Four Quarters Magazine contributors — and members of the tribe — share stories of Hanukkahs past and present

By Stephen Feller

This week, I’ll do with my children what I grew up doing every December: Going to my Bubbe and Zade’s house for Chanukah. Granted, they no longer live at the house in North Miami Beach they could be found at for 45 years, and now it’s only Bubbe that we’ll be going to see, but the gathering is pretty close to the same.

There was, of course, the meal that felt hours-long, and Zade standing at the end of the table, at a built-in hutch in the dining room, lighting the shamash for the kids to spark that first candle. What we were waiting for, really, was the big bags to come out — the ones full of carefully wrapped everything.

Lots of older Jews, and their Rabbis, remind us that Chanukah is actually a minor holiday, but with American culture, it has been built to match Christmas as part the American traditions of consumerism and year-end gift-giving. This American Jewish tradition works for the same reason as any other holiday built into the American psyche — it brings people together.

For all the memories I have of Bubbe and Zade’s house, the candles and the paper and the crazed excitement and the years of memories, they work well with a story about survival and luck, especially in America circa 2011. And I’m glad not only do my children get to collect memories with their own Bubbe, but they get them with mine too. Which is a pretty big deal for such a minor holiday.

By Wendy Goldsmith-Pruitt

It is rare when Hanukkah actually lines up with Christmas break, so celebrating Hanukkah away from my parents has always been tough. Since they live in New York, and I live outside of Atlanta, it’s not like I can just go over to their house for pot roast and potato latkes on the first night. It was in college that my mom started a new tradition to bridge the miles: Hanukkah Gelt.

“Gelt” literally translates to “money” in Yiddish and is traditionally given in chocolate form to kids during Hanukkah (which is why you see those chocolate foil-wrapped gold coins this time of year). My mom took it a step further and mailed me (yes, like with a stamp and everything!) lottery tickets. Every day an envelope labeled for each night of Hanukkah arrived containing a handwritten note on stationary (usually rhyming couplets beginning “On the __ night of Hanukkah, my Mommy gave to me …”) with a New York lottery scratch-off ticket.

Keep in mind she doesn’t just go to a gas station around the corner and buy eight lottery tickets; these are various games purchased at different locations all over the city. My sister gets the same treatment, and now that I’m married she even includes an extra ticket for my husband in each envelope. It might be tough to celebrate Hanukkah over a thousand miles away, but my clever Mommy made it happen.

By Diana Moskovitz

What I remember most about Chanukah as a child isn’t the traditions. The candle lighting was nice. Playing dreidel could occupy me for a few minutes. With two working-class parents, presents stretched out over eight nights always had a watered-down feeling, the Coors Light of gift giving.

What sticks out is Santa Claus. He was everywhere.

The man in the red suit always ended the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He sat on a multicolored throne in the middle of the mall. He appeared on every sitcom, reassuring the audience with a wink and a smile that he existed (except my parents said he didn’t).

So where was the Jewish stuff? Where was our parade float? Why didn’t anybody on TV celebrate Chanukah? And how come all we get at the mall was a lame dreidel, shoved in the corner near a dollar sore?

I asked my parents why. Every year.

My poor parents, trying to explain the concept of a religious minority to a kid. My young brain couldn’t grasp worldwide population numbers. It didn’t help that we lived in a place with a significant Jewish community. In my tiny universe, Jews seemed plentiful. Chankuah, for me, was an education in being the little guy.

Over time, I got it. My mom and dad were saved the pain of having to explain how the numbers of Jews worldwide compared to Christians. The concept of buying power had seeped in.

This year, like most, I’ll light the candles and say the prayers. Gifts will be exchanged. There might be latkes. The one thing I must do is watch the Rugrats Chanukah special. It premiered in 1996, when I was 15. But I was giddy like the kid who just got the best gift in town when it flashed on the screen. For the first time, my eyes saw an American TV show devote an entire episode to my holiday.

There’s something about seeing people just like you on TV. The shock. The excitement. The sudden urge to scream, “Look! It’s people like us! We made it!”

For me, that remains the best Chanukah gift ever.

By Michael H. Samuels

For me, the holidays — be it Hanukkah and Christmas or Rosh Hashonah, Passover and Yom Kippur — are all about traditions. In fact, my faith is mostly steeped in tradition. It only makes sense that, now that I have a family of my own, my wife and I are creating our own traditions to share with our daughter.

In the past few years, we started to create outlines of traditions — brisket and potato latkes for Hanukkah, staying up to watch midnight mass for Christmas, watching the Charlie Brown Christmas and Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, not to mention the many West Wing Thanksgiving and Christmas episodes (Ed. — Word). As you can probably tell, we mixed and matched a little bit of each of our individual traditions to create ones together.

This year, however, is different. That’s because this is the first holiday season for our daughter, the Baby Bear. The Bear is 11 months old, so we’ve had all year to figure out just how we want to celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas this year. That said, the holidays, as usual, snuck up on us. As a result, for the Bear’s first Hanukkah, we’ll be leaning on the memories of my youth.

As a child, my two sisters and I would spend the first night of Hanukkah with our parents and grandparents. We always seemed to be able to get a full eight days worth of presents, which would vary in size and price by day. But the first night — always the first night — was the
night we got our big gift, i.e., a bike, a Nintendo, a TV, a Milennium Falcon or He-Man Castle Grayskull. The last night we got calendars. We always got calendars.

This year, for the Bear, will be no different, thanks in large part to my parents. They got Katie a gift so big this year we didn’t even try to wrap it. I don’t even know how we found room in our one-bedroom New York City apartment for it, but it’s tucked away in a corner somewhere, waiting to be unveiled after the Bear and I light the candles Tuesday night.

I would reveal what it is here, but, well, what if the Bear reads this beforehand? That would ruin the surprise after all, wouldn’t it?