A Surprising Hanukkah Gift


In my own quirky, non-communal way, I found a way to celebrate being Jewish rather than mourning all I’d lost.

by Betsy Block


I was four when my dad moved out of the house, leaving me with one mentally ill mother and two wild, older brothers, one of whom used his most recent Hanukkah present—fluorescent crayons—to color a light bulb. He turned it on, admired it, and went to school.

The ensuing fire ruined my beloved doll collection, the only thing in my room—besides my stuffed monkey, which I still have—that I cared about. Smoky and charred, I wanted to keep the dolls anyway. Mom said no.

That was my last childhood Hanukkah.

Meanwhile, my dad, more Marxist than Jewish, put on as festive a Christmas in his new bachelor pad as any kid in America could want. A tree, lights, tons of presents—come to think of it, maybe he wasn’t Marxist after all. But he, along with the Episcopalian school I attended, made me adore Christmas.

When I lived alone in my early twenties, I always had my own beautifully decorated tree. Then I got married (Jewish-style, at my husband’s request), we had kids, and my husband asked me to stop with the tree already. “We’re Jewish,” he’d say; whatever that means, I’d think.

For a few years, like a recalcitrant teenager, I pushed back. Once it was with a one-foot evergreen decorated with small golden ornaments. “A Hanukkah bush,” I told the kids, looking sideways at my husband with an innocent smile. The next year, it was a rosemary plant that had been pruned to resemble “what’s this?,” a tiny Christmas tree. But after that I stopped buying even the smallest trees. I didn’t want to confuse the kids anymore—or maybe, myself.

I have tried to kindle some kind of good feeling about my Jewishness. Throughout the years, on occasion, I have planned Shabbat dinners, meaning I’ll buy a loaf of challah, pour some good wine, and the four of us will say the prayers. (Get in, get out, and nobody gets hurt.) But even this has gotten harder since our son became a teenager, and he’s usually not home for dinner on weekends anymore. Meanwhile, my husband and I have hosted a seder for the past 20 years, but truthfully, the food has gotten better and the service has grown shorter each year. We now (mostly) jokingly call it a dinner party with a theme.

I’ve also gone to temple, read books about Judaism—or beginnings of books, anyway—but many of the Bible stories seem really bizarre and awful to me (Hello, Job? Abraham?), many of the rabbis, self-important. Rather than draw me in, most temples and services have shut me down. And yet, a longing has been growing stronger within me these past couple of years. I want to feel what the other temple-goers seem to feel: uplifted, a sense of belonging, a connection to their Jewish roots.

Though I didn’t grow up with good associations about Judaism, I’ve done my best to provide them for my kids, if not necessarily by example (always the gold standard), then at least by choosing a temple they both like. Indeed, my son liked it well enough to get bar mitzvahed, which was very positive for him and very tough on me, as miserable visions from my childhood washed over me the whole agonizing year of his preparation. As my husband and I fought while the kids were in bed, I’d hiss, “Guess you should have married a Jew.” Not my finest, most honorably Jewish comment, but I plan on doing better the second time around, when my daughter follows her older brother’s example. As much as I might wish I felt differently, I’m not sure communal Jewish life will ever be for me. Still, at least this time I’m ready for it.

But there was one moment this past Hanukkah when I felt something shift. We’ve always said the prayers and lit the candles with the kids, but in some ways I’ve held back by, say, slowly getting up from the couch while the other three are already standing by the menorah, or by being very busy washing dinner dishes when they are ready to start the prayers.

This year, though, not only was I standing with them by the fireplace at the lighting hour, I even initiated a change in our ritual. I suggested that rather than chant the prayers, we sing them. It was a small thing—tiny, really, and I’m sure most practicing Jewish families already do this—but for me, it was a moment to remember. I grew a little teary. I was singing about how much I treasure the four of us—our warm house, all our blessings—but there was more, an undercurrent, no matter how vague and undefined and tainted by sad memories, that even if it’s in my own small, quirky, and non-communal way, I can still celebrate being Jewish here and now rather than just mourning all I’d lost when I was little.

Or maybe—and isn’t this so quintessentially Jewish of me to say?—just maybe, I can do both.

About the Author

author_blockBetsy Block
Betsy Block is the author of the critically acclaimed book about changing her family’s diet, The Dinner Diaries: Raising Whole Wheat Kids in a White Bread World. She has written food features, profiles, restaurant reviews, travel pieces, and personal essays, and has reported lifestyle stories for publications such as Wondertime, Cookie, Entrepreneur, Natural Health, NPR Online’s Kitchen Window column, Epicurious.com, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and the online city guides Sidewalk and CitySearch, as well as many other local publications.

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