The First Night of Hanukkah

Lighting Hanukkah candles with the kids

Tonight is Baby Leone’s first Hanukkah.

It’s also Shabbat.

Where I grew up–in Newton, Massachusetts–there are lots of Jewish families.

But even though my parents are both Jewish, we did not celebrate the Jewish holidays and we never lit Hanukkah candles.

Instead, my friend Becca Steinberg would invite me to her house.

My parents are scientists and atheists and I think my mother had so many scars from her childhood that she did not want to raise her children the way she herself had been raised. Her father helped found Israel, peppered his speech with Yiddish, wrote a book called “Israel and Me,” and strongly identified as a Jew.

These days my mother is less Jewish than her Catholic companero, the man from Spain she has been seeing for more than twenty years. It’s only when Ricardo, who lives in Barcelona, calls her to wish her a happy Hanukkah or Pesach that my mother even realizes it’s a Jewish holiday.

My father, a Red Diaper baby, does not like organized religion and did not grow up with a Hanukkah tradition. For him, it was easier, perhaps, to buy a heap of presents and put them under a Christmas tree.

But I love lighting Hanukkah candles, eating latkes (which taste delicious for two or three days until you groan at the sight of a potato pancake and think you never want to eat anything fried in oil again), and playing Dreidel with the kids.

We don’t exchange gifts on Hanukkah. We exchange poetry.

After the candles are lit and our bellies are full, we spend time as a family reading poems from books like X. J. Kennedy and Jane Dyer’s Talking Like the Rain and The Complete Poems of Robert Frost.

My girls are memorizing a lot of poetry at the decidedly un-Jewish Waldorf school that they attend. Athena plans to recite this poem, “December,” by John Updike tonight:

First snow! The flakes,

So few, so light,

Remake the world

In solid white


All bundled up,

We feel as if

We were fat penguins,

Warm and stiff.


The toy-packed shops

Half split their sides,

And Mother brings home

Things she hides.


Old carols peal.

The dusk is dense.

There is a mood

Of sweet suspense.


The shepherds wait,

The kings, the tree –

All wait for something

Yet to be,


Some miracle.

And then it’s here,

Wrapped up in hope –

Another year!


I hope our children will have good childhood memories of this holiday and want to share the candle lighting, latke eating, and poetry reading with their children.

Happy Hanukkah!

5 thoughts on “The First Night of Hanukkah”

  1. We just celebrated the first night of Chanukah, too, although the kids do get a gift each night — “The Simpsons Christmas” tonight. As you can tell, we celebrate both!


  2. I find it so interesting that many of my Jewish friends, who did not make an effort to pass on traditions, report that their adult children are now embracing the Jewish faith for the sake of their own children, celebrating holidays and organizing bar mitzvahs.

    I love the idea of exchanging poems. I used to write poems as a child and create a book of them as a Christmas present for my parents.
    .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..Where

  3. I love this, Jennifer! I really enjoyed celebrating Hanukkah with my stepmother as a kid. There was always something so sweet about lighting the candles and saying a prayer. I also LOVE the idea of sharing poems! How wonderful!! Happy Hanukkah to you and yours!

  4. My husband is an Jewish Atheist as well as for him it’s about the culture rather than the religion. Funnily, I’m a god-fearing Catholic, but we work it out and celebrate everything according to what feels right for us as a family and as individuals. Nice post!

  5. People must also realize that the celebration of Hannukah is more than just a ritual or part of cultural feasts. This is also the time when we can get-together with our families, bond and spend some quality time 🙂

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