The First Night of Hanukkah

Lighting Hanukkah candles with the kids

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.

6-year-old Hesperus lighting Hanukkah candles when we lived in Niger, West Africa

Then 6-year-old Hesperus lighting Hanukkah candles when we lived in Niger, West Africa

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.

Then 4-year-old Athena admires Hanukkah candles

Then 4-year-old Athena admires Hanukkah candles

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!


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