Jewish Stuff Memoir Parenting

What We Are: A Hanukkah Post

When my son was a l’il dude, I tried not to bring him to the grocery store if I could avoid it. But one year, it was our turn to host the annual family Hanukkah party and twenty-four people were coming over that night, so I found myself in the grocery store for the eleventy-seventh time that week.

As a result of poor planning, I had to bring the l’il dude along.

As I zoomed down the aisles – grabbing applesauce and sour cream for the latkes — we rushed past rolls of wrapping paper featuring snowflakes, ornaments in every shape and color, lighted-reindeer for the yard, artificial garlands and wreaths, tree skirts; boxes of 100-count multi-color lights; enormous platters embossed with angels sporting sparkling halos; floppy red, velvet hats with fluffy white pom-poms at the ends; pillar candles in red and green and gold; Godiva chocolates wrapped in boxes with bows and six-packs of chocolate Santas wrapped in silver foil.

It was full-blown Christmas in that grocery store.

My 4-year old – who had spent the last 18 months of his life at a Jewish Community pre-school surrounded by other children who did the same things in their homes that we did in ours — sat trapped inside the grocery cart. He eyed the Christmas fixins with curiosity; his head whipped from side to side, taking it all in.

“Know what’s weird?” my son started tentatively.

I heard his words, but I didn’t.

I needed to find the tuna fish.

And another carton of eggs for the egg salad.

I needed jelly filled donuts.

And I needed more oil. More oil for the latkes.

“What’s weird is that there is so much Christmas stuff because almost nobody celebrates it.”

I stopped pushing the cart.

I looked at my sweet, innocent son.

I thought:

How do I explain that Jews make up 0.2% of the world population?

That in the United States we comprise 1.7% of the population.

That when he starts kindergarten in September, he will likely be the only Jewish kid in his class.

That people might not like him because he is Jewish.

That, once, store owners wouldn’t allow me to clean my clothes in their laundromat because I was Jewish.

That millions of people have been killed throughout history because of their love of Torah. Because of their desire to preserve generations of religious and cultural traditions.

I rubbed my son’s spiky crew cut and I told him this:

“There are many people in this big world and you will find that people celebrate things in lots of ways. Hopefully, when you get older, you will have friends who will invite you to their houses to celebrate Christmas. And a hundred other holidays that you don’t even know about yet. Because there are a eleventy-million-bajillion ways to celebrate what is close to our hearts. And each way is wonderful. Hanukkah is just one way. But it’s ours.”

My son smiled.

And like the wish that it was, it has come to pass.

My l’il dude is now 12 years old. And he has celebrated Christmas with friends. And Kwanzaa. And Eid. And Diwali. He loves being invited to experience how his friends celebrate their assorted religious and cultural traditions. He feels proud to have tasted everything from stollen to chickpea curry. He has sampled poori, spicy khaja, and sweet and nutty desserts like atte ka seera. My boy’s ears have heard many dialects, and he is fluent in laughter. He can understand a smile in any language. He has learned the stories behind why people do what they do, and he understands their beliefs are as right and precious to his friends and their families as ours are to us.

He has sampled many different ways to be.

But he has never wanted to be anything other than what he is.

Other than what we are.

• • •

Now go read Life in The Married Lane by the amazing Rivki Silver.

I would like to thank Streit’s and Doni Zasloff Thomas a.k.a. Mama Doni, the lead singer/songwriter of The Mama Doni Band for providing each of the 16 bloggers involved in #HanukkahHoopla with a little cyberswag.

Click on the button below to be connected to the other bloggers involved in the #HanukkahHoopla project!

90 thoughts on “What We Are: A Hanukkah Post

    1. It was definitely one of those “Oh-my-gosh-we-are-in-the-gr-cery-store-and-my-kid-just-threw-me-a-big-question moment. I totally choked. Right there in the frozen food section, but I took a moment to give him a simple answer. It was all he needed at that moment.

  1. Very well put, Renee! Lovely words to your son, and so happy that they have come true. He’s lucky to have experienced so many different, yet important celebrations.

    That’s the way it should be… understanding yields happiness!

    1. Understanding does yield happiness. The world can be very confusing. And, frankly, I don’t think we do enough to educate our kids about each other’s religious practices. People know so little about Hanukkah. Probably less about Diwali. And Eid.

      When else will our kids learn about each others religious and cultural celebrations? What are we so afraid of?

