Minnesota Mamaleh: The Hanukkah Mom

Why yes. Yes my kids *did* stamp themselves with Hanukkah this morning. Thanks for asking.

The turkey? The traveling? The wine? The two-on-three defense? I have no idea which of these gems did us in, but we spent the Sunday after Thanksgiving downstairs playing, typing and football-ing away. In our pajamas.

Amidst the fun, the games, the mess, the tears, the toy-grabbing and the name-calling…

I’ll just give you a minute here to paint that picture in your mind. Jealous, aren’t you? And just to seal the deal? My better four-fifths were all sneezing-sniffling-and-coughing their way through the afternoon. Good times.

…I miraculously heard the phone ringing over the din that is my family when we’re all in the same room together. Something strangely social came over me (the holiday spirit, perhaps?), and I answered it.

And lucky that I did because it was a dear friend with a dear reminder: We were taking our oldests to a little play. That afternoon.

So Kayli and I pulled it together (read: got dressed) and went. We rode in the quiet car. Took a picture or two. Smiled and talked about the characters. The story line. The Christmas theme.

Did you just hear the gut (and ear!) wrenching sound of a turn table scratching?

It probably does sound a little odd that I took my girl on a special outing to a Christmas play just days before Hanukkah started. We saw Junie B., Jingle Bells Batman Smells! I love the character. I’ve read most of the books in the series and I seriously can’t wait to share them with Kayli. I’m weird about books that way. It’s the reading teacher in me. This is the play that happened to be playing when my friend’s and my schedules magically aligned. But honestly, the fact that it was a Christmas play? Didn’t bother me. At all.

Because Hanukkah isn’t the Jewish Christmas. There’s no comparing or choosing. One is our holiday. In our hearts. And in our home. The rest? Is enjoying. Experiencing. Enriching.

The path to religion is wide and loooong. But the beginning of that journey is all about hand-holding. When we’re young our parents create, drive and do the whole religion sha-bang for us. Simply put, we are what we are born into. But it seems to me that the end goal is to find a way to personalize our religion and our spirituality. Make it about what we want to do and be, and feel in our hearts is a good fit. Rather than doing just because it’s all that we know. So being exposed to other people’s traditions and practices? That’s just the icing.

Just this morning I went into Kayli’s classroom. You know, to be the Hanukkah Mom. I told the Hanukkah story using legos and little people. We pretended to make latkes and light candles. I shared my children’s shiny new silver menorahs with their sleek lines and my fancy, old, gold one with it’s twists and curves that could never ever be described as sleek, but is filed with memories and is perfect for me. And then, I sat back.

And I took it all in. All of the little faces, skin colors, religions and stories huddled together. So many eyes making sense of what I stumbled over to share. A little girl wearing a burka and playing dreidel. And a little boy with a Spanish accent asking for the recipe to make the (store-bought. Definitely store-bought) gelt. And all I could think and feel and know is how could this learning, sharing, experiencing be anything but pure? And fabulous? And right?

It’s not confusing, it’s learning. Different holidays for different people. And the learning is at its best when it’s mutual.

Our first night of Hanukkah was "kid hosted." Check out the "appetizer course" mac-n-cheese and *two* kinds of juice!

Brody lighting his candles with a little help from Daddy

First night gifts: matching jammys. Go Vikings?

And gelt. There's always room for one more piece of gelt.

You might not be able to tell in this picture, but I'm so kicking all of their butts at dreidel.

Maccabee! The Story of Hanukkah by Tilda Balsley

My kids know that Hanukkah is our holiday because our house is over-flowing with it. The candles, the dreidels, the presents, the latkes, the sufganiyot. And of course, the books.

I try to add one new Hanukkah book (and one new dreidle!) to their collection every year. This year the fab Kar Ben Publishing sent me a copy of Maccabee!: The Story of Hanukkah by Tilda Balsley to review.

We read this rhyming book overandoverandover again. My kids enjoyed the illustrations and marveled at the “just like me” factor. But what got me? Was this refrain: “Sometimes it only takes a few who know what’s right, and do it, too.”

