I just want to be clear — right off the bat — I’m not a practicing Jew.
Like any child with a secular-raised father and a Catholic mother…we were raised Presbyterian. Sure, why not.
I’ve never been bat mitzvahed, but the first curse words I learned were in Yiddish (thanks Grandma and Grandpa!).
I didn’t grow up celebrating a Passover Seder, but I do know that the battle of the best briskets is serious business.
The eventual track to agnosticism on the Jewish side of my father’s family isn’t unheard of or particularly unique. My great-grandfather, Papa Arthur, fled Ukraine with his sister during the pogroms in the early 1900s. He settled in Boston, married another Jewish Ukrainian immigrant, raised two, first-generation American sons, one of whom is my grandfather.
And, while my grandfather attended Yiddish School to learn to read and write in Yiddish culminating in a speech on his 13th birthday at an extended family dinner declaring he was now a “mensch” (a man), that’s basically where any trace of Judaism stopped, at least on that particular limb of the family tree.
Bringing Jewish Traditions Home
I’ve always been fascinated with the story of my great-grandfather’s escape, but I didn’t start incorporating Jewish traditions into my household until a few years ago.
It all started when we moved to Texas in 2017 and a new acquaintance asked me, “What church do y’all go to?”
I grew up in an area where it was just as common to attend a confirmation party as a bar mitzvah. It’s just not a question I would think to ask someone (to assume they’re religious at all) but especially not to presume that the default was Christianity. It crystallized for me, in that moment, that if I wanted my kids to be exposed to other religions (in particular a religion intertwined with their ancestry, a big part of why we’re American today) I was going to have to take things into my own hands. And that’s when I decided, two weeks before Passover, to host a gluten-free Seder. How hard could it be finding gluten-free, Kosher foods in Texas?
Pretty hard actually.
I realized that, and pun totally intended here, “Houston we have a problem,” when I asked the Tom Thumb manager to direct me to the Kosher section for the Seder I was cooking, which was contained on about 1/8 of one tiny rack, and then he wished me a “Happy Easter” and went on his way. Good intentions, but I had work to do.
That was how we had our first Passover Seder. It was a wonderful, albeit tiring experience. Reaching out to my grandparents to source recipes, talking to my Jewish friends about their traditions, creating our own. Watching my children learn through a tactile experience about a religion, an ancestry, that dwells deep in their bones.
So, last year, during the pandemic when I lost my mind and decided to homeschool two elementary school-aged children with an infant in tow, I began incorporating Judaism into our daily learning around Hanukkah and the holiday season. We’re pretty much doing the same things this year, a new book here and there, an actual menorah, etc.,
Since Hanukkah begins Sunday, I thought it’d be fun to share some of things we love to do, to make, to read and to watch during this holiday.
What To Do During Hanukkah
1| Dreidel Garland
We love a good craft in this household, especially if it involves items we already have around the house. We made this painted dreidel garland by first tracing and cutting out dreidels (Google for a pattern!) on craft paper, painting them, punching holes in the top and then using some leftover string to create a garland.
2| Menorah Print Out
We used this Menorah Print Out in lieu of a real menorah last year and had the kids connect the dots and then color in a candle for each night of Hanukkah. Everyone got to put their own creative twist on it and no tears over who gets to light the candle! Win, win.
What To Make For Hanukkah
Obviously this is not the entire spread; there are other side dishes and desserts to consider, but a few favorites nonetheless in my household.
This is my favorite gluten-free recipe for latkes (they are so good and crispy!) The key is to make sure you get all the moisture out of the onion and potato mashup (seriously don’t skimp on that part.) And, if you’re going to make them, get a good food processor. It’s miserable otherwise. And let them hang in a warmed oven after cooking so they maintain their shape. Serve with sour cream and applesauce.
Matzo Ball Soup
Matzo Ball Soup is a staple that hits all the right notes on a cold winter’s night. Make a big batch and freeze to enjoy later! Can be made GF by using different flour or a GF mixture for the Mazto Balls. Recipe here.
Although my grandparent’s BFF, Bert, swears by brisket soaked in Dr. Pepper, I really want to try this Coffee-Braised Brisket (still love ya Bert! Do we think a 91-year-old man reads this blog? Stranger things have happened).
What To Read During Hanukkah
This is a family that loves books. They’re a great way to spark conversation on any topic.
1| A Hanukkah with Mazel
A Hanukkah with Mazel is a sweet book about a painter who finds a lost cat during Hanukkah and has to get creative with the paint he has to finish his Menorah.
Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights is new to our reading repertoire this year. I was drawn to the beautiful illustrations and the fact that it seems like an easy, digestible primer to teach my children about Hanukkah.
What To Watch During Hanukkah
I like this video because it’s kid-friendly with cartoons, but it also has a real message that adults can also appreciate. Plus, it’s less than 4 minutes, so perfect for those shorter attention spans.
Great explainer on how to light the candles, including the prayers! My kids loved hearing the singsong nature of the Hebrew prayers.
Whatever the reason, I feel myself pulled to the past, my Jewish roots, especially now that I have kids. I need my children to know their full heritage. To understand that not too long ago it was their Jewish ancestors who were seen as inferior, fleeing one country for the relative safety promised at America’s shoreline. The treatment of immigrants, especially over the past few years has been difficult — infuriating — to watch. Seeing people whose ancestors came here as refugees turning their backs on refugees. Forgetting their own history. Ignoring it. Sons and daughters of immigrants looking down on those wishing to emigrate. Looking for the same relative safety and opportunity that a Jew from Uman, Ukraine hoped for in the early 1900s when his ship from London made landfall in the Boston Harbor.