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We all know that Chanukah is NOT the Jewish Christmas, it’s NOT about stimulating the economy, and it’s NOT even about gorging on fried food. It’s all about religious freedom and how this freedom ironically empowers us to also abandon our religion and culture if we so choose.
But it’s also a heckuva lot of fun, and eight days give us eight times more opportunities for learning, laughter and light!
Associated Press writer Lisa Shapiro Flam recently explored how more Jewish families are breaking up Chanukah into theme nights (Game Night, Tzedakah Night, Environmentalism Night) after lighting the candles. I think this is a phenomenal way to create and foster new family memories — while diluting our “gimme, gimme” culture of consumerism.
I’m not against presents, mind you. I fondly recall receiving “Anabelle,” a red-yarn-haired doll that doubled as a pajama bag — given to me by my Uncle Harry and Aunt Myrna. I also still cherish a decorative tile of a slender young girl that my mother said reminded her of me. But wonderful shared experiences will last longer than any gifts.
So, in the spirit of Chanukah, I asked friends and family to share their favorite holiday traditions. The best of the best are included below, along with a few Google-mined gems and some bonus original thoughts!
CHANUKAH IDEA #1 — FUNKY FOOD: Isn’t this asparagus menorah platter simply gorgeous? It’s from crafts guru Jennifer Traig’s hilarious book of Jewish projects, Judaikitsch. This concept is easily replicable with other pictures and vegetables. Carrot stick dreidels are just delish…. How about Stars of David from pickle spears!
In Israel, jelly donuts have been mixed with peanut butter, halavah and even vodka. Russian olim don’t fool around with Manischewitz wine pastries. And in Chelmsford, Mass., teacher Margi Loyer delights crowds with her Rainbow Latkes. Forget about chintzy food coloring. Margi uses the full color spectrum of vegetables to get her latkes to be luminous. Her recipe is here.
Wrapping up, Laurie Tischler Mindlin from the Merrimack Valley Jewish Federation proposes a “Maalox & TUMS Night” for those of us who have problems limiting ourselves to just one platter of latkes per sitting.
CHANUKAH IDEA #2 — POP CULTURE FEST: I confess that I wish the Charlie Brown specials had a Lubavitcher Rabbi to balance out the Born Again Christian messages of Linus. But for now, the best cartoon we have is the Rugrats. Those kids seem a little bratty to me, but my sister-in-law, Kelly Garnick, swears by the pro-Jewish content in the Rugrats Chanukah special.
Personally, I believe the earthy messages of “It’s a Wonderful Life” transcend all religions. If it snows this week, try running downtown in an exasperated, drunken manner and yell out holiday greetings to buildings and town landmarks. “HAPPY CHANUKAH, CREDIT UNION! HAPPY CHANUKAH, YA OLD HARDWARE STORE!”
Yes, the celebrity-laden Adam Sandler Chanukah song is priceless, but for a more subdued dinner soundtrack go with “Hanukkah Blessings” by the Barenaked Ladies. Or really stir things up in the living room by participating in the latest Chanukah dance craze. The AMAZING thing about this YouTube “Flash Mob” dance is that it is sponsored by an Israeli Aliyah advocacy group. Their marketing has come a long way from Jaffa oranges and cute chicks in Kibbutz hats…
CHANUKAH IDEA #3 — GINGERBREAD TEMPLE MOUNT
My friend Deborah Solomon tells me she just bought one of those gingerbread house kits for the first time and that she plans to decorate it with Jewish icons. How about some gingerbread Maccabees and some gingerbread Assyrians battling it out on a gingerbread Temple Mount adorned with gingerbread statues of Greek gods?
The scene might be a little more complicated than the Manger, but there will still be a role for gumdrops and NECCO wafers.
CHANUKAH IDEA # 4 — JACKSON POLLOCK-ESQUE DREIDEL ART
Rhode Island’s Alisa Kotler-Berkowitz knows how to keep preschoolers busy. She unrolls a huge strip of paper and has the kids spin their paint-dripped dreidels on the canvas until there’s a print worthy of hanging at the Smithsonian.
Make sure you spread lots of newspaper on the floor for this one. The kinetic energy of dreidels creates lots of splatter action.
Also, Alisa advises that you either give the kids candy cigarettes or skip the tobacco products altogether. In this regard, Jackson Pollock was not the ideal role model.
CHANUKAH IDEA #5 — INVITE THE NEIGHBORS: It’s almost selfish to keep those delicious latkes to ourselves. Pick a night to have “Show & Tell” with your neighbors or your children’s non-Jewish friends. New Hampshire’s Stacy Milbouer has discovered that her son Sam’s Christmas-celebrating friends love the opportunity to experience a hardcore cross-holiday immersion.
“These kids look forward to Chanukah at our house so much, that if I try to skip a year, their parents call and tell me their kids are heartbroken,” Stacy says. “So on each of our eight crazy nights, with the exception of the last which is reserved for family only, we have a new friend over. They always watch Sam light the candles and I give them copies of the prayers in English and phonetic Hebrew so they can follow along. I also give them the words to ‘Chanukah, Oh Chanukah!‘ and we all clap and sing along after the candles are lit.”
