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This Chanukah

            We bought a new chanukiah (a candle holder with nine branches) for Chanukah, as a step up from the one we’ve used for the past two years: a tiny supermarket trinket with mini candles that burned down in minutes. That one replaced what we’d had for many years, which was nothing. It seems strange, given how much Judaism means to me, that I still struggle so much with the symbols and rituals of being Jewish. I still don’t light Shabbat candles on Friday nights, or bake or buy a challah, or say blessings over wine (or even grape juice). I take great joy in singing the prayers and in the sense of community and I love teaching the kids in synagogue school. But. There are still so many glitches.

The new Chanukiah in it’s place of honor next to Miss Butterfly

            One of the glitches is the story behind the holiday of Chanukah. The traditional story is that the Jews rose up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the second century before the Common Era. King Antiochus IV had outlawed the Jewish religion, ordering the Jews to worship Greek gods, and his soldiers attacked the city, killing thousands and desecrating the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews rebelled, under Judah the Maccabee, and retook the city and the Temple, and when they went to rededicate the Temple, and light the seven branched Menorah, they could only find enough consecrated oil to last one day, but, miracle of miracles, the oil lasted eight days.

Miracles shmiracles.

            Except. The war started as a civil war between those Jews, led by the Maccabees, who were determined to impose Jewish law on all of the Jews, even by force, and those Jews who had adopted Greek customs; the entrance of the Greek soldiers came later. The Maccabees won the war, killing Greek soldiers and their fellow Jews, and took control of the land of Israel for more than a century. Oh, and the oil that lasted eight days? It wasn’t in the original telling of the story. The miracle of the oil came up later, when the Rabbis needed an excuse for a festival of light to replace the pagan festivals of light the Jewish people loved so much.

            So, how do I celebrate a miracle (eight days of oil) that I know didn’t actually happen? And how do I celebrate a holiday that honors the killing of Jews like me who just wanted to have a foot in both the religious and the secular worlds?

            I struggle with the story behind this holiday just like I struggle with the story of Purim (punishing the man who planned the mass murder of the Jews by killing him and his whole family), but I can also see the value of a holiday that helps us find a way to feel hopeful during a dark time, be it a time of oppression or a time of literal darkness.

            The fact is, even though in America we tend to look at Chanukah as the sort of third cousin twice removed of the big winter holiday of Christmas, it turns out that many cultures have a festival of light around this time of year. Each one has its own story – whether it’s about the birth of Jesus, or the rebirth of the Sun, or honoring ancestors; the Hindus have a whole epic among the Gods for Diwali (celebrated mid-November this year) that ends in the triumph of good over evil.

            What all of these holidays have in common is the celebration of light. As the days get shorter and colder, and the nights get longer and darker, we all need something to remind us that light and heat and harvests and joy will return. We light candles, or clay lamps, or bonfires, or firecrackers, and we make a point of celebrating with our loved ones and eating special foods, all so that we can make it through the winter with our hope intact. We’ve gotten so good at this that, at least in America, we call this “the most wonderful time of the year!”

“The MOST wonderful?!”

            We still crave the symbols of our own cultures when we celebrate, though, just like we want to spend time with our own families and friends at this time of year. So for Christmas there’s Santa Claus, and mistletoe, yule logs (originally from a druid custom of rolling a flaming wheel down a hill to remind the sun how to rise), and of course Christmas trees (fun fact, people used to light up their Christmas trees with candles, before electric light came along, so Christmas tree fires were very common); and for Chanukah, we light our Chanukiyot and spin dreidels and eat potato latkes and chocolate gelt (coins); and for Yalda Night, a Zoroastrian Winter Solstice celebration in Iran on the longest night of the year, there are red fruits (like pomegranates and watermelons) to symbolize the crimson colors of dawn, and dried fruit and nuts and Persian sweets and poetry; and on St. Lucia’s Day in Sweden, the eldest daughter dresses in a long white gown, tied with red ribbons, and wears a crown of candles and lingonberry greens, and brings sweet rolls called Lussekatter to her family; and for the Chinese Lunar New Year lanterns are lit to celebrate the light of the moon, and dumplings and fish and rice cakes and noodles are eaten for good luck in the coming year; and for Diwali, clay lamps called Diyas are lit to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil, and there are candles and firecrackers and intricate patterns of colored powders, and sweet and savory foods; and for Kwanzaa, an African American holiday to commemorate African Winter Solstice festivals, a Kinara (a candle holder with seven branches) is lit with candles in red, black and green, and gifts are given, and harvest foods of Africa are eaten, and the values of African village traditions are celebrated.

            But all of it, however specific the details are to our own cultures, connects us to the overall human need for light, and wisdom, and hope for tomorrow.

            When I think of it like that, Chanukah starts to take on more of a glow for me. And it also makes sense of my love for Christmas movies, which are really all about love and light and miracles, especially the small miracles that help us through each day.

            So maybe this year, even as Mom and I light the candles on the Chanukiah, and sing Chanukah songs to the dogs, we can think about all of the other people around the world celebrating their own festivals of light, and we can remember the creativity and ingenuity of all of our ancestors in finding ways to feel joy at such a dark time of year, instead of each of us hibernating in our own caves. And maybe, along with the obligatory potato latkes, we can celebrate with samosas, or Halwa, or dumplings, or Lussekatter. Maybe we’ll even drink some Swedish Glogg (flaming mulled wine!), though probably not. The dogs would much prefer a traditional Winter Solstice meal, with lots and lots of roasted meat.

