Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Christmas Eve Shabbos Dinner

We had the most lovely Friday night dinner recently. We don’t often have the opportunity to attend or host a traditional Shabbat dinner, but this past Friday, we did. My husband was off from work on December 24, so we decided to host a Shabbos dinner. We tried to invite Jewish friends, most of whom were either out of town or had other plans already. Ordinarily, we’d have invited some non-Jewish friends to round out our table, but we figured most of them would be busy that night.

As it turned out, a family we know who are not Jewish asked us Friday morning if we were still having a dinner that night, and we were still looking for guests. When we had trouble finding guests the more traditional way, I had resorted to pleas on my Facebook page for anyone who wanted to come who didn’t have any other plans. As it happened, despite their celebrating Christmas, our friends were very interested in coming to our house for dinner, so we happily welcomed them.

What resulted was a warm, friendly Shabbos table. We had a veritable feast. Given the whole day to cook, and the fact that both my husband and I can and do cook on a pretty equal basis, we were able to make quite a few dishes, from appetizer to dessert. We had homemade challah, cucumber-and-tomato salad, gefilte fish, Moroccan-style salmon, chicken, meatballs, broccoli kugel, roasted potatoes, and homemade brownies. We did candle-lighting before sundown, kiddush (blessing over the wine) and Motzi (blessing over the bread) before the meal, and the Grace After Meals at the end. The entire Shabbat dinner experience, and, all-in-all, quite a successful meal on all counts.

Our non-Jewish friends asked what the significance of the dinner was. Since it was a special night for most Christian or Christian-identifying people in the world, she wanted to know if December 24 specifically was special, or if we were just having a random dinner party, or what. I took tremendous pride in explaining that this was a reasonably traditional Shabbat dinner, something that Jews around the world do every Friday night. To us, what was special wasn’t that it was December 24, it was that it was Friday night. It occurred to me that some might look upon it with awe, that Jews have a special holiday dinner every week.

I felt especially Jewish last Friday, and not in a negative way. I felt like we were doing something so absolutely right, by having a nice Shabbat dinner on Christmas Eve, just like we might have on any given Friday night, whether it was December 24 or April 27 or August 5. On the other hand, the fact that we were having a nice Shabbat dinner on December 24, as opposed to all our neighbors and many of our friends who were celebrating Christmas Eve in whatever traditional way their families have, was a way of acknowledging in a particularly powerful way that we are different.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Very Happy Hannukah

Note: Sorry for the two-month absence. We've been busy 'round these parts, with purchasing and moving into a new house. I'm going to try to get back on track with this blog, as I know some of you have been asking for more and others have been checking back to see if there's anything new. (I appreciate the votes of confidence! Please recommend my blog to your friends!) And so, I jump back in with a seasonally appropriate post, with the intent to continue posting in a more regular fashion!

A few weeks ago, as I’m sure you are all aware, was Hannukah. My older son is four now, and I expect he is beginning to make memories that will stick with him for a good chunk of his life, unlike the previous three years which have undoubtedly already begun to fade. Therefore, I wanted to make sure Hannukah would really make an impression and a good memory. I also wanted Hannukah to be meaningful to my two-year-old, so that even if he doesn’t remember it 10 years from now, he might at least remember it for next year and learn to be excited for it.

To this end, some Jewish Americans go the route of making Hannukah a big snazzy holiday with lots of decorations, lots of big presents, huge family meals, and so on, a la that other winter holiday. The theory is that if Jewish kids have their own big exciting winter holiday, they won’t envy their Christian friends who have all the trappings of a proper Christmas celebration, including a decorated tree, lights all over the exterior of the house, reindeer in the front yard, a huge inflatable Frosty the Snowman, and mega-gifts like LCD TVs and Wiis and this year’s equivalent of Tickle-Me Elmo.

I don’t subscribe to this theory. My feeling is that Jews have enough holidays to celebrate, enough gift-giving times of year, enough major family dinners, enough special traditions, that to inject the commercialized and frankly gaudy “traditions” of the Christmas “season” into an otherwise relatively minor Jewish holiday is just not necessary. Instead, make a big deal over our own holidays, so that by the time Christmas rolls around, the kids know that they have plenty of things to celebrate. Save the big gifts for birthdays or Passover.

I believe that the menorah (channukiah) lit with flickering candles and set in the window as a reminder to all of G-d’s miracles is beautiful and a lovely statement in contrast with the flickering LEDs of a modern string of Christmas lights.

I was gratified to find that my kids participated in and looked forward to the menorah lighting each evening this year. I was pleased with myself for remembering to light candles at home all eight nights. I was happy to be able to put a menorah in a front window of the house, albeit in the upstairs bedroom as opposed to by the front door. (I was amazed to realize that we have no front-facing windows on the first floor!) We lit one menorah in the kitchen so that we could enjoy the candles while we ate dinner. I even made pretty tasty latkes the first night. We lit a second menorah in the spare bedroom upstairs, displayed proudly in the window. The advantage to lighting two menorahs was that two kids + two menorahs means that each got to choose candles every night in a most equitable fashion.

It occurred to me, upon being asked how my Hannukah had been, that my younger son has never actually been exposed to the might of the Christmas “season.” He does not attend daycare, and all of the toddlers he plays with regularly are also Jewish. My older son goes to a non-religious Montessori school and previously to a nonreligious daycare, but Santas and wreaths and Christmas carols are all around for him. (Last year, he very excitedly pointed out a Santa decoration and said, “Look! There’s Samantha!”) This year, though, he didn’t seem to care as much. I feel that his teacher was very sensitive to the fact that not all of her students are Christian or celebrate Christmas. Indeed, my son is not the only one for whom Christmas is not the focus of the months of November and December. The school has a reasonably large Indian component, some of whom are Sikh, others Muslim, and I don’t know what else, presumably Hindu? The owner and administrator of the school are Muslim, from Iran, as well. This multicultural aspect of his school meant that my son wasn’t as inundated as he might have been elsewhere.

We did get them a few presents. Somewhat fortunately, my older son’s birthday is at the end of October, so he was still receiving presents into November, which was close enough to Hannukah that he didn’t feel deprived of gifts. My younger son was born five days before Hannukah two years ago, which puts his birthday near Hannukah every year, so he gets a lot of “This is for your birthday and Hannukah” type stuff. I don’t know how the dynamics of all of this would change if I were to have a non-fall baby, though!

I guess we’ll see how it all goes when they’re 10 and 8, or 16 and 14, instead of impressionable and malleable 4- and 2-year-olds. I can’t make the assumption now that my approach has proven successful, but I was an am very pleased so far with how my kids have taken to their own Jewish traditions and don’t seem to need Christmas to feel fulfilled.

I think having a nice, traditional Thanksgiving helped, too. One big family dinner is really plenty in the space of 6 weeks, in my opinion!