The Soviet-American Hanukkah

Although Chanukah is technically a minor Jewish holiday, there is no denying that its importance has been inflated for Jews living in the United States. Considering its proximity to Christmas, this is not surprising, and none of us can really complain. Chanukah is fun! Who doesn’t love seven days of gifts, festivities, and candles? 

I loved Chanukah growing up, but it wasn’t until after several years of Sunday school that I learned my family’s way of celebrating the holiday was different from tradition. Considering that my mother is a convert and my Dad is a Soviet Jew, this was only inevitable. Given the lack of religious freedom in the Soviet Union, my father did not have access to his Jewish education without jeopardizing his family and future; practicing in secret and risking being discovered could lead to ostracization, arrest, and, in the most extreme cases, being sent to a labor camp. My father and grandparents’ fight for survival in such a religiously oppressive country estranged him from tradition. 

My mother, on the other hand, was excited to learn more about Judaism from my father’s side, only to find out that every holiday entailed vodka and pickled herring at the dinner table – and not a single prayer book. She was insistent that her children grow up knowing more about Judaism and drove us to religious school several times a week to ensure this. It is no small feat to rangle up four kids and shuttle them to classes on weekend mornings and weekday afternoons! Although she took a few classes to enrich her Jewish education and knowledge of Hebrew, the constraints of family and work life were a barrier for her. 

So during Chanukah, my paternal grandparents would come over, we’d light the candles without prayer, and enjoy our takeout Chinese food with the menorah as our centerpiece. To this day, I still defend Chinese food as a Chanukah dish due to its oil content. It has been heartening over the years, though, to incorporate what my siblings and I have learned in the Jewish community and bring it home to our family. 

As soon as we had a grasp of the Hebrew alphabet and the meaning of the letters on a dreidel, we took pleasure in gambling our gelt. My siblings and I, with astute concentration, would practice spinning our dreidels before the actual game until our dreidels looked to us like a whirlpool. We also began chanting Chanukah blessings as we lit the candles, warming our hearts with the spiritual essence of the week. 

In both religious and Sunday school, teachers would guide us through the pronunciation of the prayers and provide us with background on the history and decorum of the holiday, which made the incorporation of prayer all the more meaningful. Practicing with my family for the first time brought a different layer of meaning. The added ritual made me feel more connected to Jews all over the world doing the same thing, even if we were scattered across every time zone.

Being a first-generation American on one side of my family has encouraged me to make the most of what my father didn’t have in his home country and to incorporate my mother in the learning experience. To be able to celebrate holidays and relearn what was lost to the family for two generations is the greatest miracle to our family’s Chanukah practice.