December 11, 2008  

My wife Arlene and I decided to write our Chanukah cards early, so she went to the post office to pick up stamps. She came back looking confused; I asked “Any problems dear?”  She responded to my query with, “I asked the clerk for postage stamps for sending out my Chanukah cards and the clerk asked “What denominations?”, so I told him 12 Orthodox, 10 Conservative and 25 Reform”.  

Chag Samayach. I love this time of year. Chanukah brings back such fond memories for me. I marvel at how the celebration has changed since I was a child.

In my youth we lived in Brooklyn, New York in a 4 story walk up.  I always enjoyed celebrating Chanukah lighting the candles, eating latkes, playing dreidel, and singing the Chanukah songs.  My parents gave us hazel nuts which we used instead of money for betting in the driedel game; of course it was always fun cracking them open and eating that wonderful round little nut as well.

My aunts and uncles would visit and bring us Chanukah candy “gelt”, kosher chocolates which came from Baricini or Barton’s. I would also get one toy from my parents.  I always enjoyed listening to my Dad tell the story of Chanukah.  He’d get excited telling how a small remnant of righteous, Torah observant men, with inspiration and love for G-d, defeated the Syrian Greeks and restored the Temple and Israel to a Torah observant nation.  His eyes would light up as he told of the miracle of the oil; little did I know then that he was handing the tradition down to his sons; my older brother and me. 

When I try to remember those days of my childhood in greater detail, one incident in particular stands out in my mind. My brother Herb once asked for a train as a gift.  Our parents, being European immigrants, took him on a subway ride.  I remember him crying; they didn’t know what he really wanted. They never saw a child's miniature train set. He’s 72 years old now and I think I’ll see that he gets the train set this year!

Living in a Jewish neighborhood meant that the majority of the households would have a menorah shining in a window.  How exciting to see them all shining brightly and regally, especially on the last day of Chanukah when all the candles and bulbs were lit.  As I looked up I’d see one or two homes shining with Christmas lights. I knew they practiced a different religion but it was never spoken of in our home.

When I turned ten, we moved to Flushing, Queens, New York, and the kids in the neighborhood weren’t named Moshe, Yankel, or Vellville, but more like Mike, Joey or Jimmy. These children weren’t Jewish, but they were great friends and we all played the same games, and laughed and cried together.  Occasionally someone would call me “Jewboy” but it was usually an adult; the kids didn’t seem to care and the remark would be quickly forgotten. 

When Chanukah came around again my Dad was still as joyful as he had ever been.  He’d tell the same story and he’d place the Menorah in the window.  When I stood outside our home I noticed there were many more Christmas lights than Menorahs.  Till then, I thought the whole world was Jewish. What an awakening; this was to change my life forever. I had just joined the real world in America.  Some of the non-Jewish kids were surprised to see a Menorah because they began asking me why we were lighting candles and why we didn’t celebrate Christmas.  I shared the story of Chanukah with them and how we celebrated for 8 days. They started telling me about Christmas and about the presents they’d receive. When I told my parents about all the presents the gentile children get, my Mom said “Sweetheart, don’t worry, I promise you’ll have a present for every night of Chanukah”. Evidently this went on in many Jewish households, as Jewish parents wanted their children to feel just as privileged as non-Jewish children were. Eight presents seems to have replaced the one simple gift on a festive holiday, which Chanukah is compared to our more sacred holy days and holidays.   

Years later, married and with children, and living on Long Island, my wife and I passed on the traditions.  Celebrations were much different than when I was a child, and the houses around us were lit up like the fourth of July.  Our sons learned the story well, and knew what to expect at Chanukah.  We had two menorahs in the house, one held wax candles, and the other held light bulbs that we’d place in the window. We played dreidel, and real money had replaced the hazel nuts. The gifts would be wrapped in blue and silver paper, and piled high in the living room, and each day each child would choose one gift.  I would listen to my son's reply when asked." you a Christmas or a Chanukah?" (they were not knowledgeable enough yet to say Jewish or Christian) “We’re a Chanukah, and we get presents for 8 days,” was their answer.

Celebrating the Jewish holidays, and retelling the stories, and observing traditions that accompany them have helped us strengthen our Jewish identity.  Of course much of our traditions can be found in the food that unites us.  Today Chanukah is more festive because our family has grown, and expanded.  Our children, and their families, all participate, and now I’m the joyful one telling the story of the Maccabees while getting excited as I tell of the miracle. It’s a celebration lighting candles, singing songs, eating latkes, and jelly donuts.  We exchange gifts, hug, laugh and light the menorah.

Unlike the celebrations when I was a child, today we also celebrate in the Synagogue. We have a potluck luncheon with dreidels for the children, and a large table where all the families light the Hanukkias they've brought from home together.  It’s a very powerful moment as we all chant the blessings together, and see smiling faces as everything glows.  It reminds us too, that we are to be a light for all nations.  The Rabbi will hand out chocolate Chanukah gelt to the children and of course pronounce many blessings over them. We eat together the latkes and foods people have brought.

One year the Rabbi’s face was carved in chopped liver (as we often hear the Jewish expression…”What am I chopped liver?”) 
Today much has been added to the way we celebrate the holiday.  Menorahs come in different shapes, and forms from the very small to huge.  We used to make our own cards but today it’s mainstream, they can be purchased at Hallmark, Wal-Mart or online.  Retail stores sell Chanukah, as well as Christmas decorations.  I hear children talking about Chanukah Harry, or Latke Larry bringing them gifts.   

Yes, the holiday celebration is different than when I was a child.   So much so that I said to my beautiful wife Arlene “Dear, this year maybe we should give the children hazel nuts to use when they play dreidel.”

Have a Happy Chanukah!!! I wish you all the joy, and the peace of this season.  Eat Kosher,

Mel (The Fat Guy)

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