By Alla Umanskiy
Year after year, it doesn’t get any easier to parent Jewish children in December. Christmas overwhelms our kids, especially those of them in public schools, particularly in the American South. During the month of December—and often much earlier—my two daughters, like all of our kids, are barraged daily with Christmas movie commercials, Christmas songs on the radio (all of which we love!), heavy Christmas decorations around the neighborhood, Christmas parties among classmates (admittedly less so this year, but still virtual gift exchanges and so on), and many more accoutrements of this holiday that is spectacular and magical.
But is not ours to celebrate.
My daughters, ages 13 and 10, are being raised in an Ashkenazi Jewish family, though not a particularly religious one. Although we don’t necessarily go to temple every Saturday, my kids are keenly aware of who we are and where we take root. We celebrate Jewish holidays, we read extensively about the Holocaust (“Night” was my older child’s 8th grade reading material this fall), and we wear our Star of David necklaces frequently and proudly. We have a mezuzah on our door post. My kids attend Jewish day camps in the summer. My daughter had a small pandemic-friendly bat-mitzvah a few months ago. All of that is to say that our kids have a thorough understanding of their culture and its history. And yet, and yet, and yet.
The magic of Christmas beckons them, calls to them with its sweetness, its caramel peppermint mochas at all the coffee shops. It draws them in with gingerbread houses, and reindeers on people’s driveways, and Mariah Carey on every station, and ornaments at Target, and garlands in their classrooms, and school Christmas parties, disguised as “holiday” parties, and the tree… oh, that tree…
Naturally, to prevent our children from feeling as if they’re missing out on something as enchanting as Christmas, we do the only thing Jews can do at this time of year—we go crazy on Hanukkah! We do it not because Hanukkah is necessarily a major Jewish holiday, it isn’t. But because it simply falls around a similar time frame and offers an opportunity to also give gifts and celebrate in the wintertime.
For eight days of Hanukkah, we partake in the traditional celebrations—lighting the menorah, cooking latkes, eating jelly donuts, spinning dreidels—as well as giving gifts for every night and doing volunteer work at least two of the evenings. We put up lights, blue and white, of course. We hang a “Happy Hanukkah” sign on our door. We invite family over. We write cards to distant cousins. We immerse into the Festival of Lights because it’s beautiful and because we love it, yes, but also because we so desperately want our kids to love it too.
In a world where assimilation is often desired and standing out and apart is oh so difficult, we are hoping against hope that our children will somehow learn to embrace the meaningful, lovely customs of Jewish holidays, without constantly comparing them to those of their non-Jewish friends. Admittedly, the gods of marketing have caught on to the desire of Jewish consumers to not feel left out and have made it easy by offering items that will help Jewish kids in America feel “included.” A great example of this is “Mensch on the Bench,” a somewhat silly non-equivalent of “Elf on the Shelf.” I’m not embarrassed to admit that we have one these, who moves around our living room when the kids go to sleep.
This year, during a global pandemic and with Hanukkah upon us, I have been particularly sensitive to any consideration of forgoing traditions and customs that we have come to enjoy and count on. In a year when nothing has been the same, we want to—need to!—know that our practices and routines can and will withstand, as they have for thousands of years. It’s especially comforting to light candles, eat Trader Joe latkes and give out chocolate gelt in 2020. What we need most of all though is for our kids to know this, to feel it in their bones, to let it seep into their beings that traditions (thank you, Tevye!) are what sustain us, what keep us as a people, what allow us to go on and on for generations.
Undoubtedly, these concepts are hard to comprehend when you’re a teenager who simply wants to conform, to belong, to be just like everyone else—and everyone else isn’t Jewish. Understanding that all too well, I feel my daughters’ discomfort. I see their yearning for something that doesn’t belong to them, something that is just out of their reach. It saddens me, as it saddens them, though for different reasons.
So in those moments, we simply cling to each other, we turn on the fireplace full blast, we make hot chocolate with an overload of marshmallows, we play Scrabble, and we talk about our place in the world, our contribution, our way of making the holidays special. Every year, but especially this year, those are the conversations I want to have.
Alla Umanskiy is a writer, Jewish mother and wife, living, working, and raising kids in the Atlanta area. In her “spare” time, she likes to pretend she’s a runner. She also likes sweets, and there’s no pretending about that.
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