By Harriet P. Gross
My Christian friends may be spending their nights now with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads, but my head is filled with visions of Hanukkahs past and my Boubby the Philosopher, the guardian angel of all Jewish holidays during my childhood.
Boubby would make a visit to our home on one of the eight nights without prior notice for me and my sister, so we would always anticipate a surprise. Not quite like waiting for Santa Claus, whose arrival date never varied. And she didn’t come with a sack of toys, either. Boubby carried a worn leather change purse, which she slowly unsnapped, then ceremoniously drew out 88 shiny new pennies — 44 for each of us, equaling the number of candles that are used on every menorah during the eight nights of lighting. (Do the math! Don’t forget to count every shamas used to kindle the others!!)
Then Boubby would pull from her commodious purse a stash of almonds in their shells, and the three of us would settle down on the floor for our annual game of dreidl. Meanwhile, Mother was in the kitchen, frying up the crispy latkes we’d enjoy after one of us had won all the almonds. With sour cream, of course, since this was not a meat meal but a special all-by-themselves potato pancakes treat.
Finally, we’d light the old tin menorah that Mother had placed on a chrome tray centered on the dining room sideboard. Nothing was ever cleaned up until after the holiday, by which time the menorah was coated with wax drippings, many of which fell onto the tray but did not cover the neighboring pile of burnt matches.
How innocently sweet those Hanukkah nights were! In public school then, there was no “equal time” for Judaism or any other minority worship, so we joined our classmates in saving the colorful foil caps that covered the tops of glass milk bottles in those olden days, to be cut and carefully manipulated into bells that would decorate the large tree centered in the entrance-way. The rest of its simple décor consisted of loops of colored paper we also made, plus lots of tinsel. When we gathered around for the yearly holiday sing, it was all Christmas carols. Those of us who were Jewish left out certain loaded words as we sang, but otherwise we were as lusty as the rest.
That was the lesson we learned, long before Hanukkah “graduated” to competition with Christmas in the gifting department. We did not expect more than pennies and almonds and bright candles for our winter holiday, and we were content. We were more than allowed — we were actually encouraged — to visit our Christian friends, to admire their trees and wreaths and enjoy playing with their many new toys, but we knew that we were visitors, and those December trappings did not belong to us. Judaism flowed so deeply in our veins; it was taken for granted.
When we grew up, my sister and I bought our parents a “real” menorah. When they were gone, I — as the elder child — fell heir to it. When my daughter married, it was the first thing she requested for her own home.
Keruv, the welcoming of those not (or perhaps not yet) Jewish into our religious communities, has become an important facet of our lives today. The initial adverse reaction to intermarriage — indeed, the fight against it — has been replaced in many if not most quarters by the desire to see a new generation born of these unions raised as Jews. Hanukkah now competes on most fronts with Christmas. But when I saw in a recent gift catalog a large blue Magen David offered as a tree-topper for families that celebrate both winter holidays, I started to wonder if certain unions might be going too far. One thing I don’t wonder about: my Boubby the Philosopher would not have approved.