nights the nights of “giving to others” in lieu of getting gifts (in part to offset the additional gifts on Christmas). So Hanukkah also becomes an opportunity for them to feel good about giving back. If you instill this idea early on, they actually crave the good feelings that come from giving. One year, I gave each of the small cousins, who did not grow up with this “give to others night” tradition, a single dime-store plastic animal to represent the rabbit or chicken they were giving to Heifer International, to make the idea more concrete and take the sting out of “not getting a present that night.” They played for hours with those tiny animals.

So don’t be afraid that Christmas will outshine little Hanukkah. Appreciate Hanukkah for its intimacy and lack of commercialism, and your children will grow up doing the same. If you celebrate both, you can certainly get away with cutting back on the number of gifts involved with each of them, so that the toys take a back seat to the shared mystical theme of light in the darkness of the solstice.

Happy Hanukkah!

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

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