Because that’s just so…vulnerably perfect. And true. Maybe it does start with just one person. One person to learn from, appreciate and celebrate another. One person to not get bent out of shape about things that are unknown. Or new. And soon we can just be friends. Shoulder to shoulder. Respectfully different. Because that, we can all stand behind, right?

On Hanukkah Eve, I was anything but prepared. I didn’t have a single present wrapped. Not a one. What I did have was anticipation. Because I do have mad dreidel skills and I couldn’t wait to use them. Jason fries a mean latke and I was excited to have a crispy one. Or two. I like them best with sour cream, since you asked. And I was also really excited to share a little bit of Hanukkah with you. After I told one of my sweetest friends about this she asked, “Is this how all Jewish people do it or just you?” We laughed about that question, but I can own that she was so-very-right.

I will admit to taking my own spin on all things really. But shouldn’t religion and spirituality be unique? And personal? Shouldn’t you be able to identify and pick your strokes right out from the crowd? I think so.

So Happy Hanukkah to those of you who celebrate it. Here’s to more candles, latkes and gelt than we could ever know what to do with. And if you don’t celebrate Hanukkah? I’d be happy to share a few latkes with you. Jason’ll cook and I’ll save you a crispy one. Shall I pass the sour cream, the apple sauce or a little bit of both?

*Thank you Kar Ben Publishing for a free copy of Maccabee! The Story of Hanukkah by Tilda Balsley*


About Galit Breen

Galit Breen was a classroom and reading teacher for ten years. She has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in human development. In 2009, she launched a career as a freelance writer entrenched in social media. Since then, her work has been featured in various online magazines including Brain, Child, The Huffington Post, TIME, and xoJane. Breen lives in Minnesota with her husband, three children, and a ridiculously spoiled miniature golden doodle. Her book, Kindness Wins, is a simple no-nonsense guide to teaching our kids how to be kind online. You can learn more about Galit by visiting TheseLittleWaves.com.

Comments. Add Yours!


  1. as a christian, i love your hanukkah celebrations. its an amazing event. sadly, there is alot of commercial confusion and this is a shame. however, light the menorah and spin the dreidels. tell stories and eat great food. these are what family traditions are made of.
    one question though, when i was in grad school, my jewish friends would argue over rashi’s talmudic position and its relevance to modern observance. do you have any idea why that would be a conversation? when i asked them, they gave long and convoluted explanations that had alot to do with tradition and some modern observance. it was always intriguing that academics would argue but the 8 day celebration was meant for remembering. no biggie if you think is is odd and might not know rashi’s ideas would matter to a bunch of kids. ( for context, some where reformed and others were non practicing but believing conservative jews. there were no hasid or modern orthodox in the conversation. they were too busy at the synagogue but they later chimed in and the conversation got more academic. oh, i miss that so much)

  2. We are Jewish and love to celebrate chanukkah, but it doesn’t bother me a bit to listen to christmas carols. They are pretty and fun to listen to and do not make me want to change my beliefs one bit. And the “christmas” lights people put up are wonderful to look at as well during a long dark winter.

  3. If I lived closer I would totally take you up on the latkes! I have heard so much about them and would love to try some, but never seen one in person. They sound delicious!

  4. Happy Chanukah to you and the family.

    Sure, I was a kid once, who enjoyed the holiday, but it never was really about gifts. Okay we got some money — bills and silver dollars — and some practical stuff like PJs and robes and underwear, but it was about playing dreidels, lighting candles together and singing together, my mother and father frying up the lakes on the electric skillet and smelling up the house with oil.

    I am still not into the idea of gifts (I don’t even know where Chanukah gifts originated from); it is still simply about being together, enjoying being together, and seeing the reflection of those lit candles in the front window — and building on our old traditions.

    This bracha for you: may the oily smell of those latkes linger in your kitchen for eight days, may the gold and silver wrappers of the chocolate coins be discovered under your furniture for eight days, and may the miracle of Chanukah be yours…FOREVER.

    Shabbat Shalom.

