Parenting book just in time for the December Dilemma
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Parenting book just in time for the December Dilemma

For Rabbi Daniel Gordis and his family, Hanukkah is not simply a “cute” holiday. Cuteness, he explains, implies haste and thoughtlessness. During Hanukkah a family must do more than light candles and open presents. The Gordis family supplements candle lighting and present opening with songs, latkes or potato pancakes and serious discussions about the holiday. During those conversations they consider Hanukkah’s many messages which include, “the power of the weak, good overcoming evil, Jewish survival and miracles.” Doing this, Rabbi Gordis says, makes the holiday a spiritual time.

In his new book Becoming a Jewish Parent Rabbi Gordis offers both inspiration and practical instructions for Jewish parents that include dealing with the infamous “December Dilemma” as well as celebrating Jewish holidays in a meaningful way. In a recent interview Rabbi Gordon said that he wrote this latest book, to encourage parents “to consider how we communicate our love of Judaism to our children, [without] a ‘take-it-or-leave-it-attitude.’”

Ordained at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Gordis says that parents whose lives are fully “immersed” in Judaism-its traditions, literature and religious rituals-don’t feel uneasy during Christmas (or any other non-Jewish holiday) because their children understand that the issue is not about exclusion, but about “standing for something.” Furthermore, if their lives are fully enriched by Judaism, children will not feel they’re missing out during the Christmas season. There are, after all, numerous Jewish holidays that are just as festive.

Though he hesitates to choose a favorite holiday (“It’s like asking a parent, ‘Who’s your favorite child?’ says this father of three”), Rabbi Gordis admits to a particular fondness for Pesach or Passover and Sukkot the festival of booths. He describes how his family gets ready for Sukkot: “Actually, preparation begins long before the holiday starts, when we buy the lulav —a branch made of four species including myrtle and palm-and etroga citrus fruit. This year, my daughter, Talia, got her first etrog box, which made [observing the holiday] all the more exciting and special for her. Then comes the actual preparation of the sukkah or booth, which begins right after Yom Kippur, and there’s shlepping the tables into the sukkah and figuring out who we’re going to invite and where we’ll be invited.” The holiday celebration itself is “incredibly filled with family, relatives, friends. At night, we sleep in the sukkah. We push the tables to the side and sleep on sleeping bags on the grass in the backyard. I remember when we used to do this at JTS [the Jewish Theological Seminary] and it was freezing. But my children adore [camping out in the sukkah], and for me it’s unbelievably wonderful to see my kids-who usually like their own space and want their own rooms-all too happy to sleep together under the stars.”

How does Rabbi Gordis guide parents to observe Hanukkah? “Educate yourselves so you can speak meaningfully about Hanukkah, otherwise the word that children will most commonly associate with it will be Christmas and that will be a sad commentary on the Jewish lives we’re providing them.” To that end Rabbi Gordis provides a complete history of the holiday in his book, along with explanations of Hanukkah traditions such as eating jelly-filled doughnuts and foods fried in oil. He encourages parents to make Hanukkah fun by using an oil menorah rather than one with candles, or having children make the latkes or pancakes.

Parents should also engage children in age-appropriate discussions about the holiday. For instance, older children might consider whether or not the real focus of Hanukkah is the Maccabee victory, or the miracle of the burning oil? Rabbi Gordis advises parents to bear in mind the larger ramifications of answers to those questions. He points out that the Talmud says that the true hero of the holiday is not Judah Maccabee, but God. “The subtle implication is clear: Jews ought to wait for God to bring about their salvation and should not presume to bring that redemption about themselves. After all, the rabbis remind us, Jewish revolts against Rome and other occupying powers usually resulted in utter and devastating disaster.”

Hanukkah is also an ideal time to teach children about ritual. They can, for example, reflect on the real purpose of lighting one candle the first night and eight on the last night. Rabbi Gordis says that adults and children alike should consider what Hanukkah implies about our responsibility as Jews to those who are oppressed as we were in ancient Greece. And while he encourages parents to discuss the “December Dilemma” with children, he advises not “to make this the central concern of your existence-that should be reserved for living in such a way that your children see how fulfilling, rich and fun a Jewish life really is.”

Elizabeth Applebaum writes frequently about Jewish parenting issues. This article was originally published by Jewish Family & Life!