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Posted 18 December 2020
The confusion over the correct spelling for Hanukkah or Chanukah gets me every year. I’ve done a bit of research: either Hanukkah or Chanukah are correct. The ‘H’ is a product of transliteration (how the Hebrew word can be written in English). I feel like I’m having to transliterate in order to belong all the time – as a Jew, as a single parent, as a foreigner. How can I hold our Jewish identity and celebrate our culture and traditions with my son and embrace dominant practices that I don’t relate to? Where do I situate us when my son is all revved up about Santa Claus, cast as a Christmas tree in the school Christmas production and will actively ask for the Peppa Pig Christmas episodes?
There is a lot of irony in Judaism – it’s where much of the humour comes from – and Ch/Han(n)ukah is no exception. The festival marks an incident whereby, against all odds, Jews overcame persecution. Our temple was defiled and, when it was regained, there was only a little lamp oil left – enough for one day. Miraculously, it is said to have lasted for eight days – and that is why we light the menorah. When my son was a baby, I packed him up and trod up to Golders Green looking for a menorah for him. Oy! I mistakenly packed only one reusable nappy and Golders Green is quite a way from where we live. Like the miracle of the lamp oil, we managed on one nappy that afternoon. Ironic? Maybe… it does make me chuckle, though!
For me, Chanukah has never been a major festival and, historically, gift-giving wasn’t even a thing – neither in my family nor in wider tradition, as I understand it. When I was growing up, we did not expect Chanukah presents and we certainly didn’t expect Christmas presents. I didn’t feel hard done by, either. My needs were met and presents came at other times. The practice of giving Chanukah gifts, I believe, developed in the early 20th century. Lighting the candles, though, is an age-old practice – and, of course, not just in Judaism. Not only is it a collective activity that brings light and pause into our homes but it’s a marker of time. It’s this tradition that I hold on to and ensure my son and I practice regularly on Friday nights and, now, over the eight nights of Chanukah, lighting an extra candle each night. To manage the night my son will miss when he visits his father (who does not observe Chanukah), we simply press the proverbial pause and come back to it when he returns.
Perhaps because Oscar is a child – or maybe because our society has become more obsessed with it – people are stunned and not quite sure what to make of it when they discover that “we don’t really do Christmas” (even though we do have a pretty broad roster of festivals and holidays including, at this time of year, Chanukah). With ‘Christmas fever’ hotter than ever this year, I get that we need something to look forward to but I don’t want that at the expense of marginalising different cultural practices. In desperation, I found myself buckling and resorting to terrible parenting…and then falling into the cliché of experiencing ‘Jewish guilt’ (much aligned to that of ‘Catholic guilt’, as I understand it), based on my clumsy responses: “But, Oscar, for Chanukah, you get eight presents! One each day for eight days! It’s so much better!” (Did I just say that? I’m such a hypocrite – I’m literally selling Chanukah to my four-year-old…) And… “Oh, Oscar, you make a gorgeous Christmas tree! So, tell me, my bubbelah – who in your class was dressed as a menorah, then?” (Now I’m becoming sarcastic – the answer was “no one”.) I’m uncomfortable with where all of this places us. Sure, I could be laissez-faire and not care but then I’d be ignoring my roots and, therefore, Oscar’s.
It’s been a tough year. For all (except Amazon and Zoom).
My earnings dropped significantly due to the pandemic. I wasn’t entitled to any government aid and the Child Maintenance Service ceased any enforcement. That’s okay (sarcasm again) – I’ve got a tribe of many millennia behind me that have survived a lot worse. If lamp oil can do it, so can I. I’m often struck by people’s assumptions that, as an educated Jewish woman, I wouldn’t a) be a single parent, b) suffer financially and c) if I did, my family would pay… I’ve encountered anti-Semitic comments of this sort more than once. I’ve been creating miracles daily. Creating food from crumbs, creating adventures in our neighbourhood, making our home the best place EVER to be. I’d be lying, though, if I said it wasn’t tough…and, then, roll on this time of year where the message is: MORE. Buy more, spend more, eat more, be with more people. What about pausing to capture the light? The miracle of survival, the joy of simplicity?
I’m starting to realise that I cannot combat the commercial pressures – or, even, arguably, the double standards of 21st century models for inclusive societies. I can only hope that simply enjoying our rituals, participating lightly in the mainstream and learning about other minority practices, embeds in Oscar the morals that everyone can have space and time to practice and celebrate what they believe. And that self-respect and respect for others are, in the long-run, the most critical components to bettering ourselves as a human race.
Each night, we simply light the candles. Oscar has learned the blessing for them and insists on saying the Hebrew words himself. We give each other a hug and a kiss after the candles, saying that we love each other and ‘happy Chanukah’. Oscar then darts to the little homemade recycled cardboard Chanukah tree we made, complete with menorahs for the branches and all the Christmas baubles he’s been gifted hanging from them (this is new for us, this year.) I carefully wrap a small present each day. Day one this year, a pair of red (his favourite colour) Crocs. His response. “Thank you, Mommy! I LOVE them!” (and why should Santa get the credit, anyway?). Day two, a book about construction – his response: “I LOVE IT!” – and we spent hours together in the light reading the book. Then, we play dreidel, which is a great game for kids to learn adding and division (for us, playing dreidel is about play and finally sharing out the chocolate). I then find the rock ‘n’ rolliest, Klezmerist, funktastic Hannukah playlist I can (put that into Spotify and see what happens!) and we dance. Pretty much every night. I shy away from making Latkes (potato pancakes, which are delicious with apple sauce and sour cream), only because I’m paradoxically scared of fire and don’t like frying with a lot of oil for that reason. And the traditional doughnuts… well, I’m still working on the COVID pounds and the Chanukah gelt (chocolate coins) are sickly-sweet.
Within our home, our celebrations happen simply and freely. It’s a place where we don’t have to explain ourselves. Last year, an acquaintance left a Christmas gift for Oscar hanging off our mezuzah. A mezuzah is a parchment inscribed with religious texts and attached in a case to the doorpost of a Jewish house as a sign of faith – usually, people think it’s some kind of alarm system… which, spiritually… maybe: yes. However, it did drive home for me how, here in the UK, very little about Jewish cultural practices is known. For me, it’s being a parent that has given me the perceived ‘chutzpah’ to come out about celebrating being Jewish AND being more than proud of it.
I was encouraged when Oscar’s nursery teacher wanted to borrow our book, Sammy Spider’s First Hannukah, to read to this year’s class. I’m reassured when people take the time in the whizz-up to Christmas to say, “Happy Chanukah!” (it’s rarer than you’d think). I’m even more grateful for the simple consideration in the cards we receive when they say, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. My cards and emails always say something to the effect of “I wish you a happy festive patch”. (That should cover everything… right? But maybe people are offended that I’m not directly wishing them a Merry Christmas…? You see: it’s complex!)
The story of Chanukah is about overcoming persecution. My feeling is that overcoming struggle of any form needs celebrating. We’ve all experienced 2020 (5780 in the Jewish calendar) and I think we all need a bit of celebration – in ways that make us feel good (and are COVID-friendly, of course.) With every candle on our menorah that we light, I know that Oscar and I are, in that moment, together and this makes us stronger to take on any knocks in the future.
“Chag Sameach” – happy holidays – to one and all! And a peaceful, healthy and miraculous (even in the tiny simple ways) movement forward in time.