It’s almost time to break out the dreidels and light the hanukkiah, and if you are anything like me, you are already tired of Hanukkah. We haven’t even lit one candle or gorged ourselves on latkes (oh, the sour cream), but I am ready to move on to the next holiday. The culprit for my Hanukkah exhaustion is the darling of social and traditional media sites alike: Thanksgivingukkah.
Ugh. Not again. I can’t stomach one more recipe for sweet potato and brisket latkes with cranberry sauce. Please, just give it a rest.
I am on a mission to refocus my attention on something meaningful that I can bring to these eight nights despite our bizarre interest in this holiday mashup. I have a feeling that there may be a few other parents out there who would be happy to leave the Manishewitz-brined turkey recipes aside and try to recapture something significant with our children as we prepare for the Festival of Lights.
Hanukkah is a wonderful opportunity for parents to have some important conversations with their children. As every parent knows, some of our most challenging work is finding the right time to have a meaningful conversation with our kids. If your children are anything like mine, these conversations have to be snuck into car rides, nighttime tuck in, and in the bread aisle while shopping. That’s okay. The important thing is that we have an opportunity to talk to our kids about things that really matter to our relationship, show them that we want to listen to what they think and feel, and help them connect to a heritage that we hope will make them proud as they get older.
The following are eight conversation starters that we can have with our children to make this holiday something more than dreidels, candles, and presents. Pick a few and to discuss them with your children (*adjust and tailor them to the age of your kids-think of these as sparks for conversation*).
1. Hanukkah is a story about a small group of people finding tremendous spiritual and physical strength. We live in a culture that celebrates big things (big cars, big homes, more “stuff”). Talk to your kids about the importance of small acts. What are the small things in your life that are deeply important to you? What are the small things that your kids do that make you tremendously proud of them?
2. Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates a group of Jews who were unwilling to give up their heritage despite tremendous pressure to do so. Ask your kids what they love most about being Jewish or Judaism, share your own answer to that question, and ask them what other things are worth fighting for in their lives.
3. The rabbis of the Talmud tell the famous story of the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days instead of one. Do you believe in miracles? Is a miracle a phenomenon of the past or do miracles still happen today? Discuss the miracles of your lives. If you don’t believe in miracles, discuss the things in your life that make you feel overwhelmed with joy when you experience them.
4. Hanukkah takes place during a time when the days are short because it gets dark early. We light candles to remind ourselves that despite the darkness, we have the power to bring light into the world. What are the things that you do to help people in need? Help your children understand that they have the power to help other people not just by giving tzedakah (charitable donations) and participating in social justice projects, but by being kind to other children. Make a commitment with your kids to participate as a family in a social action project as a Hanukkah gift to others.
5. Hanukkah is a story about people with power (the Greek Assyrians) tormenting a seemingly weaker group (the Jews). Talk to your children about bullying and about the power that they have as individuals to stand up to bullies. Teach your kids about the responsibility that they have to make sure that kids who are “different” feel included.
6. Hanukkah is a celebration of Jews maintaining their own unique culture and religious tradition when it would have been easy to let it go and become more like the larger society. As someone who is Jewish living in a Christian country, what are the things that are challenging for you about being different than the majority of people in America? What are the things about being Jewish that feel special because they make you different than other people? Can you imagine visiting Israel, a place where Jews make up the majority of people?
7. [For Interfaith Families] This is a time of year in which many interfaith families feel pulled in lots of different directions. Use these holidays as an opportunity to speak to your kids about what has been enriching about being a family with roots in different traditions, and discuss some of the challenges that this may pose. Talk to your kids about how you make the decision to celebrate in the way that you do, and for parents who feel uneasy about how they are building their family’s religious life, this may be a good opportunity to seek some support and guidance to help navigate these larger issues.
8. Both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are holidays that celebrate the significance of fighting for religious freedom. What are the freedoms that ought to be fought for and how can we as American Jews ensure that all Americans are afforded these freedoms? Do we have a responsibility to fight for these freedoms for people in other countries who do not have them? If so, how can we do that, and if not, why doesn’t this responsibility extend beyond our borders?
If you can manage to discuss these questions as the Hanukkah lights flicker by the window and you eat jelly donuts next to the fireplace with your dog curled up at your feet, that’s wonderful. But if your life is less like a Norman Rockwell painting and more like controlled (on a good day) chaos, then take advantage of any time that you have for these conversations. It would be a shame to squander them because you are waiting for the perfect time.
Perhaps the most challenging part of these conversations with our children is that we often feel some ambiguity in our own feelings about Judaism. That’s okay. In fact, it is quite possible that through these conversations with our children they may teach us a thing or two about faith, courage, and pride. Now that would be nothing short of a miracle.
Wishing you a חג אורים שמח- a wonderful Hanukkah!