As a young couple, my husband and I sailed through our early holiday seasons together. My family is Jewish and his is Catholic so we decided that we would always spend Thanksgiving with my family, Christmas with his and Hanukkah wherever it fell during the calendar. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is so easy!” And it was, for those first few years.
Back in December 2011 we welcomed our first child into the world. Only a few weeks postpartum, we spent that entire holiday season in our small condo with various family members coming in and out for visits. But over the next few years the concept of holidays changed for us and for the newly-minted grandparents in the family.
The idea of celebrating my son’s birthday, Hanukkah and Christmas in a three-week span became very overwhelming. The stress of upcoming celebrations started creeping in as soon as the leaves began to change in the fall. My two primary concerns were always 1) Is there any way to put a reasonable limit on all the presents? And 2) Will Hanukkah feel just as special as Christmas?
This last question is one that struck me only a few days after my son was born. While Hanukkah isn’t a major Jewish holiday, I didn’t want it to be completely overshadowed during the celebrations. Being a December baby, he received lovely Christmas books from friends and family. On one of my early outings with him, I went on a search for Hanukkah books to add a little balance to our bookshelf. I couldn’t find what I wanted in the store, so I checked online, and at our local library. The stories I initially found seemed to all fall on opposing ends of a spectrum. On one side there were stories such as Elmo Celebrates Hanukkah and on the other side was The History of Hanukkah and the Maccabees. Neither of these really resonated with me (no offense to Elmo or the Maccabees).
I wanted to find a book that focused on family traditions, togetherness and was a better reflection of my own cultural experience. I was reminded of a quote from children’s book author Beverly Cleary: “If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.” So in my sleep-deprived state that is what I decided to do. I typed up the story of The Great Latke Cook Off in one sitting and sent it to myself as an email. And then I tucked it away for a few years. I was a new mom with a full-time job and I had absolutely no idea where to even look to get a book published. So I waited and we continued to experience the Birthday-Hanukkah-Christmas extravaganza every year.
Then last year I was feeling the need for a creative outlet. My kids were now 6 and 4 and I felt like I might have some capacity to take a stab about putting my book out in the world. So I pulled up that old email, did a lot of Googling, found an incredible local illustrator and embarked on a 6-month sprint to turn The Great Latke Cook Off into a real book that you can have, hold and enjoy with your family. Reading the finished book to my kids for the first time was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life!
Now that the book has been published (find it here), I’ve started to hear from readers across the country. Many people have shared that this book reminds them of their own family experiences or that it has inspired them to start new cooking traditions. I couldn’t ask for better feedback. Publishing the book helped me focus in on what I love about Hanukkah: family traditions and food! Together we cook, read, play games and invite our friends from all backgrounds over for a delicious latke party. It feels very personal and memorable.
We’ve found a way to carve out space during this busy time of year. I no longer worry about whether Hanukkah will feel special among the other celebrations. But I still have no idea how to successfully limit presents. Someone else needs to be in charge of figuring that one out!