  5. Loved this post! You expressed my feelings re: religion perfectly. I’ve been a little slow this year, but I want to teach my kids about Hanukkah. I even told Hubby I would be making kugel. (As soon as the oven is fixed!) He had no idea what I was talking about! Thanks for a beautiful post. I am learning from you.

  6. Great post as usual, Galit! I’m SO on board with Steve. I think my kids can appreciate Christmas an observer and as a guest in neighbors’ homes because they are so confident and comfortable with their Judaism. If you do lots of fun Jewish holidays (Sukkot, Purim, etc.), have Shabbat dinners, and make your kids proud instead of defensive, then they won’t feel “offended” by Christmas plays and decorations, etc. I love that you were the Hanukkah mom at school. So cute!!!!

  7. Oh, this took me back. I’d forgotten all about Junie B.

    It also reminded me of how, when my kids went to Jewish pre-school (we are not Jewish, it was the only pre-school large enough to have more than one classroom – and our twin boys HAD to be in separate classes) I, as an English immigrant to the US, attended Hanukkah classes to learn what it was all about.

    They gave me latkes and honestly I couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about and the glitter from the menorahs the kids brought home went everywhere.

    BUT over time, I came to like latkes and I’ve many Jewish friends who all seem to have their own way of doing things. The glitter is still stuck to the grout on my kitchen counter, 6 years later, however. 🙂

  8. I just wrote my Hannukah post and mentioned going into the scool and ended with a invitation for latkes at my home. Jewish moms must think alike. Chag Sameach.
    Frozen Challah

  9. Wonderful post Galit! Me too: wish I lived closer so I could experience some of that Hanukkah! I agree and feel you are spot on about religion and sprituality being unique and personal. I was born and baptised catholic and went to church every Sunday for years – as a child. When I was old enough and able to make my own decision about religion, I took my time, experienced other ways and learned about myself. I am now spiritual overall – I do not follow any specific religion. I visit different churches and synagogues now and then but I’m also traditional in some respects – if that makes sense. This is my path and deeply held beliefs are personal. I love that you are open yet maintain traditions – for your family. Finally, LOVE the photos and, the pajamas 🙂

  10. I’ll take mine with Sour Cream, please—just like you! No “sweet” to corrupt the delicious flavor of the Latke…Just Soure Crem Enhancement, please! (lol) Wish I could join you, my dear.
    It seems to me each person or ‘family’ makes any Holiday their own, whether it is Christmas or Hannukah or Kwanza, etc., etc. Family traditons are handed down just this way. And if you didn’t like the way your family celebrated you made up your own way, when you became all grown up!
    Just recently I found a picture of our old TV in The Living Room..(Circa 1950’s) and our Family Menorah was sitting on top of it. It is a BEAUTIFUL Menorah. I think my brother has it now–or maybe my sister Robin’s Family….I don’t remember. It’s been 44 years since my mother died so my meomory of who got what, is dim. But I do remember we all loved Hannukah, just like you and your family do.
    I LOVE that you and Jason give your kids such a deep experience and such a wonderful Holiday, celebrating each one in such a memorabe way.
    HAPPY HAPPY HANNUKAH to you and yours, My Dear!

  11. Absolutely love this post… and this line: “It’s not confusing, it’s learning.” I’ve learned so much about Hanukkah from my brother, and I can’t help but think that the exposure to different traditions is a blessing for my children to have. We still celebrate the holidays (including Christmas) in our family… and it’s about togetherness, love and sharing. To me, that’s universally what the holidays should be about.

    PS: Remind me to send you a pic of my kids in their Vikings jerseys.

  12. Girl in burka playing dreidel. Learning. Long wide paths (that inevitably can intersect because there’s space!). How else do we make our varied, most gorgeous villages?

  13. Galit, you have a special gift for being so warmly accepting of all people. I really love that about you.

  14. Great post. Happy Hanukkah! I love to hear about everyone elses traditions. Growing up in Kentucky, I never knew a single Jewish person, so I am still learning about your religion. I like that you are exposing your kids to Christmas. My kids actually learn about Hanukkah and Kwanza in school, so they know more about it than I do.

