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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Oh Hanukkah

When I was growing up, each year had a predictable shape and weight, a center of gravity, a point to which it seemed to bend towards irresistibly: Hanukkah. Oh, sure, liturgically Chanukah is the most minor of holidays. But we were never much for liturgical niceties in my family. We were for decorations and presents, not necessarily in that order. And Hanukah offered plenty of scope for both of them.

From the outside, our house looked dull and dreary in December compared to the rest of the homes in our exuberantly decorated Italian neighborhood. But, inside, every surface seemed to be covered with blue and silver tinsel. Tinsel hung from the walls and the mantel over the fireplace; it dripped down the banister of the stairs in the hall; it crept across the kitchen just below the ceiling. My mother hung blue and silver stockings, and criss-crossed the kitchen with a banner that read "Happy Hanukah" in Hebrew and English. We had a dull, low-slung silver menorah that sat out the holiday on a cluttered orange kitchen counter. My mother lit the candles. After the blessings, we would sing "Maoz Tzur" and "Mi Yimalel." Then we'd stand around and roll our eyes while my dad sang his pet Chanukah song in his deep, tuneless voice, reading the words out of his little white book, engraved with gold letters. We hated that song. We hadn't learned it at Hebrew school, and it always dragged on, standing between us and the major business of the evening: tearing into the mountains of presents that rose in front of the fireplace every night, wrapped in blue and silver paper, and labeled with a little tag. Mine always read, "To: Phantom From: Mom and Dad." We weren't very old before we figured out that each tag also said what the present contained, written in the tiniest possible hand. You see, the three of us kids got so many presents over the course of the eight nights that my mother could not remember which one was which without labeling them for herself.

We never had a Christmas tree or any other Christmas-associated decorations -- no fir wreaths, no lights, nothing red or green. But for sheer materialistic excess, our Chanukah celebrations put the most over-the-top Christmas customs to shame. We got not one present per night, but a pile of presents each night. If the purpose of Hanukkah in this country is mostly to keep Jewish kids from dying of envy of their Christian peers, my mother's celebrations were wildly successful. Our friends were jealous of us, and why not? Come December, our house gathered more toys than a toy store, more books than the town library, more clothes than the local mall. For all intents and purposes, we were the luckiest children on earth every December.

Of course, behind the tinsel and the piles of presents, my family concealed the same ugly truths that beset us the rest of the year. My mother bought so many presents because something about shopping seemed to quiet the little voices in her head. Shopping made her feel competent as a person and a parent somehow, as if the purchasing of gifts was an effective substitute for the warm feelings she could not summon even if she tried. She spent too much, more than we could really afford, and then my parents would argue about money. One Chanukah, when the piles of presents had been particularly towering and our eye-rolling during the singing of the songs had been particularly obnoxious, my father lit into my mother about how spoiled we were and how much she spent on us. They screamed at each other in a way we'd never heard before. My mother threw the creamer from their wedding china at a wall, smashing it to pieces before she ran upstairs to the bedroom, locking the door behind her.

We kids cowered in the family room and opened our presents in silence. It was the last night of Chanukah. I left one small present unopened. It fit in the palm of my hand; I smuggled it up to my room and hid it in a desk drawer. I thought that we had ruined Hanukkah forever with our bad, ungrateful behavior, so I should save that one last gift for the following year, when there would not be any presents. No more Hanukahs, and pottery shards in the kitchen. We could hear my mother's sobs through the bedroom door. I thought I should save one last link to the past, in case we had ruined the family forever, too. Who knew what we could break when we stopped being good children for even a few minutes?

The next day, my mother would try to piece the broken creamer back together without success. Later, much later, I would realize that Hanukkah was not ruined after all. Like all the other conflicts in our lives, the Chanukah fight disappeared into silence as if it had never been. Nothing had changed; we would be getting new presents in December as usual. In mid-August, restored to full faith in the continuity of our family life, I finally opened that lone present sitting in my desk drawer. It turned out to be a purple and orange plastic zebra pin -- utterly useless, and, quite possibly, the ugliest thing ever created by man. I stared at it for a full minute before bursting into laughter. It was the first time I glimpsed the idea that one could construct a symbol or metaphor that would not only undermine the meaning it was supposed to bear, but would, in fact, collapse under its own ludicrous weight. It wasn't a bad lesson to learn, really, for a child already struggling to represent a world that seemed always on the verge of vanishing.

In my adult life now, with a family of my own, I'm a little ashamed of how little we make of Hanukkah. We have no decorations except for a construction paper menorah that LG drew of his own accord and taped to a window. We light an animal menorah, and sing the blessings. But we don't sing any of the songs, unless you count the traditional Adam Sandler bits. I don't make latkes, and I probably wouldn't even if I thought there was some distant chance that someone in the house would eat them. We have dreidels, somewhere, but we didn't bother to find them. There are no bags of Hanukkah gelt, since my kids hate chocolate. There is no pile of presents. In fact, I haven't wrapped a single thing. If one of us has gotten the kids a gift for the night, Mr. Blue and I just hand it to them, or stick it in a shopping bag first. If we haven't gotten them anything, Mr. Blue takes the kids out to a local gift store after we've lit candles; they each pick out a little Playmobil set, or maybe a Webkinz. But they do that anyway, some nights after dinner. It's not all that different from a non-Chanukah night around here, except for the candles.

I'm not going to pat myself on the back and tell myself that my kids aren't deprived by this understated, half-hearted Hanukkah celebration. Someday my kids will have to decide that for themselves. They'll construct their own narratives of what our family traditions were like, how they succeeded or failed at the business of creating a loving family and a connection to the culture around them. Maybe they'll be discussing Hanukah with their therapists someday; maybe they'll be writing public screeds about unwrapped presents and distracted, cranky mothers who couldn't be bothered to find the dreidels. I don't know. I hope not. But it's hard to say.

But at least I'm sure that they'll never find themselves hanging all their hopes for the future and memories of the past on a purple and orange plastic zebra pin. That's progress, right?

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