By Dr. Madelyn M. Katz
Anyone who has visited my home or my office knows that I have a rather large collection of Chanukah menorahs. It is not a collection that any museum would covet – just a lot of contemporary, fun menorahs from all sorts of stores, ranging from the Shalom House to Bed, Bath and Beyond and more. With such a collection one might think that Hanukah was an important holiday in my home – as a child and today.
Truth be told, I simply like menorahs because of the light they give off and the joy that the lighting of them inevitably brings – fried food, chocolate candy and gifts. What could be bad! However, when I was growing up Hanukkah was celebrated as it should have been – as a fun, joyous yet minor holiday. It never held the same importance as Yom Kippur or Pesach. It was a time for celebration with good food, presents, and family gatherings. And when it became clear that we had given my father enough ties, my mother enough perfume and my brothers and I had received enough toys my family went the route of giving tzedakah to others instead of giving gifts to ourselves. The family tzedakah “pot” was divided into five potential recipients– one for each member of my family – and we each got to choose where our part of the money would go. I recall many an interesting conversation about whether or not the tzedakah money could go to non-Jewish organizations – especially the Jesuits who ran the retreat house to which we had such a strong family connection. It was always a values clarification exercise for us and one which remains with me today (Yes, we wound up giving tzedakah to the Jesuits – and our synagogue!)
The other particularly memorable part of my childhood Hanukkah experience is rather ironic. My family was very close to another family in town – an Irish-Catholic family whose name was “McAvey.” When I was a child I was somewhat confused by the fact that we would talk about the “Maccabees” at Hanukah and then my brother, Doug, would dress up as Santa Claus to bring presents to the “McAvey” kids for Christmas. As a child I never heard the distinction between the “b” and the “v” and just wondered how the “Great Maccabees” had relatives who wound up as Irish-Catholics!
I was one of the most fortunate kids who was able to enjoy my holiday without feeling like I was in competition with the “other big holiday of the season.” We enjoyed Hanukkah but never pretended that it had the same level of importance as Christmas did to our Christian neighbors. In fact we had the opportunity to help them celebrate their holiday which brought us great pleasure. Every Christmas morning my father, being the right size and physical stature (he had a terrific “Ho! Ho! Ho!”), was picked up by a member of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce, dressed in a magnificent Santa Claus suit and brought into the downtown area where he stood in front of the local “Five and Dime” store, handing out candy canes. I was 9 years old before I realized that that was my father!
I was able to thoroughly enjoy Hanukkah with my family and my Catholic best friend up the street who would come to our house and enjoy latkes and gelt – after which we would return to her house to trim the tree. I never had any “Christmas tree envy” and I felt great pride in our holiday and in the importance of the story behind it, of dedication, courage and commitment to the Jewish people. The experience of enjoying all that was wonderful about Hanukkah and then watching my father bring so much joy to kids celebrating Christmas – it doesn’t get any better than that. And every time I look at one of the many menorahs in my collection I am reminded of the important messages I learned as a child, around this minor – yet ever so powerful – holiday in our family. And, in the end, it was so clear to me. It is a wonderful life!
Dr. Madelyn M. Katz is the Associate Dean, HUC-JIR Jack H. Skirball Campus, Los Angeles