  15. @ Galit: I love living in the world that you and Jason and your kids live in. Thanks for helping a JBC, who’s still getting this Hanukkah stuff down ; )

    @ Pearl: What a lovely bracha!


  16. A Junie B. Jones play!!! How fun!! My son just discovered her and is devouring her books one by one. I think she is hilarious and could totally see a play being developed around her.

    And I think it is good for kids to learn all about the different celebrations that come at this time of year. My son learned a bit about Hanukkah at school this week. They were playing with a dreidel and learned some songs and about the candles. I think that is wonderful.

  17. I think it’s so wonderful when we and our children learn about the different holidays that everyone celebrates. How lucky for those children to have learned more about it from you!

    Sure…I’ll take a latke with all of the above! Hope you had a wonderful Hanukkah!!

  18. My gosh, for a second I thought your kids had the Chicken Pox!

    I love that you teach your kids how to celebrate/understand/appreciate other holidays. I try to do the same with Maya. She knows far more about other religions and beliefs than I ever did at 5 and I think it is fantastic!

    Please feel free to send your extra latkes my way!! 🙂

  19. Last year in shul, we sang ‘Adon Olam’ in the Shabbat service closest to Christmas to the tune of ‘Good King Wenceslas’. And as Shabbat falls on Christmas Day this year, I suspect we will be doing that again. I grew up in a background of carol singing, nativity plays etc, but not really religion. Having said that, my school also celebrated Eid and other festivals, because it was very much a multi-faith/culture school. I don’t think it did me any harm. And I think that the more knowledge and understanding you have, the less you feel threatened by the ‘other’.

    This year, I will go to shul on 25th December Shabbat and go home to cook a dinner for my BH – nominally a Christmas dinner.

  20. I used to really worry about this. The other side of the family has a ton of Jews who just gave up and their kids aren’t being raised Jewish. So my children have lots of cousins who don’t celebrate Chanukah, Pesach or any of our holidays.

    But over time I have seen that my concerns were unfounded because they have a very strong Jewish identity. And we are happy to go celebrate with our Christian friends. It is nice to go to their homes and enjoy spending time with them.

  21. It sounds beautiful and wonderful and chocked full of warm family memories.You are a great Mommy,You are so purposeful and thoughtful in how you explain,share and live the holidays with your children! I am aspiring to live up to your example this season! Now,I’ve never had a latke but save me a cripsy one and lets put some apple sauce and sour cream on it:)

  22. I’ll take just the apple sauce on mine. Thanks. 🙂

    Happy Chanukah to you and your family!

  23. I loved your comments about my book, Maccabee! The Story of Hanukkah. Thank you for focusing on the refrain, which for me is the heart of the book, and has so many applications. Your thoughts were right on! Happy Hanukkah.

    Tilda Balsley

  24. Galit, you are so my kind of mama! Nothing wrong with teaching our children about all different religions and traditions. That is what breeds tolerance!! This year at the holidays we are celebrating both Yule and Christmas, just because Christmas is what they are used to. Next year… who knows!

    And you are right, you have to take your religion and make it YOUR religion. That is what makes it special. That is what makes it something you love.

    Hope you are enjoying your Hanukkah season!

  25. I love this. Growing up, I was exposed to two religions (my mother is Protestant; my father Jewish) and I was taught at a very young age to honor and respect the practices and customs of them all. And I loved it. Loved the history and symbolism in the Jewish holidays; the candlelight services and traditional hymns of the Christian holidays.

    You are teaching your children such an invaluable lesson on tolerance, acceptance, and respect, which is something they will cherish forever.

    Also, your kids are insanely adorable. And this post makes me crave latkes. I’d like one with sour cream, please 😉

  26. What a wonderful outlook on things. I also believe we each have to make our own peace with religion and spirituality.

    I read a Native American Proverb that said all religions are stepping stones toward God. That is the best I can sum it up.

  27. I’m feeling very sentimental today, so I shouldn’t have read this not because it made me smile but because it choked me. It wasn’t because it’s sad, I can’t explain it.

    There’s so much negativity in the world and to read your posts (which I love) just reinforces how wonderful it is to share the experiences and even put your own spin on it x