Every year, my parents host a Hanukkah party for their three adult children, their spouses and their 11 grandchildren ranging from 1 1/2 years old to 23 years old. The 19 of us are spread throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Massachusetts. (Usually, this is the point where I also point out that most of us aren’t Jewish, we’re a mashup of Jewish, Christian and Catholic. But I’ve more recently come to understand that this mashup is more complicated than it seems. How do I explain in a word or two my Catholic-synagogue-going-Jewish-ritual-loving wife or my Jewish-sometimes-Catholic-church-going brother?
The Hanukkah party is festive, with potato latkes and chicken or brisket, a menorah made of Jerusalem stone and a spread rivaling a Viennese dessert table. After dinner, we exchange gifts, youngest to oldest, while sprawled out in the living room, talking and laughing. When my grandmother—who was Christian (Russian Orthodox)—was alive, she’d take part in all of the fun, proudly giving each grandchild a Godiva teddy bear with a little pouch full of gelt sewn into it. And then, she’d always ask for the bears back, collecting them until next year to repeat the ritual. Then, there was a turning point one year when she gave each grandchild the teddy bear for good. My grandmother lived another 13 months, but that was the last Hanukkah party she made it to. The seasons changed, and with it, our lives changed too.
And now, our lives are changing again. We are rapidly approaching the anniversary of the pandemic lockdown, an anniversary none of us want to celebrate but all of us are going to be forced to reckon with. My dad was gravely ill last year from the coronavirus, and though he’s now mostly recovered, the experience shook us all.
The Hanukkah party isn’t happening this year, at least in its in-person form. We’re probably not seeing my in-laws for Christmas, either.
What are we left with? On our saddest days, we are left with tears, grief and heartbreak. Hanukkah without our family gathering is like lox without bagels. And honestly, it’s hard to get past that. I don’t know what the 19 of us will do, or if there is a way to connect across the 279 miles that separate us. I’ll also be missing the Christmas celebrations with my wife’s large family. The chaos of both celebrations are special times for us and for my kids growing up with their cousins and grandparents.
We’re already well-versed at doing Hanukkah and Christmas at home—homemade latkes, gifts, Hanukkah menorahs lit up beautifully. And for Christmas, Santa and stockings, and dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. But not traveling at all for the holidays puts additional stress and strain on all of us. The sadness of not being together has a way of raising the bar for what we do at home.
For my family, the first job is to be kind to ourselves and to think about ways we can show up for one another in ways we haven’t before. I’m working on creating a sufganiyot (Hanukkah doughnut) decorating “party” (of our immediate family) for the kids, and looking for other new, fun ways to mark Hanukkah. For Christmas, Santa will continue to come down the chimney—and we’ll have to figure out what Christmas dinner looks like this year at home.
It won’t be the same, but I’m hopeful that there might also be a chance to create something new and meaningful. I’m not sure what it is just yet, but I’m excited to figure it out!