Maspeth living room is transformed into a Thanksgiving
dining room that can seat visiting family. Tribune
photo By Brian M. Rafferty
Holiday Focuses On Passing Along Tradition
By Liz Skalka
Each Jewish family celebrates Hanukkah in their
own way. Jamie Lewis and her husband, Jack Habert,
and their children Brendan, 3, and Ilana, 1, are
just beginning to develop their family traditions.
For the Forest Hills residents, one of the most
important parts of the holiday involves adorning
their home with Hanukkah-themed decorations.
"Our big thing right now is putting up decorations,"
Lewis said. "We really try to make the holiday
Lewis and Habert decorate their home with cut-outs
of dreidels, a four-sided top with Hebrew letters
on the sides used for games, along with a menorah,
a candelabrum with nine stems. "That's what makes
it seem like Hanukkah," Lewis said.
Lewis said she adopted the tradition of decorating
from her family and even put decorations up in
her apartment before she was married and had children.
Each night of Hanukkah, Lewis and Habert and their
children exchange presents and light the menorah.
There's also a night when they celebrate by having
a Hanukkah party with Habert's family who lives
nearby. "It's a good reason to spend time with
family," Lewis said.
Lewis and Habert also try to impart to their children
the history behind the holiday by reading books
and discussing traditions before the holiday arrives.
They teach their children Hanukkah songs that
they sing leading up to the holiday.
"The preparation for the holiday is almost as
much as the holiday itself," Lewis said.
Habert added, "We'd like them not just to think
about the night when they get gifts."
They also prepare traditional foods served on
the holiday around that time, such as potato pancakes,
or latkes, and fried jelly donuts.
The Story Behind Hanukkah
Lewis and Habert, who are both board members at
the Forest Hills Jewish Center, a conservative
egalitarian congregation, stressed, however, that
Hanukkah is not as major a Jewish holiday as Passover,
which commemorates the liberation of the Jews
from being Egyptian slaves, or Rosh Hashanah,
the Jewish new year.
Hanukkah is known as the Festival of Lights and
is celebrated by lighting candles each of the
eight nights of the holiday. Beginning with one
candle, plus another lit in the middle of the
menorah used to light the others, an additional
candle is added each night. Blessings are also
said when the menorah is lit.
Hanukkah means "rededication" in Hebrew and celebrates
the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem following
being desecrated during war. Enough oil remained
only to light the temple for one day but the temple
light ended up burning for eight, a miracle celebrated
through the holiday.
Hanukkah foods are cooked in oil to commemorate
the miracle. Gelt, or chocolate coins, are also
given, and drediel games are played.
Hanukkah is celebrated during the third month
of the Jewish calendar, usually falling around
late November to early December. This year the
first night of Hanukkah is Dec. 4.
Though giving presents is not a traditional part
of the celebration, many point out that the practice
was adopted because of the holiday's proximity
to Christmas. Lewis and Habert said they want
to make the holiday for their children about more
than just giving and receiving presents.
As for Christmas, the couple said they try to
teach their children about the Christian holiday
though they say that Brendan understands that
the holiday isn't one he celebrates at home.
"He's learning about all the different holidays,"
Habert said. "He knows they're not his."
The family, however, does go see the Christmas
tree at Rockefeller Center as well as Christmas
light decorations in the neighborhood. "We enjoy
it," Habert said. "We don't try to pretend it's
On Christmas, Lewis and Habert try to organize
play dates for their children, or they go the
movies, and, of course, indulge in some Chinese
food, a common ritual of Jews on Christmas.
But overall, "It's really a vacation day because
nothing's going on," Lewis said. "It's a day off,
but it's not a day we can do anything."
Rabbi Yehuda Leonard Oppenheimer of the orthodox
congregation of Young Israel of Forest Hills said
orthodox practices on Hanukkah do not vary much
from those of reform and conservative congregations.
"We see it as they have the same Jewish practices
as always," Oppenheimer said, adding, "It's a
time that's somewhat festive."
He pointed out that Hanukkah is one of the minor
Jewish holidays and that it became popular as
a Jewish version of Christmas because of when
the holidays fall, though Oppenheimer compared
Hanukkah to a type of Thanksgiving in the spirit
of the holiday.
Oppenheimer pointed out that years ago in Europe,
Jews were persecuted during Christmas. "In the
past, Christmas has not been a happy time for
Jews," he said, adding that in America, the line
between church and state blurs during Christmas.
Though he added about Hanukkah, "The light is
symbolic of the Torah. It's the energy source
of the Jewish nature. These little tiny lights
are lights of eternity."
But for some, it's just about the simpler meaning
of the holiday and developing traditions. "It
comes down to the food and songs," Lewis said.
"People have been singing these songs for a long,