Wednesday, January 27, 2021 -
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Chanukah is coming just when we need it most


Just saying the word “Chanukah” brings smiles. As does conjuring up the sight of candles ablaze and the sounds of boisterously off-key renditions of “I Had a Little Dreidel” and “Maoz Tzur.” And the smells? Look no further than those potato latkes fresh from the pan just begging for their applesauce and sour cream. Top that off with the sweetness of sufganiyot, those addictive jam-filled doughnuts. (Dieters beware: In Israel, you’ll also find caramel, banana cream, hazelnut and chocolate-chip ones as well.)

But if it’s a Chanukah party you’re looking for this year (when Jews the world over light the first of eight candles on Thursday night, Dec. 10), with social distancing remaining in effect due to the global coronavirus pandemic, that pile of holiday invites is most likely slimmer than in years past.

Equally sobering is the fact that, with many Jewish families up against job losses and business shut-downs this year, in many homes there’s not only a shortage of cash for gift-giving, but an atmosphere of worry and stress. That’s a combination that can put a serious damper on holiday festivities.

But inspired by Judah Maccabee, his sons and their small band of fighters who managed to reclaim the Holy Temple in Jerusalem from the Syrian-Greeks more than 2,000 years ago, “as Jews, we’re still super adaptable,” says Neal Hoffman, creator of the best-selling “Mensch on a Bench” and assorted other Jewish-themed stuffed toys — 95% of them sold in the weeks leading up to Chanukah.

“We pivot on a challenge, so this year, we’ll find creative ways to celebrate and connect to the people we love,” he says.

When you can’t be with family (or friends) in person, Hoffman suggests Zooming your Chanukah parties — viewing each other’s long-distance latkes and taking turns spinning dreidels across the miles.

“With its eight nights, Chanukah is much more conducive to a series of Zoom celebrations than a one-day holiday,” says Hoffman, whose wife and two sons can look forward to having Dad home in Cincinnati for the first time in years (he usually does “Mensch on a Bench” appearances during the holiday).

Since Chanukah has over the years absorbed much of the materialism of Christmas, this COVID-19 year is an invitation to siphon some of that materialism and glitz off the holiday, he adds.

“Instead, it’s a year for families to create Jewish moments with the emphasis on our values and taking pride in our people’s amazing story.”

One such value is giving to those in need. Hoffman suggests devoting one of the nights to giving gifts or donations to the less fortunate “who need our help more than any time in recent memory.”

Another one of the nights can be devoted to gifts made or purchased (possibly with some underwriting from you) for siblings. Which means asking themselves what would delight their brother or sister and then watching proudly as they open their (however modest) gifts.

A third evening, says Hoffman, can be spent at a soup kitchen or, when safety permits, volunteering at the local nursing home.

A bonus would be asking the Jewish residents what they remember about Chanukah when they were kids.

Though get-togethers may be severely limited, the requisite holiday pounds can still be gained — and happily shared with friends and family.

Opening the door to a delivery of a homemade food gift is a delightful surprise, says Mollie Katzen, who brought the world The Moosewood Cookbook back in 1974, followed by The Enchanted Broccoli Forest (1982), among others.

Nominees include a loaf of banana bread wrapped in blue cellophane, lentil soup or your own roasted tomato spread (hint: start collecting jars now).

“With edible gifts, you’re dropping love at their house,” says Katzen, who maintains that “one of the better things about the pandemic is that everyone started baking.”

By including a recipe card in the package, you’ll also have the beginning of a recipe exchange that can last well beyond the holiday, “a delicious way to be together even when we’re apart.”

The good news for far-flung families: Chanukah cookies for instance can survive the mail unspoiled.

Always a popular Chanukah gift, Jewish books are more important than ever this year when so many grandparents and other relatives are missing from the table. So says Meredith Lewis, director of content for PJ Library, which, with its community partners, sends out 680,000 Jewish children’s books each month to families in North America and beyond.

“Being far from family, books transmit the message of Chanukah through the power of story,” says Lewis. “Children feel part of something bigger than themselves—this miraculous time in their people’s history.”

Her picks of this year’s crop of children’s Chanukah books include The Ninth Night of Hanukah by Erica Perl (Sterling) about what happens when a family moves into a new apartment just before Chanukah and can’t find the menorah (ages 3-8).

For the littlest celebrants, Lewis nominates the board book, Happy Hanukkah, Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen (Farrar Straus Giroux).

Some Chanukah classics never die. Take Isaac Bashevis Singer’s much-beloved The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah, giving families one story each night to transport them back in Jewish time.

Eric Kimmel’s Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is also still going strong since 1994.

“We’re sending Hershel out again — many parents remember him from when they were kids,” says Lewis. Herschel exemplifies Jewish bravery and cleverness, she adds, noting that “the same bravery and cleverness that the tiny Maccabee army used to defeat the huge one that have helped us survive for thousands of years.”

Far-away grandparents can still read Hershel and other Chanukah books with their grandchildren thanks to Carabou, an app that integrates children’s books and activities into a video call.

As the candles burn and you reprise the tried and true Chanukah songs, starting with the blessings (three on the first night and two the next seven), then “Maoz Tsur” (“Rock of Ages”) and (if you like) “I Have a Little Dreidel,” if you want some outside musical help, the Maccabeats are ready with 10 years of offerings on YouTube.

“Everyone needs something fun and even a little silly right now; it’s been a pretty serious year,” says founding member Julian Horowitz.

So what if the holiday crowd is smaller than usual? Even the nuclear family deserves festive foods to create delicious Chanukah memories. If the delicacies of Chanukahs past could put a strain on the budget, Joan Nathan has a shocking suggestion: “Just skip the big expensive brisket.”

But you don’t have to give up the tradition in the process, says Nathan, author of the 1998 classic Jewish Cooking in America, King Solomon’s Table and other titles. “You can make a meat tzimmes instead or schnitzel. Or why not burgers with bread stuffing? As long as it’s something special for the holiday.”

This year, that “something special” needs to take creative new forms, says Rabbi Binny Freedman. 

“The first thing we do is publicize the miracle of our people’s survival by lighting the candles so everyone can see them,” says Freedman, who directs Isralight in Jerusalem’s Old City, where the narrow streets will be ablaze with outdoor menorahs.

The second thing: Gratitude. “Right now, instead of complaining about the situation, what if we could step out of the darkness and into the light of Chanukah by thinking of everyone and everything we can be grateful for?”

Last spring, in the midst of Israel’s first big lockdown, there was a moment when Israelis were asked to step outside and applaud the country’s health-care workers.

“So why not pick a group to appreciate every night of the holiday,” says Freedman.

“The doctors one night, then the teachers who had to quickly learn to teach on Zoom, the nurses, the ambulance drivers, your neighbors who helped you out.”

“You know we always celebrate the guys who found the little cruse of oil. But you know who we never thank?” he adds with a laugh. “It’s the kohen (priest). He was the guy smart enough to find it!”

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