Chanukah 2002/5763

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Belonging to the Jewish PEOPLE.

Cooking and Being Jewish

Passing from One Heart to Another
by Jolie Kanat
The temptation to assimilate is great at Christmas time. Here is a personal reflection about this pressure from one of our readers. 

It was early in the evening, before dreidels or candles. In my mind’s eye, I can see my grandfather’s hands, slanted like a Monterey pine by the arthritis that seemed to slow his every movement. He carefully handed the packages to each of us, one by one. We all got the same gift, even my baby sister, who was just months old. 

It wasn’t until several years after the fact that I noticed that most holiday gifts don’t come wrapped in aluminum foil. Looking back, I see now that my gift would likely have been unrecognizable as a holiday offering compared to my neighbor’s giant haul under her tinsel-filled tree. 

I can still feel the weight of that small, crinkly metallic package in my tiny palm; so dense, so adult, so important. 

The mouthwatering smell of grated potatoes and onions frying in the kitchen wafted into the living room as we began to unpeel the foil. What spilled out were riches beyond my imagination… real silver dollars — old, and smooth to the touch. Five of them. So many!

And not just for me, but for each of my brothers and my practically non-existent little sister. I remember thinking she wasn’t even worth it, but my grandfather must have thought so. He equalized us with his gifts. 

Never before had I felt so overwhelmed with wealth and possibilities. 

It seemed my grandfather must have been a millionaire, or even a billionaire to be able to give us so much. 

After his death, there was no longer a watchful witness for our traditions and so they dissipated. Each year, my assimilated and well-meaning parents lit the candles during Chanukah and we all sang simple Hebrew songs. We had no Christmas tree, of course, but instead of opening a gift for each night of Chanukah, they had us open our gifts on Christmas morning, just like some of the neighbors and our school friends did. 

It was probably simple social pressure to conform. Maybe they didn’t want us to be singled out, or maybe it was a shadow of a relic of fear or shame, a habit of hiding the truth, leftover from a not-too-distant past. 

It didn’t help that we begged so hard every year for a tree until finally my beleaguered father capitulated on Christmas Eve one year and brought home a tiny tree that had been discarded. We happily decorated it with blue and white Chanukah decorations, linked paper chains, and draped strings of cranberries and popcorn in long red and white ropes in its piney branches. 

That morning, so thrilling to my young heart, still did not hold the same magic of the Chanukah of the silver dollars. It seemed we had begged our way into a compromise so all-encompassing that now we had neither Christmas nor Chanukah. Instead we had a mutant mishmash borne of a desire to have something that wasn’t really ours, and in the process, somehow denigrated what really was. 

But Christmas is just so sparkly to a small child. And the songs — who could resist them? We sang them in public school as if they were everyone’s songs. Soaring hymns about angels and miracles. At the Christmas concert, one or two glittery, blue, construction-paper Stars of David decorated the wall, dwarfed by the forest of green paper Christmas trees. The Christmas lesson of goodwill to others seemed sullied by the act of offering it as the only holiday to be celebrated. 

The winter I was eleven, I went to church with my next-door neighbor. Someone there asked me if I had been saved. I thought about it and I had the feeling that I probably had to save myself and what was really mine. But how? 

The irony is that if you let everything in, you become everything. Which is to say, you become nothing definable. 

Now every year in December, in the tradition of their great-grandfather, my children light eight candles. Chocolate coins serve as a reminder of those silver dollars so many years ago. We sing and play dreidel. They know that inscribed on the sides of the American dreidels are letters that stand for "A Great Miracle Happened There," referring to the long-lasting oil burning for eight days in the temple in Jerusalem. We all bet walnuts, raisins, and M&Ms on which way the dreidel will fall. Usually I make out pretty well. 

Someone in our extended family always makes latkes. Various family members have shared old-fashioned cures to stop the stream of tears that inevitably results from grating a million onions. A wet washrag on your head… a spoon in your mouth… a book of matches between your lips… or all three at once! My children have indelible memories of their uncle with a big wet cloth hanging on his head as he both cries and laughs over the grater. 

The path from a child’s heart to an adult’s beliefs and ideals is a long one, often fraught with pitfalls. More often than not, simple history does not survive the trip. My grandfather’s traditions were something he gave me forever. He was mine. The traditions are mine. And now they are my children’s as well. Maybe the oil that keeps a light burning for a long time is not always in a lamp. Sometimes it passes from one heart to another, and burns forever. 

Jolie Kanat teaches 20 music classes a week at five different Jewish schools and is a professional freelance writer. She lives in California. You can contact her at

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