By Glen Gilbert: With the holiday season all but upon us, we’ve morphed the traditional leadership message into the following compendium of favorite Hanukkah stories from several of our Executive Committee members. Think of them as snapshots in black and white or magenta-infused color, with scalloped edges, the Kodak watermark on the back and perhaps a hint of blue candle wax that was mostly--but not altogether--wiped away with a dish towel in 1973.
Growing up in Binghamton, New York, I can distinctly remember that it was always a bone chilling cold with long, dark nights during Hanukkah. This made the power of the light and warmth emanating from the Menorah all the more special. My mother would always prepare a traditional Hanukkah dinner, replete with Latkes and applesauce. I also distinctly recall lighting both sets of candles on Shabbat/Hanukkah. The coziness of the kitchen, the smell of chicken soup, the candlelight, and the "homeyness" that my Mother created--are palpable in my mind's eye. Recalling Hanukkah during early childhood also brings back the memory of having a bath, getting into my PJs and then lining up with my brother and sister with our backs to our parents as they would lay the presents down at our feet. We were then instructed when to turn around and rip open the packages. In some ways, we felt like race horses coming out of the blocks. I had the same excitement in my belly that I had for my birthday or on Halloween. Hanukkah celebrates a miracle and it has always felt like one--thanks to Shirley and Donald Bronsky.
There is a story that is considered a classic in my husband Ken's family. His father loved his mother’s potato latkes and could eat them in large quantities. Before the start of World War II, Ken's father was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia before going overseas. (Fort Benning is approximately an hour and a half south of Atlanta.) In the middle of December 1940, his father was home on furlough for a brief visit with his family. However, he had to return to his military responsibilities before Hanukkah was to begin. Ken's father was saddened that he would miss his mother’s Hanukkah latkes, and Ken's grandmother was saddened that she would not be able to make Hanukkah latkes for her son. Together, they arrived at a simple solution: Ken's grandmother would make her latkes in advance of the holiday, pack them in multiple wax-paper lined shoeboxes for travel, and give them to her son to take back to Fort Benning. How many latkes did his grandmother make? She made enough that Ken's father sat by himself on a train and did nothing but eat cold potato latkes for over thirteen hours! According to the story, he came off of the train in Georgia with the toughest case of heartburn ever presented to an Army physician! But for Ken's father, it was a wonderful treat and, in some ways, his traditional Hanukkah.
When my son was a year old, we starting having a Hanukkah dinner with friends of ours and their two children. While planning the dinner, I said that I would be happy to make the latkes, but that I didn’t have a food processor to grate the potatoes (I didn't want to grate them by hand). My friend Jodi said, "Use mine." When it came time to leave, I gave her the food processor back and she said, "Keep it, we'll be back next year!" And so, our Hanukkah dinner tradition began. Twenty years later our family continues to have Hanukkah dinner with Jodi and her husband and their three children, now 25, 22, 18 and our son Daniel, 21 and Rachel, 18.
Our tradition was not merely to "give" a gift on Hanukkah. We each had to find our gifts by playing "hot and cold." After candle lighting each night, the recipient would run around the house following commands of "getting hotter" or "getting colder" until the present was found. It always made that box of crayons or puzzle so much more exciting and fun.
In high school, we had to complete a project in shop (whatever happened to shop anyhow?) that involved wood or metal work and electricity. I chose to make a menorah. I didn’t realize how challenging it would be. My shop teacher, “Seven-chin” Weatherston, and most of the kids in class either didn’t know what a menorah was or didn’t think it was an appropriate project. I, too, had misgivings. Perhaps I simply should have gone with a wall sconce instead? Nonetheless, I soldiered on (actually soldered on) and fashioned out of wood, wire and tiny sockets what may have been the ugliest electric menorah ever. I probably got a “C” for my efforts—if that. But it worked! What’s more, my parents, G*d bless them, displayed it in our window for all the neighbors to see. Who needs another wall sconce anyhow?
When I was a little girl, we celebrated Hanukkah at my Aunt's house who lived in the next town from us. I was one of three kids and we had only one cousin who was six years older than any of us. The Langendorffs would descend upon my aunt, uncle and cousin's home and wreak havoc on their much calmer homestead. The Langendorff kids would get piles of presents that were stacked on their closed-in porch, well away from the rest of the grownups. You can imagine what a mess that porch was after we were done opening gifts. But the strongest memory of those celebrations was my uncle who was tall and slender and always lit a very traditional silver menorah with very tall and slender white candles. To this day my cousin brings that menorah to our family Hanukkah celebration and we remember earlier times as we recite the blessings and sing Moaz Tzur in Hebrew, English and German.
As most Jews in Tulsa were transplants, our friends were our family. We celebrated all holidays, simchas and sadness together. We always spent at least one night of Hanukkah with our friends, the Schoffmans. We switched off houses, but the nights I remember most were at our house. We would make latkes, have dinner and light the candles, one dog or another running amok, looking for scraps. I have pictures of the five of us kids spanning close to 15 years - some when it was so obviously freezing, and others where it must have been warm.. Typical Tulsa, you could have 75 degree weather in December, but always, we were together.
My husband started a wonderful tradition for our children, which he named "Daddy Coupons." With each candle came a "coupon" for all sorts of things. An early favorite was "Put down your newspaper and play with me." As the kids got older, there were coupons for theater tickets, ball games, etc. I think during their teen years there was probably a "Pick up your newspaper and leave me alone" coupon. Hopefully it taught our kids that the greatest gift is time spent together. Our kids, now in their 20s, still look forward to those coupons.