  2. You captured the innocence of children so beautifully (and I also try to go to the store with only the baby. It’s just so much easier). May his appreciation of humanity, and of his own culture, be strengthened by his experiences.

    “He is fluent in laughter. He can understand a smile in any language”

    May all our children (and ourselves) learn how to do this.

    1. Thanks Rivki. My son is such a mensch. I hope he never loses this bit of his character. He has friends from every walk of life. And one of his teachers just asked him if he would be willing to work with a student with Asperger’s because he thought he would be okay to do that.

      He said, “Of course I’m okay doing that. Who wouldn’t be.”

      Again, one of those moments.

      So many teenagers would not be okay. So many. I am blessed with this one. 😉

  3. What a wonderful entry for today. I am Christian, but I love all the holidays and learning about them. The video from the Maccabeats was especially delightful.

    I have to share a story from my class. We’d been discussing the various holidays and one of my students (6 years old) was asking me about them.

    She told me that she’d celebrated Kwanzaa with her family in Alabama and then shared she’d been to a mosque.

    “Oh? Are you Muslim?” I asked her. “No,” She gave me a funny look. “I was born in Alabama.”

    Have a wonderful Hanukkah celebrating with your family!

    1. In 1989, I was fortunate to meet and share a meal with Maulana Karenga, the man who founded Kwanzaa. It was the first I had ever heard of the holiday, which was still very new. He was positively brilliant and all about teaching African-American children to be proud of who they are. I know people who celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas.

      Each night has a separate theme, and the Swahili terms are coordinated with the ideals they are meant to represent:

      Umoja (Unity); Kujichagulia (Self-Determination); Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuumba (Creativity); Imani (Faith)

      I think these are beautiful ideals and I wish everyone was as mindful and had such purpose throughout the year.

  4. That was a neat post, and I’ve loved hearing about all the important traditions you have as a Jew! Happy Hanukkah, Renee!

    1. Hi Susie!

      That is a very old photo. As we all know, Tech Support does not “support” the use of his image being used on the blog. I was allowed to use this picture. And my friend Cindy let me use her boys — each of whom is much, much taller now. 😉

      Have a wonderful Christmas.

  5. What a wonderful post, Renee. Kudos to you for teaching your child the value in understanding and accepting the many different cultures and beliefs in this big, wide world. Now, if only more of us could do the same…. 🙂

  6. What’s weird is that there is so much Christmas stuff because almost nobody celebrates it.

    One of the benefits of a Jewish preschool! Yes, they get a rather skewed view, but it allows time and space for our little ones to fall in love with being Jewish. For seeing themselves, and our families, as normative. Because we will need to share all the negatives that you have experienced as it is part of our story.

    This is a terrific post. He is a lucky boy, your not-so-l’il-one.

    1. Hi FrumeSarah:

      I call it front-loading. 😉

      He got an early imprint on what it feels like to be Jewish, to be surrounded by other kids like him, who share the same values. And he reveled in it.

      But yes, it was a shocker when he hit public school and on the very first day a paraprofessional asked, “Is there anyone in here who does not celebrate Christmas?” Well, my son thought this was a good thing, so he raised his hand with a big smile. “Oh, she announced, “Well, I guess we won’t be able to have a Christmas party this year.”

      Guess who came home crying that afternoon?

  7. I love this line: “He is fluent in laughter.” And I like that you teach him to be proud of his identity while also respecting others. Sometimes parents accidentally teach an “anti-christmas” or anti-other attitude and that’s obviously no good!

    1. Hi Nina!

      My best friend celebrates Christmas! And I LOVE unwrapping her ornaments more than she does! I get to live vicariously through her Christmas decorations. I know what we are, so it really does bring me a lot of joy to celebrate with other people. 😉

  8. Renee, this was so beautiful to read. When i was young, I felt the same way as your son- being raised in a JCC exclusive environment. Only when I got older, I realized that much less of the world is Jewish, or even accepting of us. I learned the hard way. It is great to know that your son is so well-versed in the cultures of others, but still loves his own. Happy Hanukkah to you and your family.

  9. As a mom to a Jewish Girl with non Jewish grandparents on her daddy’s side, we have had lots of talks about what we believe. I think you said it so well, “My boy’s ears have heard many dialects, and he is fluent in laughter. He can understand a smile in any language. He has learned the stories behind why people do what they do, and he understands their beliefs are as right and precious to his friends and their families as ours are to us.”. I believe my daughter loves to explain Hanukkah to her friends but enjoys going to their Christmas shows at their churches and to their homes to learn their traditions. It’s a big world and tolerance, understanding, and the desire to be truly open minded and to learn is the greatest gift we can give to our children and to receive ourselves! Thanks for a wonderfully written piece!

