Many of us are simply not in a festive mood this season. How are we supposed to celebrate Chanukah when the Jewish state is at war? How can we gleefully munch on latkes and sufganiyot when over 100 hostages are still held by Hamas in the tunnels of Gaza? And how can we light menorah candles and sing songs when the lives of so many of our fellow Jews have been darkened by the loss or absence of family members and friends?
For what little it’s worth, I consider myself, with some due, to be the grandfather of the modern Festival of Lights party. Immodest as that might sound, back in the nineties, I appear to have literally invented a party theme that so many people have since copied – including, sadly, some here in Washington – despite it actually being a registered trademark: Latkes and Vodkas. Yes, the original L&V is now 29 years old, and it’s never before been canceled. Not even during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we partied virtually (as the great Jewish cookbook author Joan Nathan fried latkes for us live from her home kitchen, celebrity Jewish dessert chef Paula Shayer baked sufganiot from hers, and we all provided our own vodka from ours). The party has evolved with the times; in 2015, well before the election of Donald Trump and before we thought the threat he posed was real, we handed out not red but blue ballcaps and buttons that said “Make Hanukkah Great Again.” It’s always been a hell of a shindig, whether we’ve held it in the offices of my PR firm or in some other venue.
But I just can’t do it this year; it doesn’t feel right. The grief that we feel over Oct. 7, the hostages and the ongoing war manages to creep into everything for me and I know so many others. Of course, Jews do manage to mark our holidays even under the worst circumstances. There are many stories from Holocaust survivors about how they found some joy, however improbable that seems, on Passover and Purim and the Jewish High Holidays in the ghettos and the camps. But I guess I am made of weaker stuff than they. Or maybe that while I can still observe Chanukah, I truly can’t bring myself to be the celebrity MC of a party.
Yes, I’ll still be going to many others’ celebrations even if not hosting my own. I’ll be heading to the White House for POTUS’ latkes and to the Vice President’s residence for hers. I’ll go to the Israeli embassy and to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s always awesome bash at the Library of Congress. I even went again to Chabad’s lighting of its giant hanukkiah on the Ellipse. And my kids don’t have to worry: my wife and I will also give them their usual holiday gifts. I’m grateful for all the event invites, and for smaller gatherings with family and friends. But I can’t summon the good cheer and bonhomie to organize a party myself this time. I simply don’t have it in me this year due to all that’s going on. So, the original Latkes and Vodkas is on hold this year – the potato pancakes and the booze will return next year, hopefully when this war is over, the hostages are home, and security is restored to Israel.
I still find meaning in the holiday, of course. While I’m not excited to embrace the victory of the extremist Maccabees right now, the paradox is not lost on me, that just as Israel appears to be losing the support of increasing numbers of young Jews, their favorite and most celebrated holiday continues to be Chanukah.
The Chanukah story reminds me that the Jewish people have long triumphed in the face of bad odds – the festival is a testament to our stubbornness as Jews; we just don’t give up. And we won’t give up in our fight against antisemitism, either. Chanukah is an opportunity for us to recommit ourselves to helping our friends and family in Israel.
In lieu of spending money on a party this year, I’ll instead be making a contribution to Leket Israel, the National Food Bank and leading food rescue organization in Israel. (You can do the same: leket.org/en/online-donation). Or there are other great organizations to contribute to, ones that are making a difference now for Israelis, like Magen David Adam or ZAKA. Let’s all do our part, and hope that peace and good days lie ahead.
The writer is president of Bluelight Strategies, a Washington, DC-based public affairs firm, and a veteran of the paid national staffs of nine U.S. presidential campaigns and the Bill Clinton White House.