Chanukah is a festival that elicits a multitude of lasting memories. My recollections have shifted each decade from one focal point to another. As I matured from a child to a young adult, I became more sophisticated in my outlook. When I became a parent, and later as an empty nester, my priorities changed once again.
As a small child, my scope of understanding was limited. I was unable to grasp the historical or cultural significance of the holiday. My attention was focused on the obvious-the gifts that I would receive. I have hazy memories of red and white wrapping paper that came from a toy store called the Surprise Shop. Any child living in Highland Park, Illinois during the 1960s couldn’t forget this toy mecca. Almost all of my toys came from this child friendly store on Central Avenue. At some point in time, my gifts gravitated away from toys and most likely included more age appropriate items. Nevertheless, the gifts I fondly remember are the toys and dolls that were wrapped in the famous red and white paper.
The true significance of Chanukah did not become a focal point until I was in college. A youthful marriage and a desire to learn more about my heritage prompted me to transfer to Spertus College of Judaica in Chicago. As a young adult, I was able to delve into a deeper understanding of my Judaism. This more than made up for the deficits caused by a childhood without any formal religious education other than a year of Jewish preschool. Instead of anticipating the gift giving aspect of the holiday, I learned to appreciate the messages found within the Chanukah story. I read many books and shared my knowledge as a Hebrew school teacher at local synagogues.
A few years later, I was blessed with the birth of our first son. From that point, until our fourth son had passed through the magical toy years, my preoccupation with gifts reappeared. This time around, I was on the other side of the fence. Instead of casually mentioning a “wish list,” I was listening for any subtle or not so subtle hints from my sons.
Unlike my upbringing that was devoid of any cultural or religious significance, I chose to infuse our household with a variety of Jewish symbols, some edible and others more lasting. I wanted to create memories that did not focus entirely on the gift giving aspect of the festival.
On our large picture windows, I taped handmade stars and dreidels and store bought decorations. Mobiles hung from a couple of our light fixtures. The decorations were modest compared to our Christian neighbors’ lighted trees and front yards, but provided a subtle reminder of our Jewish heritage.
Handcrafted hanukiot made at our sons’ Jewish preschools or Hebrew school classes sat on our table alongside plates piled high with homemade potato latkes (pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts). The pervasive odor of fried food permeated our house. See Sweet Treats for Chanukah: Apple Latkes and Sufganiyot for the recipes I recently shared with Mom It Forward.
By the time our family had expanded to 4 sons, our Chanukah lighting tradition included at least an equal number of hanukiot. Each burned brightly with a colorful assortment of candles.
Before our sons could read, they were singing Chanukah songs in Hebrew and differentiating the Hebrew letters on a dreidel while an electric hanukiah glowed brightly in our front window. I would be remiss if I did not include the Elite chocolate coins that were wrapped in foil or the shape cookies that I baked each year. This simple cookie recipe was always consumed immediately. As I rolled the dough, small fingers sneaked pieces of raw dough from the bowl. We’re lucky no one ever suffered from salmonella.
The cookie recipe comes from a cookbook that I was given by my mother-in-law, Shirley Bornstein. Tradition in the Kitchen was published in 1976 by the North Suburban Synagogue Beth El Sisterhood (Highland Park, Illinois).
Over the years, I have added an additional amount of orange juice to the batter and compensated with a bit more flour. Try the recipe and decide for yourself if any alterations are needed.
1 cup sugar
½ cup Crisco (I use butter or margarine)
3 cups flour
2 tsp baking power
½ tsp salt
1 tbs orange juice
1 tsp vanilla
Cream sugar and shortening (butter or magarine). Add eggs one at a time. Cream mixture well. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Add dry ingredients to creamed fixture. Add orange juice and vanilla. Mix well (I usually refrigerate the dough for a few hours or overnight so that the dough is easier to roll) Divide dough in fourths. Roll out on lightly floured board ¼ inch thick. Sprinkle colored sugar or sprinkles on rolled dough. Cut out shapes with cookie cutters. Bake on ungreased cookie sheets at 375 degrees for 10 minutes. (I like a softer cookie so I bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes) Remove from pan immediately.
When our eldest son, Josh, turned 13 his bar mitzvah was celebrated during Chanukah at Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Illinois. The linking of this festive time with his bar mitzvah made the occasion even more special. Shortly thereafter, our family traipsed off to Israel for his second Bar Mitzvah and my adult bat mitzvah at Masada. In retrospect, I do not know how we did it. We spent 2 weeks in Israel with our four kids. Jordan was only 2 1/2 years old. Aaron was close to 7 and Adam was 11.
One by one, our sons went off to college. Sometimes Chanukah would occur before their winter break so our numbers would be smaller. Other times, we were fortunate to have all in tow. All of our family traditions continued regardless of the numbers. Sometimes we shared our festivities with guests who came to our home. I always had the pleasure to celebrate with others.
When my husband, Ira, accepted his Indian position, he made it clear that our family life was important. The company agreed to Ira’s wish to celebrate Jewish holidays with his family. I never anticipated that any Jewish holidays would be spent apart.
Promises made by businesses are oftentimes not fulfilled. We learned quickly that Ira’s supervisors did not respect our traditions. For so many years, I had taken for granted the ability to be surrounded by family and friends. I never experienced a holiday totally alone. In 2010, Purim, the High Holidays, Sukkot, and Chanukah were the exception. Ira needed to arrange for his own airplane ticket so that he could be in India for Josh and Rachael’s wedding and for the beginning of Chanukah. Part of the holiday I shared with Ira while the last half of the holiday was either spent alone, with the Chabad rabbi and his family, or with two of my Hindu boarding students. If you haven’t had the opportunity to read my memoir, May This Be the Best Year of Your Life, read about Chanukah 2010 at https://sandrabornstein.com/lending-a-helping-hand-with-kindness.
The events surrounding Chanukah 2010 reaffirmed the importance of family and Jewish traditions. This year, only our youngest son is in town. Even though we are now empty nesters, we continue to follow our favorite traditions. After lighting the candles, we sing a medley of Chanukah songs. A few days ago, I rolled our favorite dough and used cookie cutters to make stars, dreidels and hanukiot. Larger hands swiftly grasped small pieces of dough. Tonight our traditions continued. We ate both latkes and sufganiyot. The familiar tastes and smells replenished my soul.
After spending part of Chanukah 2010 alone, I am keenly aware how alienated one can feel when a holiday is spent in solitude. Jewish holidays are meant to be shared with others. If you know any Jews who live by themselves, please do not hesitate to extend an invitation.
I wish my fellow Jews around the world a joyous Chanukah. May your Chanukah candles burn brightly and boldly as you recall the bravery of the Maccabees and the story of the miraculous oil.
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