    1. Hi Alisa:

      Thank you for the lovely comment. It can be tricky dealing with the holidays when there are interfaith issues, but it sounds like you are handling things beautifully. I hope the lights on your menorah shine brightly and that you are all able to celebrate grandma and grandpa’s traditions as well.

  10. Great job, Mom! At least from my point of view. I wish people of all religions valued being so religiously well-traveled. My Christmas wish would be to take your attitude and spread it thickly around the world. Then we might actually have a hope of peace on Earth. Thank you for your post, Renee.

  11. I went to middle and high school and the majority of my friends were and are jewish. We celebrate Christmas and I teach my kids about other religions, cultures etc…I think that’s very important for them to get a good idea of what other people believe and how they celebrate. I love the innocence of a child: there is no hate, no racial issues. They are just pure. I hope you have a great holiday.

    1. Hi Michelle! I would LOVE to know where you went to school where there were so many Jewish kids. Even in my very Jewish district, we came in under 20%.

      That said, I think it is great you had some exposure to some Jewish friends, so you know we don’t have hidden horns and — maybe, just maybe– you don’t believe Jews are doomed to Hell.

      Except the bad ones. 😉

      Have a wonderful Christmas. And may 2012 be your best yet.

  12. Abosolutely love this story of you and your son. What a wonderful boy you are raising. As you know I have been struggling with the holidays with my own children, and this story is just so lovely. I’m energized to just keep doing my thing and know that my girls are seeing my efforts and my love of being Jewish.That it will sink into thier subconscience. That they might be intrigued by Christmas lights and thier friends gifts, but they will have thge memories I’m creating for them in thier hearts.

    1. Alison: I’m amazed that Tech Support was never even intrigued. Or if he was, he never expressed it.

      I begged my parents for Chanukkah Bush which was met with a resounding, “There is no such thing!”

      I think my dude really likes lighting the candles and singing the prayers. Case in point: I’m sick and Hubby and Tech Support just brought the menorah up to the bedroom to light candles and sing. Little operaman-pyromaniac was so excited to get a book about surviving a zombie attack. Happy Hanukkah my friend!

  13. Such an amazing post, Renée. Thank you so much for sharing this. I am jealous of your son for his many experiences; he is part of an amazing family!

    I am determined to learn more about all sorts of things from here on in, but I would especially like to be able to properly appreciate the many religions of our World and it is fantastic to be reading these Hanukkah posts.

    I wish you and your family all the very best – not just during this holiday period but for the many years ahead of you. May 2012 begin a lifetime of wonderful experiences for you all.


    1. Christian:

      I feel the same way about your blog! I have loved reading about how you celebrate Christmas Down-Under! It’s near impossible for me to imagine Christmas during the middle of summertime — but you have brought me into your life so I see your sister and hear the music and taste that thing your dad makes with the plums. So thank you for that.

      And thank you for accepting me for who I am: a simple Jewish mom and teacher and wife.

      Meeting you has been a blessing. Have a wonderful Christmas with your family. 😉

  14. This is precious Renee. You handled it so beautifully, with grace and style. It’s funny. Just the other day my daughter asked me if we celebrated Christmas or Hanukkah. The question stopped me in my tracks. I thought we had been rather obvious each year. I guess she was a little confused since her kindergarten class sang a compilation of holiday songs at their program and we hadn’t officially sat down and talked about the different religions until now.

    I have good friends that celebrate Hanukkah, but somehow over the years we must have neglected to make it clear to her which was which. Poor thing. Wonderful post Renee. Your writing style flows effortlessly.

    1. Debra:

      One year we celebrated Hanukkah with Catholic friends whose daughter attended our local Jewish Community Center. She knew the blessings over the candles waaaay better than my son. It was hilarious. Her parents had to take a moment to think if maybe it wasn’t time to start thinking about balancing the Judaism with some Catholicism. They hadn’t realized how much was going in!

      Your post and recent conversation speak to the reason why we are supposed to have a separation of church and state within the public schools. Children spend a lot of time in school and they can get confused or made to feel bad about their own faith.

