Hanukkah for the Jew-ish

7 years ago

It’s the first night of Hanukkah, and I forgot.  I snickered when I read blogger Yulinka's Kitchen description of her community’s response, “This holiday is usually commemorated by saying “Hey, it’s Hanukkah!” on the second of the eight days and then forgetting about the whole thing. “

So here’s my challenge for Hanukkah: how do I raise a Jewish child when I am not a religious Jew? How can we learn together?

It’s even harder when you’re an interfaith couple. The Calm Before the Stork writes, “I’ve devised a holiday survival plan for my marriage and the rest of my family life. I gave Scott a script. It goes like this: He just has to say “Honey, I understand. Your people were oppressed. It sucks that the dominant culture pretty much ignores your holiday. I appreciate your willingness to celebrate Christmas…And she adds “..As my cousin Ed said to Scott when he met him, “You know, there’s only 14 million of us left.” I get it. My mom was a convert. I’m trying at least to give the baby a little Yiddish. The religion stuff, well, we’re both starting from scratch.

I meant to celebrate baby’s first Hanukkah, I really did.  He had a bris, and he is being raised Jewish. Emphasis on the “ish.” Like many secular Jews, I struggle with how to approach the holidays. My husband is Catholic. Growing up, most of the Jews I knew celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, Easter and Passover.  We celebrated Solstice too. Holidays had absolutely nothing to do with God, and everything to do with food. 

Susan Katz Miller gives us five reasons why Hanukkah beats Christmas for kids, hands down, which I recommend you read. She notes, “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.”

So I asked two of the smartest Jews I know for their advice on how to learn with my son as we both learn about Judaism:

Cynthia Samuels had these suggestions for me:

1.  Read the Old Testament (TORAH) all the way through; be sure it's a
Jewish translation.
2.  Go to a Jewish bookstore and ask for some kids books about being Jewish - I always start with children's books when I'm trying to learn new things.
3.  Start lighting Sabbath candles on Friday night so your kids will alwaysremember their mom doing it. Here Cindy’s amazing post about lighting candles. It is a great privilege and a beautiful experience.  There is an organization
called Friday Lights, run by Chabad, that sends out "starter kits."
4.  Get a Debbie Friedman CD”

Jill Miller Zimon told me, “always feel that you don't have love or even like everything you read or learn about regarding this stuff…I was raised in a Reform synagogue, went to Georgetown and spent a year living in Israel after that. When I came back, nothing was really culturally Jewish enough for me in Reform but the formality of Conservative still bothers me sometimes - I say I married into Conservative. I rarely go to services but serve on other committees and am on the American Jewish Committee board here in Cleveland now - so I find other ways to be involved.”

Jill’s suggestions about where to start:

1. The JCC (Jewish Community Center) is probably a good place to check out as far as classes. I know our JCC here is constantly reaching out to in-name-only Jews.

2. There are some very good resources online - Aish has some good stuff, Judaism101.com, About.com Judaism is very good and always has a ton of links.

3. For yourself, take a look at magazines and their online counterparts like Lilith, Forward, Moment and even the mags of the different movements (Reform, Conservative etc.)  They often have a lot of links etc. on their sites and something might catch your eye.

4. Our Borders bookstore here has a Hebrew story time once or twice a month that involves area high school kids reading books in Hebrew and English to school-age kids.  You might try to find something like that for a starter.

5. I wonder if the area universities' Hillels might have some resource.

6. Jewish museums - are there any in the area? Maybe see what programs or exhibits they have.

7. Many synagogues so want new members that they are offering all kinds of parents and me classes to non-members - these are good ways to have secular activities mixed in with some faith-based ones but with the overall goal of getting out, getting exposed and meeting others.  The JCCs also often have those kind of programs too.

So maybe I won’t worry about Hanukkah. In truth, I would rather my son know about the history of the winter solstice, its roots in a matriarchal time, and the deep history of celebrating the turn of seasons and our human need for light (check out Nika’s incredible Stonehenge Cake and solstice party ideas). Then, he and I can enjoy Christmas with his Dad. He can focus on his Judaism at the fall High Holy Days and in spring, with Passover. I can’t pretend to be more religious than I am.

And here is my goal, in a couple of years my son and I embark together on a journey of religious education, attending Torah classes. Maybe he’ll have a Bar Mitzvah, and I will too, finally.

Happy Hannukah!

Morra Aarons-Mele

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