A Note From Noah

“Dad, even Penn Station is ready for Christmas!”

On our way down to D.C. for Thanksgiving last week, our son Jonah couldn’t help noticing that the three large American flags in the main hall in Penn Station were replaced with enormous wreaths. We don’t light menorahs until Tuesday night December 12th, but New York City is already deep into the holiday season – Christmas is everywhere. And with Jonah’s comment, I realized now is the time for a Chanukah note, not next week.

In my Chanukah note last year I explored the Jewish values in the holiday that we work towards in the school. This year, I would like to touch on how families can create strong Chanukah experiences at home.  I will offer a few ideas of my own here, but for wiser voices then mine, please also read:

Ilana Ruskay-Kidd (a must-read, passed down annually in our nursery school)

Tovah Klein (looks at the holiday season, not Chanukkah specifically; if you don’t already, sign up to receive her e-mail newsletter!)

Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston (making each night into a gift of its own)

Making Chanukkah memorable:

Get ahead of it – take out your menorah and dreidels now. Start reading Chanukah books. Leave out a box of candles. Put on Chanukah music (Spotify and Pandora both have good titles up now). Give your child a home environment that begins to (just slightly) balance out the onslaught of Christmas they are getting throughout NYC.

With the menorah, dreidels, and candles, don’t feel compelled to “teach” about them just yet. Just leave them out, and let your child touch, play, and explore with them. At our house, we’ve started adding dreidels to the dinner table so fidgety-three-year-old-hands can play with them while eating. From an educational perspective, we can’t teach children about something they haven’t already been in contact with. Give them this early exposure, without worrying about teaching them the rules for dreidel or how many candles we light. They’ll figure that all out in due time. For now, you are just letting them get comfortable with these odd new artifacts in their life.

Come light at the JCC! Join us every night at 5:00pm (4:00pm Friday) for a community menorah lighting in the lobby. Check here for lighting events, and other Chanukkah programming, at JCC Manhattan.

Take pictures and collect them over the years. As your family grows, capture warm moments around the menorah. Print them and keep them in an envelope, to take out at this time each year. Your child will be able to watch their own growth over time and attach it to the holiday. You will also be able to capture different apartments you live in, or that you visit for the holiday, as well as different guests you have over for candle lighting. To start, if you have pictures of your child with a menorah from last year, print it out and leave around the living room.  

Extract values from the story. The chanukkah story (this is Room 6’s version) has themes of bravery, resistance, and self-identity. The lessons in the story for our young children are to stand up for yourself, be proud of who you are even if someone doesn’t like you, believe in yourself even if someone else is bigger or stronger, and always have hope that things will get better. Here at JCC Manhattan we use religion as a vehicle for arriving at values. Don’t let Chanukkah just be a stand-in for Christmas or a good excuse to give presents. There are valuable lessons in the story that we can discuss with our children.

Educate yourself! If you are unfamiliar with the Chanukkah story and its background, beyond what you gleam from your child’s books, it may be tricky to confidently celebrate it with your child. The story is written in books called the First and Second Maccabees, which from a Jewish-historical rendering come after, and thus outside of, the Torah and the Tanakh (which leads us to such wonderful vocab words as deuterocanonical and apocryphal!). A few sources to peruse for good Chanukkah background: Chabad, Union of Reform Judaism, and of course, Wikipedia.

Navigating the Christmas|Chanukkah conversation (this came up a lot in our Coffee Chat this morning):

Be clear with your children about what your family practice in the holiday season is. If your family is celebrating Chanukah and Christmas, tell them that. If your family is only celebrating Chanukah, tell them that. You don’t need to be shy about announcing your family plan, and making clear that (if true for your family) you won’t be celebrating Christmas. Regardless

If you have adults in your child’s life – caregiver, doorman, relatives – who may be prone to wishing your child a Merry Christmas or getting them Christmas gifts and you would prefer them not to, tell them that. Explain that your family is Jewish, you are not celebrating Christmas, and if they would like to give a gift please to not have it be Christmas-themed.

From Rabbi Abby Treu, JCC Manhattan’s director of Center for Jewish Living and Center for Israel, who joined us this morning in the Coffee Chat: If your children want to get in the Christmas spirit and you are OK with it, but don’t want a tree in your house, have them make decorations for the Christmas tree in your, or a friend’s, lobby. This is a nice way to allow your child to get in the spirit with the rest of NYC but avoid having a tree in your hose if you don’t want one.

Shabbat shalom,