“And we have enough yarmulkes for everybody,” she adds. “Then each kid gets his or her own dreidel, or in years past we’ve made them, and gelt and we play. Sometimes we give them all a little gift, but it’s always something we can play together that night. We eat jelly donuts and that’s it for the friends. They love, love, love the holiday and now it’s become a tradition for them!”
CHANUKAH IDEA #6 — CHAINS OF CONTINUITY: New Hampshire’s Eileen Shapiro Hirsch has a family tradition that the delightful creature above would find totally en-DEER-ing. To be honest, this Magen David Deer has absolutely nothing to do with this post, but I love this picture and wanted to fit it in somehow.
Back to Eileen…. For the past seven or eight years, the Hirsch, Eisenhandlers and Weintraub families have gotten together one evening and their kids have linked together a large paper chains made from blue and white construction paper. Every year, it has grown larger and larger and is now too big to fit in an oversize garbage bag. And, of course, it would take longer and longer for the kids to hang it in the house of the host family. The New Hampshire trio took a break last year, but plan to bring out the chain again for 2009.
Go for it, Eileen! I would love to see this paper chain continue to expand for generations till it spills out the windows and wraps around the block. You could call it the Chain of Jewish Continuity and note how each link is symbolically fragile and must be maintained for strength. And how the Jewish community is only as strong as its weakest link.
And if you get tired of manufactured symbolism, then you could also shoot for a noble secular goal. HELLO, Guinness Book of World Records!
CHANUKAH IDEA #7 — MENORAHS GONE WILD: The variety and imaginative scope of today’s Menorah market continues to astound me. The portable matchbox menorah above, which eliminates ALL excuses for not lighting the Chanukah candles, is brilliant.
But if you are really daring, you’ll try my Olfactory Overdose Menorah, which is comprised of 9 large Yankee Candles — scents are your choice, of course. Just like the Jelly Belly jelly bean flavor mixes, every untried combo has potential risks and benefits.
CHANUKAH IDEA #8 — TZEDAKAH NIGHT: Your mailbox is likely stuffed with solicitations from charities, so you likely don’t need any suggestions from me about where to send your money. A great educational exercise would be to set aside the same amount of money for each child and have them pick one of five or six pre-selected causes. Or if their Tikkun Olam issue isn’t on the list, you can always research charities on the Internet together.
Some worthy tzedakah causes to get you started:
— MAZON, the ongoing Jewish battle against hunger.
— Heifer International gives kids a fun way to send cows, goats and chickens to impoverished villages around the world.
— Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a way to say thanks to Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.
— MooreMart is a civilian-based effort to send care packages, school supplies and sports equipment to American soldiers bonding with children in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.
— Friends of the IDF gives Israeli soldiers a pizza, soft drinks, coffee, Bamba, and just a sense that strangers care about them and their mission.
— 88 Bikes spreads happiness one kid at a time, one bike at a time, to orphanages around the world.
Also, have your children make their own colorful Tzedakah boxes and make this a lesson that lasts all year round.
CHANUKAH BONUS SHAMASH IDEA # 9 — NAKED TIME!
Ah, Yes, we finally get to the subject of the blog headline tease… And given that this is a family-friendly operation, you will not be reading about what Judah Maccabee did when he Let the Lights Go Out.
Our “Naked Time” story comes courtesy of Colorado’s most vivacious Jewish folksinger, Rachel Cole (you MUST hear her version of Lo Yisa Goy):
“When my kids were really little, they loved to run around naked (as most little kids like to do). Well, we used to have ‘naked time’ in the house right before bath time, where the kids would run and dance around free from the encumberment of those pesky clothes we made them wear.
“So one time, I’m pretty sure the kids were around three and four, we were visiting my parents over the holidays and the whole family was there (aunts, cousins, etc.) and it was time to light the Chanukah candles. And we told the kids specifically that after we lit the candles, it was bath time and then straight to bed. So we lit the candles, said the prayers, and afterwards my aunt asked the kids, “Now, what is it time for?”
She expected to hear a joyful yell of “PRESENTS!” Instead, what the family got to hear was my three-year-old son jubilantly exclaim, “NAKED TIME!!!!” and proceed to start yanking off his shirt. We stopped him, quickly, and he was placated with a present or two, and thankfully that night’s naked time was confined to the upstairs bathroom….but that’s definitely my all-time favorite Chanukah story!”
Rachel has a knack for appreciating the spontaneous joy in life and our youngest kids tend to express it best — regardless of what they are wearing. If your kids are still in the phase of loving a cardboard box and wrapping paper as much as the gift inside, hold on to that moment. It won’t last forever.
CHAG SAMAYACH, EVERYBODY! Anybody try any of these before? What are some of YOUR ideas to jazz up the Festival of Lights?