Figuring out How to Celebrate Chanukah

I’ll admit it: Chanukah is a holiday I’ve approached with diminishing enthusiasm over the years. I’m not into latkes; I prefer egg rolls. Dreidel’s not nearly as fun as Scrabble. And as the holiday approaches, so, too, does our loaded debate: Are we giving gifts this year or what?

It wasn’t always this way. Growing up in a nonobservant-but-you-have-to-go-to-Sunday-school household, Chanukah was a pretty awesome holiday that was on par — scratch that, better — than Christmas. I remember the excitement building in the air as my mom hung a “Happy Hanukkah” banner in the window next to the blue “helping hand” sign that signified crazy people do not live within. (Anyone remember those?)

We lit the menorah every night. The extended family would have a party at my grandparents’ place. And then there were the presents: 16 blue-wrapped boxes, divided into two piles — eight gifts for me, eight for my sister, Amy. Every night we made an exciting choice: Which gift should we open tonight? Sometimes the boxes contained the practical, like pajamas or slippers, two great passions of my mom. Sometimes they were just pure fun, like games or stuffed animals.

As we got older, things changed, of course. Multiple gifts were rolled into a single one. The family Chanukah gathering dissolved. Once I was living on my own, I’d probably find my way to a menorah once or twice over the holiday. Chanukah was more or less uneventful — it became downright complicated when my husband, Julian, entered the picture.

His family didn’t exchange gifts during the holiday; to him, presents weren’t part of the Chanukah equation. But I’d feel slighted because I thought it was meaningful for spouses to exchange a gift or two. He’d be insistent that we light the menorah; I’d feel weird because we rarely, if ever, lit Shabbat candles — and Judaism considers that a much more significant holiday.

Over the years, as married couples do, we’ve whittled each other down. I’m pretty certain Julian now knows to buy me a present (or he will after reading this — right, dear?) and I am committed to lighting the menorah.

Still, I felt there had to be a better way to connect with Chanukah. And now that we’re parents, the situation seems more pressing, as I’d like for our young son, Leon, to look forward to Chanukah the same way I did. Or do I? Am I just teaching him to love Chanukah because, hey, who doesn’t love getting presents? And if we’re strict about the menorah but totally (read: completely) lax about Shabbat candles, are we sending the wrong message? How exactly should we be celebrating Chanukah, anyway?

Of course, we’re not the only ones confused. Even the story of Chanukah has its variations: The book of 1 Maccabees portrays Chanukah as a military victory over an evil king; 2 Maccabees sees it as a victory of pious Jews over the assimilationists. It wasn’t until rabbinic times that the whole miracle-of-oil thing came to light (so to speak). Given that we Jews can’t even agree on a spelling for the holiday — Chanukah? Hanukah? Hanukkah — it’s no wonder that a shroud of mystery surrounds its celebration.

I’ve come to realize, however, that my approach is all wrong.

“The interesting thing about Chanukah is that it’s had different definitions in different years,” said Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, the president of CLAL, a pluralistic Jewish think tank. “In every generation Chanukah has been a celebration of overcoming whatever the biggest challenge the Jewish people were facing.”

In fact, the rabbi said my questioning was appropriate.

“It’s in the spirit of the day,” he told me. “Asking new questions, celebrating new answers, knowing how that’s always been.”

Hirschfield pooh-poohed my hang-ups, starting with concerns about lighting candles on Chanukah while often skipping the ritual on Shabbat.

“To be able to perform one mitzvah is a tremendously exciting thing,” he told me.

So, too, did he wave away the argument that presents have no place in a so-called “minor” holiday?

“Ever look at a kid’s face when he or she opens a present?” he asked. “It’s a real problem that we’re taught that gift-giving is unspiritual.”

My cousin, Karen Stern, hasn’t done much celebrating of Chanukah since she was a kid. But now that she’s mom to her year-old daughter, Lillian, she’s had a change of heart.

“I remember it being a warm memory,” recalled Karen, who lives near me in Astoria, in the New York City borough of Queens. “It wasn’t about the gifts; it was about the menorah, the song, the gelt.”

Karen is somewhat surprised herself by going all out for Chanukah this year: latkes, a party, Chanukah CDs and dreidels galore.

“Now it seems like fun and family-oriented in a way it didn’t before,” she said. “It’s dark and cold inside, and inside is totally warm, and you’ve got music and food and candlelight and family.”

She was right, I realized. What’s not to love about that?

Meredith Jacobs, the Jewish mama maven and founder of the Web site ModernJewishMom.com, has some excellent ideas, too. In the Jacobs household in Potomac, Md., each night of Chanukah has a different theme. One night is game night; the kids (Sofie, 12, and Jules, 10) receive board games and the family plays them together. One night is all about homemade presents, another is tzedakah night, when in lieu of receiving gifts, her kids give one to those in need.

One night she declares as “old-fashioned Chanukah night” in which her kids receive the kinds of “little, yucky presents” that Jacobs received when she was growing up, like socks or pajamas. (Perhaps her mom and mine are related?)

Jacobs says she also heeds her mother’s advice to “make the house smell like yontif.” For Jacobs, that means latkes and brisket — even though, she concedes, brisket is not considered a “traditional” Chanukah food.

“I try and make the house feel and smell a little different,” she told me, “so it feels exciting and like a holiday.”

That got me thinking. I typically make rugelach this time of year — they’re fun to make, they’re a perfect party food and, packed into a Chinese takeout container, they make great gifts. Inadvertently, I realized, rugelach had evolved into my family’s Chanukah food. It may not be a canonical choice, but it’s a tradition that’s become as real in my household as a Passover seder and Friday-night pizza.

The more I thought about it, the more I understood that we were forging a family Chanukah, after all. I started thinking about all the moments of triumph this year — from watching Leon take his first steps to Barack Obama’s inspiring victory — and how they were worthy of celebration.

“There are more ways of celebrating Chanukah than people who want to [celebrate it],” Hirschfield told me. “The only wrong way to celebrate this holiday is effectively not to celebrate it at all.”

And so, my rocky relationship with Chanukah is on the mend. We’re still not sure exactly how we’ll celebrate this year, but I can tell you this: There will be love and gifts and rugelach. We’ll light the menorah, we’ll eat some egg rolls and we’ll take it from there.

NEXT STORY