      That said, it is awfully nice to be able to participate in each other’s traditions — once you feel comfortable that your ideas have fully taken root. 😉

  15. I read this post as we traveled to my in-laws to join them for their Christmas celebrations. This after a lunch where my very Santa-illiterate daughter peppered my husband, who is now Jewish, with Santa questions. Even though she is only six, she knows who she is – but is happy to spend the special family time together with our Christmas-celebrating relatives. This helped me approach it with the same enthusiasm she does. Thank you.

    1. I think it’s cool for her to know that her grandma and grandpa celebrate Christmas and that her daddy used to also. I always think people who convert to any religion as adults often know more than many “home-grown” Jews. It is a huge commitment. And I think your daughter is lucky to celebrate Hanukkah and also enjoy what is so dear to grandma and grandpa’s hearts.

  16. Hi Renee,

    My kids attend a Jewish Day school and have never been to public school so we have had many similar conversations.

    It hasn’t been a matter of their not being exposed to anything else because they are, but they haven’t really figured out that population wise we make up a tiny percentage of the world.

    I’ll always remember my daughter asking what “What do Christmas people do on Shabbat?”

    Anyway, your post was beautiful. I very much appreciated it.

    1. I’ll always remember my daughter asking what “What do Christmas people do on Shabbat?”

      Yes! Yes! That’s it exactly. The same sort of wonderful but confused perspective.

      I’m just so happy that others have experienced that. I don’t hear people talk much about that. Or how they handle it.

      So how did I do?

  17. When we lived in Florida, my now five year old attended preschool at the JCC. Now that we’re in Kansas (where, surprisingly, of all places we’ve lived, has the most synagogues and a diverse Jewish population), he goes to a regular, secular pre-K.

    The other night as I was putting him to bed, he told me, “Mom, I only like Jewish people.” I was taken aback at first, but went on to say that he knows a lot of non-Jewish people and he likes them. He went through family (“Yes, they’re Jewish. No, they’re Christian.”) and friends (“I’m pretty sure she’s Christian. Actually, he’s Muslim. Okay, that’s a Jewish friend. …”) It sparked an interesting conversation and ended with, “Cool, I guess I like everybody.”

    It just goes to show how myopic and self-centered (but not in a bad way) a child’s point of view is.

    1. Kids really do rely on the adults around them to teach them. If adults teach children that someone of a certain faith is “damned” or “evil” or calls people “terrorists,” well… let’s just say that kind of lesson has a long shelf-life. And it takes a lot of work to unteach hatred.

  18. “He has sampled many different ways to be.
    But he has never wanted to be anything other than what he is.
    Other than what we are.”

    Then you have done your job well, mama.

  19. Happy Hanukkah to you and your family. Sorry I haven’t been around much. Where I grew up we knew lots of Jewish kids and at one point during late high school, my two older brothers and I were all dating Jewish girls, and we got to experience both holidays, Christmas and Hanukkah, as well as a myriad of other Jewish holiday’s celebrated throughout the year, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and I remember enjoying a few Seder meals over the years and although I never really understood what was going on, the food was good! The debate, of course, at this time of year was always, is it better to have one day with a bunch of gifts or several days with a gift each day? Of course all of this with total disregard to the actual religious significance of either holiday!! Oh well…

    Way back in the 80’s there was this public service announcement commercial that would play on TV around us, about religious and cultural differences, where this young boy would introduce a friend of his as “his Jewish friend” and then an adult would explain that he wasn’t “his Jewish friend,” he was just “his friend”… I don’t remember all the details, but I didn’t really “get it” until I was a little older and started realizing there were a lot of different religions and nationalities around me.

    Great post!!

    1. Hi Steve:

      Isn’t it funny about those public service announcements? Sometimes they are kind of obtuse. Like the drugs commercials? Where they used to show your brain on drugs? Well, they always made me hungry! I don’t think that’s what they were going for. 😉

      I’m glad you had the opportunity to experience some break fasts and Seders. Sounds like you probably attended some bar and bat mitzvahs, too. And, yes, we Jewish mommas are known for our cooking. There is a course they make us take. 😉

      Merry Christmas to you and yours. Cowboy.

  20. Happy Hanukkah to you and yours. This was a beautiful presentation in many ways. My very best friend is Jewish and I would love to forward this to her. I cherish the memories I have celebrating the Jewish holidays with her. I was also blessed with the opportunity to attend boarding school and we would celebrate everyone’s individual beliefs which I have always really enjoyed! Thank you so much for sharing!!

