“Can I have a cell phone for Hanukkah?” is not an uncommon phrase to hear in L.A. leading up to the Jewish Festival of Lights. Hanukkah is not one of the major Jewish holidays, nor does it have a history of gift giving associated with it. But, because it is typically in December near that other holiday – a magical time filled with music, twinkling lights, swirling snowflakes, flying reindeer and Santa – some Jewish parents feel the need to transform Hanukkah into a blue-and-silver Christmas with eight nights of extravagant gift giving.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
“We hear from families about the ‘December dilemma,’” says Carol Bovill, director of early childhood education at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. “But it’s really the ‘December opportunity.’ This is such a great time to learn about different traditions and celebrate our own unique Jewish identity.”
It’s natural for children to ask about secular Christmas traditions such as Santa, decorating the tree and a sleigh full of gifts. That’s what they see all around them and hear their friends talk about, and families can enjoy and appreciate the beauty of the season without feeling guilty that their children are missing out, explains Bovill. “It really starts with the parents,” she says. “If they are not feeling guilty, the kids will be just fine.”
“My kids ask why we don’t have a Christmas tree,” says Rabbi Ben Goldstein, who has children ages 7, 5 and 3 and is part of the clergy team at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. “This is a great time to explain that different people have different backgrounds. We have good friends who celebrate Christmas and we go to their house and help decorate their tree. It’s wonderful for our kids to experience how we can support and appreciate different cultures and at the same time be proud of our own traditions.”
Address your kids’ questions about the season by explaining that “we’re Jewish and in our family we celebrate Hanukkah,” says Goldstein. “And then explain why you light candles for eight nights and other traditions that are unique to your family.”
Tell the Tale
The best way to make this time of year memorable for your children is by staying true to the essential meaning of Hanukkah. Many of us grew up lighting the menorah – more traditionally called the “hanukkiah” – with some vague recollection of stories of the Maccabees and nights long ago. Then we quickly moved on to opening presents. For our children to truly connect with the holiday, they need to know more of its history.
Hanukkah commemorates the unlikely victory of the Maccabees (the leaders of a Jewish army) over the mighty Greeks and religious persecution, and the miracle of a night’s supply of lamp oil that provided light for eight nights. At the heart of the celebration is the nightly lighting of the nine-branched hanukkiah – a single flame on the first night, two on the second night and so on until the eighth night when all candles are lit. On the ninth branch of the hanukkiah, slightly higher than the other candles, sits the “shamash” – the “helper” candle that is used to kindle the other lights.
But the holiday is more than an historical commemoration. “At its core, Hanukkah symbolizes being a light in the face of darkness and finding hope when there is despair,” says Goldstein. “This is a great metaphor for parents. For my own kids, I try to cultivate gratitude. We talk about how we can be a source of light, how we can be the ‘helper’ for someone else.”
Engage the Senses
Because children are sensory learners, Bovill encourages parents to focus on the sights, sounds and smells of Hanukkah during their celebration. Many families have a
special hanukkiah for each family member. My daughters, who are both in college, still light the hanukkiah they made in preschool. My husband and I also take out the first hanukkiah we shared as newlyweds. As we light each candle, we invoke so many good memories and experience excitement and joy that grows every night, just like our collective light.
Another Hanukkah tradition is to feast on food fried in oil, including latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (doughnuts). This is definitely a once-a-year treat that uniquely conjures up fond Hanukkah memories. “Shredding potatoes by hand and standing in front of a frying pan for a couple of hours is messy and a lot of work, but it is also so special and kids love it,” says Shelley Lawrence, a mom of two and the director of early childhood education at Sinai Akiba Academy in Los Angeles. “Make it a family event and have the kids help you. This is something they will always remember.”
Throughout my daughters’ elementary school years, a good friend and I would spend one afternoon each year in their school’s outside courtyard with our electric frying pans, several pounds of potatoes, onions, salt, eggs and baking powder making latkes with them and their classmates. The kids loved the grating, the mixing and definitely the eating of the crispy potato pancakes.
Because Hanukkah is eight nights, families also have the opportunity to do something different each night. Some families create “theme” nights such as movie night, game night or craft night, where the gift is a movie or game that the whole family can watch or play together.
Book night is a fun option that celebrates the gift of reading. We asked Marilyn Taniguchi, Library Services Manager at the Beverly Hills Public Library (which has one of our favorite children’s book sections) to share some of her favorite Hanukkah books. She recommends:
“Engineer Ari and the Hanukkah Mishap” by Deborah Bodin Cohan
“Hanukkah Bear” by Eric Kimmel
“Beautiful Yetta’s Hanukkah Kitten” by Daniel Pinkwater
For Kindergarten and Up:
“Chanukah in Chelm” by David Adler
“Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” by Eric Kimmel
“Oskar and the Eight Blessings” by Richard and Tanya Simon
“The Dreidel that Wouldn’t Spin: A Toyshop Tale of Hanukkah” by Martha Seif Simpson
“The Parakeet Named Dreidel” by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Some families pick one or two nights to volunteer together or collect food or toys to donate to those in need.
Over the years, my family has collected a basket full of fun and colorful dreidels (spinning tops inscribed with the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hei and shin, an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, “a great miracle happened there”). It’s a great after-dinner game for the kids and grandparents to play together. Watching the dreidels spin is especially fun for toddlers and preschoolers.
This is also a terrific time to bring friends and families together and fill your home with light and joy. The most special part of Hanukkah for me is gathering our extended family,including great aunts and uncles and lots of cousins, together for a potluck dinner. We fill the dining room table with everyone’s hanukkiahs, dim the lights and enjoy the beauty of all the candles flickering while we sing traditional Hanukkah songs.
One of the unique benefits of living in Los Angeles is meeting people from different cultures, and Hanukkah is great time to invite your non-Jewish friends to learn about yours. “One of the best ways to enjoy the beauty of a holiday is to share it,” says Bovill. “As my kids were growing up, we always had a Hanukkah gathering. Both my kids are now grown and I’m a grandmother, but we still continue our tradition of bringing everyone together.”
By filling your home with the aroma of freshly cooked latkes, the taste of jelly doughnuts, the sounds of laughter, the fun of holiday games, the light from handmade hanukkiahs and the faces of people you love, your family will create wonderful Hanukkah memories and a holiday tradition you can all cherish.
Elena Epstein is L.A. Parent’s Director of Content & Strategic Partnerships.