Chanukah, Hanukkah, Khanukah, however you spell it, used to be so much more fun. I would spend weeks thinking of presents to make for my family (this was when I was a child and my only option was homemade). When I had young children, I would spend time purchasing eight perfect presents and thinking of creative ways to re-create the fun memories of my youth. Now, it has lost its gleam. I’ve lost my energy. And, I’m wondering, would we be better off without it?
Which is worse? Having a holiday that has become popular because of the commercialization that has been forced upon it due to its proximity to Christmas or maintaining the essence of the holiday and have it be as popular as it is in Israel (which is about as popular as Purim is to American non-Orthodox)? It’s all feeling like a very Hallmark holiday this year.
Wow, can “bah-humbug” be said in reference to Chanukah? I am truly feeling Scrooge-like. I need to snap out of it.
This year, as everyone knows, is the big Thanksgiving-Chanukah mash up. I’ve received Twitter messages with links to recipes for latketinis. (Although, isn’t vodka made with potatoes? So, aren’t all martinis “latketinis”?) The T-shirts with the “Thanksgivukkah” logo are all the rage. A 9-year-old created a Menurky (menorah-turkey) that at $60 is selling quite nicely. And, I’d like to suggest the University of Chicago update the classic and this year host “The Great Latke versus Mashed Potato Debate.”
I’ve tried to think of ideas to make the holiday less child and gift centric. Maybe finally hosting that wine and cheese party with all my girl friends and celebrating the power of women through the story of Judith (she, for those who don’t know, was credited for luring General Holofernes into her tent, feeding him cheese and wine until he passed out and then cutting off his head, giving advantage to the Maccabees). I’ve talked about this idea for years but never moved on it.
I’m going to try my hand at making homemade sufganiyot again. I can make latkes with my eyes shut (although I won’t — that could be dangerous). I did try sufganiyot a few years ago. I was creating family programs for Sixth & I and one of the staff members, Eyal, could not believe with all I cook, I could not make sufganiyot. He’s Israeli and tried to give me the recipe. Unfortunately, his measurements were not what you’d call exact — “cup” meant a drinking cup he uses. But I did find a recipe and it was a disaster. Truly inedible. I just figured I’d stick to my Ashkenazi roots and make latkes like Grandma Hilda did.
But then I had coffee with Paula Shoyer. We were talking about her gorgeous new cookbook The Holiday Kosher Baker and she said “if you can make challah, you can make donuts.” (And I can make challah!) The trick, she said, is the candy thermometer. You must use one. (I had previously ignored the directions for reaching and maintaining a specific oil temperature.) She said too low and the dough will be a soggy mess. Too hot, and they burn. In fact, she said, you must watch the donuts very carefully. They go from perfect to ruined in seconds. “But what happens if the oil gets too hot?” I asked. “You move it off the burner until it cools,” was the answer that immediately seemed obvious.
So I bought a candy thermometer, and I’m going to try again. And, I don’t even need to figure out how to fill them. Shoyer said to set out bowls of chocolate and Nutella for dipping. (That alone was reason enough for me! I’m envisioning a sufganiyot buffet — with hot donuts ready to dip into a variety of gooey sauces and candy toppings.)
Then I received a direct mail piece. I tend to ignore these, but opened it up as I walked from my mail slot to my office. What I read made me stop. The Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse (JCADA) had mailed a gorgeous purple Chanukah candle, hand dipped in Sfat. JCADA is asking the community, on the eighth night of Chanukah, to use the purple candle as the shamas, “to symbolically light the way for victims of abuse to find support.”
Elissa Schwartz, executive director, explained to me that rather than spending staff time and resources hosting an actual gala event, they initiated the “Light the Way” campaign. Now in its third year, this virtual event connects the community in a powerful way. After lighting your menorah, JCADA asks that we share photos on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #lighttheway13. And now, rather than paying for a ticket that partially funds JCADA and partially pays for food and drink and decoration, all donations received from the “Light the Way” campaign help provide resources and counseling for victims and raise awareness and produce educational programs to prevent future violence. “There are people who aren’t in safe homes,” Schwartz told me. “We may not know who the victims are, but now, they will know we are thinking of them.”
This is what Chanukah is supposed to be about. It’s about bringing light in times of darkness. Sharing hope with those who struggle. Fighting for and clinging to what we believe in. It’s about oil — but oil as a fuel, a fuel that drives us to make a difference.
It’s beginning to feel like Chanukah now after all.
Email [email protected] to request your shamash for December 4.