“Look! It says Happy Hanukkah! And it’s as big as Merry Christmas!”

By Blogger Karen Bender

I always like driving into Brentwood (a district of western Los Angeles, Ca.), after we come off the plane from Wilmington in December. I feel a sense of relief when we pass my parents’ neighborhood market, Vicente Foods. The car passes the big glass windows of the supermarket, where two greetings are written in giant letters.

And this week, Jonah and Maia yelled, “Look! It says Happy Hanukkah! And it’s as big as Merry Christmas!”

I do like Wilmington, but at those moments I feel like I’ve arrived in LA from Communist Europe, stepping foot into a new world where most people know what a dreidel is, where there aren’t any conflicts about how long the menorah should remain in the park, where Maia might not be the only girl in her class who has to pretend Santa is a real person, where you go into a store and there are books about several winter holidays, etc.

Not to sound bitter, but in Wilmington, the Christmas tree gets to stay a month by the Cape Fear River, while the menorah is only allowed up for a few days.

Not that my parents’ home in Los Angeles is a site of uncomplicated Hanukkah knowledge or celebration. My parents, who were Jews who wanted to assimilate during the 1950 and 1960s, scheduled our main Hanukkah night on Dec. 24.

Why not? The stores were closed, everyone else was busy with the same intent present-giving. We had our frozen latkes,we lit the menorah, but we didn’t really know much about the story.

My mother once suggested we get a Hanukkah Bush, but my sisters and I, sent to our Reform Jewish Sunday school, were appalled–if we were Jews, we were Jews, and we weren’t going to be fake Christians.

What would be next?

But now, in their sometimes embattled status as the only Jews in their class (or, at one point, for our son, in an entire elementary school of 600), our kids know Hanukkah cold.

They know the name of the mean king who told the Jews they had to worship these other gods. They know the meaning of the Hebrew letters on the dreidel, and they actually know how to play the game. They were thrilled when they saw on the Disney channel a movie about a Jewish basketball team that (surprise) won the game when the scoreboard light was about to go out, and they were excited when they saw that “Phineas and Ferb” had an episode involving latkes.

They are like little Hanukkah scholars, looking on You Tube for various Hanukkah songs.  Their favorite is Smooth-E’s rap about chocolate coins, which is hilarious:

They lecture their grandparents about Antiochus and Mattatias, and they nearly got into a rumble to be the one who started the sweet but vaguely arson-like activity of lighting the candles on the menorah. They were interested in making homemade latkes, which we have tried, to varying degrees of structure and success, and which we’ll try again.

And when we were in Williams-Sonoma looking for presents for family, they said, “We want to get you and Dad something,” so they picked out a couple of fancy food items and told me not to look, while I paid for the gifts they wanted to give us.

Hanukkah can be a complicated time of year–it’s a time when as a Jew, you can feel like the .2% of the population that we actually are. It’s a time when you both want to sing the lovely Christmas carols but feel guilty singing them.

And it’s a time when you really want to be the one who gets to light the menorah–standing around with the people dearest to me, seeing the pale flames reach up, fragile, determined, into the dark.


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