    1. Hi DRL:

      Thank you for forwarding this to your friend. Like you, my “bestie” and I look forward to sharing lots of traditions together. I can’t wait until she comes to my son’s to my son’s bar mitzvah. There have been times where I have been positively stuck with things and she has helped me through. So nice to have that kind of support.

  21. Thank you for inviting this Christian chick to come taste the beauty of your precious family’s beliefs and traditions. No gifts necessary; this, and you, are enough. Wishing you a joyous Hanukkah.

    1. Shirtsleeves! I hope you are where you are where you are supposed to be. Unplugged for a few days, or at least a few hours. Maybe? Have a very Merry Christmas with Thing 1 and Thing 2. And your Hubby. And your parents. And all who show up to smother you with their sweet, honey love.

  22. Lovely post, Renée! I grew up in a Jewish town on the east coast, but was raised Lutheran (though we quit going to church when I was 10). It wasn’t until I moved from that town when I was 14 that I found out there was something “wrong” with being Jewish. Before that, I’d never heard a bad word said about my friends.

    Those, my friend, were the good old days…

    Happy Hanukkah to you and yours!

    1. Hi Alison:

      Things do seem to have gone a bit backwards recently. It scares me sometimes. I feel like a weird bird in the blog world where there are literally THOUSANDS of posts on Christmas and almost nothing on Hanukkah. It reminds me how few Jewish people there really are in the world. I hope that you remember your old Jewish friends and that you don’t teach your children that there is something “wrong” with people who don’t share the same beliefs just because it is the easier way to go: the path of least resistance.

      As long as no-one is trying to hurt anyone else, it doesn’t seem so hard to get along.

      Merry Christmas to you and yours.

      1. my children are adults now, and i think even more open-minded than i was at their ages. and i’ve reconnected with so many of my jewish childhood friends on fbook, it makes me homesick… except for the normal angst of growing up, i loved my childhood and my community.

  23. Hey there- I spent most of my years as a Jew who had someone Christian in my life.

    I like how my mom explained it…we weren’t celebrating Christmas, we were helping my step-dad celebrate Christmas…I really liked the idea that I was helping…

    1. Hi Ginny.

      I like this idea of helping, too. Then it is less confusing. We can always celebrate with others, but remain what we are. Like when we go to someone’s birthday, it isn’t our birthday… but we can be happy to help the person celebrate his or her happy day to bring that person greater joy.

      Perfect. I don’t think it is possible to really celebrate both. People will argue with me from here until the cows come home, but if you try to do both, you end up dishonoring what both holidays are truly about.

    1. I have always been fascinated by different religions. (I should also add, I love learning different languages as well.) I know what we believe, but I thirst to understand the places where we overlap and the places where we diverge. In 2012, I hope to learn more.

  24. Great post! My kids have such a different experience because of where we live.Though they are in public school there is a menorah in the lobby right next to the Christmas tree; there is just as much Hanukah paraphernalia around as Christmas stuff in shops and on the street, and just as many people celebrating Hanuka as Christmas, or so it seems. And they certainly learned a lot about other cultures very organically by going to a Muslim-run day care for many years, where they experienced Ramadan and were lovingly card for by women wearing head-dresses, before even getting to pre-school. What they don’t understand is how few Jews there are in the world, because so much of their world is so naturally Jewish. It’s such a different upbringing from my own where I hardly knew other Jews existed!

    1. Renanit:

      I find it super interesting that your public school ALLOWS a display of religious symbols. This is TOTALLY prohibited in my district. One year someone went bat-shit over the teachers wearing Christmas sweaters, so I think those might have been outlawed for a while. But definitely no menorahs, no Christmas trees, no Kwanzaa candles. Nothing.

      I think this is the wrong way to go, and I would rather see everything represented than try to pretend there is nothing “special” going on. You are exposing your children to some wonderful things. And I’m sure when they ask questions, you have the answers — or you do your best to find them. Thank you for visiting my blog. 😉

  25. Renee,
    Your son is very lucky to have such a bright, eloquent, beautiful (inside and out) Mom. Your insights are always worth the while to read and does my heart good. My grand-children, should I be so lucky to have, will benefit from the insights I gain from you.

    Dreidels to Spin
    Bright Chanukah Lights
    Latkes a frying
    Such tasty delights
    Gelt and gifts
    Given with glee
    Retelling the saga
    Of the Maccabees!

    Happy Chanukah!

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