There are more ways to spell Hanukkah than nights of the holiday, and, in true Jewish tradition, each is correct. Likewise, every family has its unique ways of celebrating, either handed down or created through improvisation. When my family returned to the Boston area from New York City, I jumped at the opportunity to host our extended family for Hanukkah. Our 2-year-old daughter, Melissa, was so excited about decorating for the party and seeing her cousins. I wanted her to know that sharing holidays with family was important, so hosting the Hanukkah gathering became our new tradition. Melissa is now 12 years old and has grown from sticking gel menorahs on the windows to making the kneidlach (matzah balls)—how time flies!
It has taken me years to admit that I don’t host parties with easy grace. After all, hospitality is a prized Jewish value, as is generosity, and hosting this event is a way of giving both to my family. Nevertheless, every year in the lead-up to our Hanukkah celebration, I do battle with house cleaning and creating a meal that accommodates our Paleo eater (me), two vegetarians, one vegan and various other relatives with food restrictions. The party flies by in a haze of latke-slinging, dishwashing and kid wrangling. Unlike my friends who love to host these gatherings, I become stressed by the hard work and lose the spirit of generosity and hospitality that drove me to host in the first place. This is my Hanukkah conundrum.
This year, Hanukkah coincided with Thanksgiving for the first and only time in history! As a parent, I was thankful for the uncoupling of Hanukkah and Christmas and the coupling of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving causes us to stop and consider some very Jewish values: generosity, hospitality, gratitude. Just as the oil lasted for eight days, the spirit of Thanksgiving is radiating throughout our Hanukkah experience for eight days and nights this year.
To my daughter’s dismay, I decided to look beyond my commitment to “family tradition” and wondered if there was a way to honor my needs alongside those values of hospitality and generosity. I asked, “What do I want from our family Hanukkah celebration?” The answer was easy: “I want to simplify the gathering so that I can enjoy time with my family.” Just as one voice in my head gives that answer, another, like a disagreeing Talmudic sage, counters: “Shouldn’t I be self-sacrificing one night per year and continuing to do what we’ve always done? It’s tradition.”
My husband, Stuart, is the wise one who helped me realize that we could simplify our family Hanukkah celebration to focus on what’s really important: family! He suggested that we reimagine our gathering as an afternoon latkes and cider party, lighting the menorah when the sun goes down and exchanging gifts. This year, we’ll forego the multi-course meal with a side of stress. I can feel the relief already! I think we have a plan that still feels generous and hospitable to my family but is also generous to me.
I have a feeling that everyone at our celebration will feel a more joyous atmosphere this year and won’t miss the brisket too much. Stuart and Melissa will certainly enjoy having Mom fully present and happy. Melissa really wants to make her kneidlach; more power to her! Soup and latkes sounds like a wonderful pairing. As she stands on the cusp of becoming a bat mitzvah, I hope that I am modeling for her that generosity toward others can and should encompass generosity toward oneself.
For what am I grateful this Hanukkah? I’m so grateful for the goodness that shines from my daughter’s irrepressible smile, for her homemade gift that’s the highlight of every Hanukkah, for my husband’s loving support in helping me rethink our celebration, and, yes, for my entire family descending on our home for a—dare I say it—fun, relaxing and joyous celebration!
I hope your Hanukkah 5774 is full of light and peace, generosity toward yourself and others, and served with a hearty helping of latkes and gratitude.
Lisa Marcus Jones has been making music all her life. After attending Yale University and Berklee College of Music, she worked for years in jazz and Spanish music, ultimately returning home to Jewish music. Lisa is a Shalshelet Music Festival composer and has served as cantorial soloist at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough for the past six years. She lives in Acton with her husband, Stuart, and their daughter, Melissa.