I was flattered to be asked to submit a piece to my paper this year outlining what it's like for a family with young kids to celebrate Chanukah. Being a part of a minority group has helped shape who I am and how I write, so I was glad to have a crack at this topic.
The resulting piece, The puzzle of passing down faith, (see below for full text) was published in The London Free Press on December 24th, 2005. Since today is the last day of Chanukah, and we lit all eight candles last night, I thought it might be nice to introduce it now for some post-holiday perspective. I hope you enjoy the read.
Your turn: Whatever your traditions are, how do you ensure your kids learn about them and carry them on? In this day of ubiquitous media and stressed family bonds, how do parents ensure continuity?
The puzzle of passing down faith
London Free Press
December 24, 2005
By Carmi Levy
My late grandfather loved to celebrate Jewish holidays, because he got to watch his beloved grandchildren sing their hearts out and be themselves. Although he immersed himself in our lives pretty much every time he visited, holidays always meant more.
I didn't begin to understand this immense power of tradition until I hit adulthood and had kids of my own.
Growing up Jewish isn't easy in a world that seems so ill at ease with religious recognition that even a simple Christmas greeting is fraught with controversy. Yet tradition is often all we have to hold onto when our increasingly secularized world makes it so easy to forget who we are and where we come from.
In my family, holidays have always been our cultural root system. They function as milestones in our efforts to reinforce to our kids that their heritage is important, that our history has brought with it certain obligations to not simply survive, but to live full lives and to give back to the community that has nurtured them.
But even Jewish holidays have a pecking order in the eyes of a child, and few holidays are as treasured as Hanukkah.
My mom wasn't much of a cook most of the time, but Hanukkah somehow transformed her. Dog-eared index cards with carefully written recipes suddenly appeared in her kitchen. Delicious smells filled the house and embedded themselves into our clothes. Even on the coldest winter nights, the warmth was almost tangible.
Hanukkah always ranked as my favourite. Meant to commemorate the miraculous victory of a small band of Jewish fighters against an overwhelmingly powerful force of Syrian Greeks, the story of the holiday fit nicely with my view of the world.
You always rooted for the underdog, because it was the morally right thing to do.
I grew up knowing that I was part of a small group that can never afford to take its existence for granted. Like the heroic Maccabee fighters we remember on Hanukkah, today's Jews must survive and thrive within a much larger, colder context.
Hanukkah was the one holiday when I didn't feel like a little kid in an adults-only world. I knew all the songs. I could eat the fried potato pancakes -- latkes -- until I was sick and no one would scold me. I could light my own candles and stare at them until they burned out. I could feel what it was like to have everything I wanted and be surrounded by the people who mattered most.
Now it falls to me and my wife to do the same for our kids. The same scenes, sounds and smells of ancient traditions now play out in our home much as they did in our parents' homes. We get to watch the wonder through their eyes as we quietly hope we've done enough to plant strong Jewish roots in them.
Admittedly, modern society has commercialized our holiday to a certain extent. We buy our kids Hanukkah gifts. Like parents of any religion, we struggle to keep the focus on the holiday and not the hype. But all that pales when they stand on tiptoes to help us light the candles.
Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Light, and nowhere does it hit home more as we help our kids carefully light their candles, then watch the warm glow reflect off of their curious faces.
There's poetry in the timing of Hanukkah this year. Starting a mere three days after the shortest day of the year, Hanukkah's light cuts through the gloom and gives us all something joyous to celebrate.
Some of my late grandfather's greatest joys were derived from watching us revel in the magic of Hanukkah, of being kids at a time that held so much promise and hope, not only for their future, but for their Jewish future. It's what my wife and I hope our kids hand down to their own children someday.
Carmi Levy is a London freelance writer.
His column appears every other Wednesday.