“We’re ready to be spoiled for eight days! Or more!!!!”

            I don’t want to erase the history that brought my people to this point, or pretend that my ancestors were any less flawed than they were. I want to find a way to honor the deeper meaning of the holiday, for me, which is that survival is possible, even through the darkest of times, if we are willing to look around and learn from each other.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

Hope For Tomorrow

            The weather is finally getting colder, and despite the rising Covid 19 rates around the United States, things in my little world are inching closer to normal. We’re still living most of our lives masked and/or on Zoom, but we have plenty of toilet paper, and imported television shows from Canada, and the library is open for browsing again.

Except, people are still dying. 230,000 is the current estimate, but it grows every day. We’re so used to Covid that the numbers of dead barely make it into the headlines anymore.

The autumn Hallmark movies have already given way to the Christmas movies, and even though I could have used a few more weeks of fall festivals and leaf peepers and corn mazes, I’m still happy to cozy up with the dogs and watch all of the happy endings unspool. Given the temperature of the world right now, with political debates and health debates and tension and drama from every direction, I find great relief in spending a few hours embraced by a pool of kindness, generosity and love. All I would add is some chocolate fudge ice cream, with whipped cream, and peanut butter sauce, and then it would be perfect.

“Did you say chocolate?”

The schools in my area have been reporting more Covid cases recently, so synagogue school may have to transition from hybrid to fully online any day now, but at least I’ve had almost two months with my students in person, getting to know them and build relationships. The kids are doing their best to squeeze some normalcy out of their current abnormal: planning Halloween costumes, hoarding jelly beans, running and playing and making a lot of noise whenever possible. They make me believe that everything might be okay, someday.

“Did you say Jelly Beans?”

Other than missing the chance to see the kids in person, though, the possibility of renewed restrictions doesn’t really interrupt my life. I’m not a trick or treater (I prefer to choose my own candy, thank you very much), and Thanksgiving isn’t a big deal in my family, and I get at least two months’ worth of Christmas spirit through my TV, so that won’t be any different for me this year either. The fact is, other than the masks and the Zooms, I don’t feel especially inconvenienced by Covid anymore, which, in itself, is horrifying. How did we get used to all of this death so easily? Why is it so easy to adapt to the worst news?

I’ve never gotten used to Donald Trump, though, maybe because he is always creating chaos, uprooting us from our placid acceptance of the current evil to force us to face a new and crazier evil.

I’m ready for the election to be over, and I’d like to believe that Joe Biden will win, but I’m afraid that the damage will linger long after the cause of the damage has left the building.

In the meantime, Cricket has been helping me collect leaves for Mom’s craft projects, nosing her way past the green ones and focusing on the reds, and browns, and yellows, with sharp edges and mysterious wormholes. She likes the leaves that have been sniffed, pawed at, stepped on, and yes, probably peed on too, because those are the ones with the richest stories to tell.

The Leaf Sniffer at work.

Mom is deep into her craft projects, melding her photography and quilting and weaving and painting and eco printing, into all new works of art. And I’m jealous. I haven’t had the patience to make anything lately – no knitting, not much baking or cooking – I haven’t even done much cutting or gluing, since I can’t hang things on the walls of my temporary classroom in the social hall. It takes energy and focus to create new things and lately when I’m not teaching or writing, I’m watching TV or sleeping.

But there’s something about the impermanence of the autumn leaves that makes me want to collect them and make them into something, or just to keep them between the pages of books, or in photos, or in my memory. It’s the same with my students. I keep wanting to freeze certain scenes in my memory, so that I’ll remember how wonderful these moments have been, despite everything else.

“I can fly!”

I would like to say that I am hopeful about the future, and that I can picture a world that is freer from meanness, and full of healing and compassion and the right kind of compromise, where the best of each of us is respected and encouraged to grow. But I’m not quite as optimistic as all that. Instead, I’ve been trying to hold on to the hope that tomorrow, or the next day, or the next, will give me the chance to watch something good on TV, or listen to a podcast that makes me feel better about the world, or watch my students run around in circles and scream and play, whether I see them in person or on Zoom.

Tomorrow has to be better than today, right?

“Are you sure?”
“I don’t think she’s sure.”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

The Christmas Quandary

I like the smell of burning wood, and the Snowflake lights, and the chill of the beginning of winter. I like hot cocoa, and eggnog, and any excuse to top things with whipped cream. But I have mixed feelings about Christmas, because I’m Jewish and it’s not my holiday. We didn’t talk much about Christmas in my Jewish Day School growing up, but every show I watched on TV at this time of year (and I watched a lot of TV) had a Christmas themed episode, and it was, as intended, enchanting.


“I love whipped cream!”

If you look through a list of the creators of Christmas movies and Christmas music, you’ll find tons of Jewish names. It could be a coincidence, but I think it’s because, as outsiders, Jews were desperate to feel that sense of magic and belonging. The whole town comes together to celebrate, with food and drink and sparkling lights. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? The idea that some magical character will know exactly what I need, and provide it, is every child’s wish. As is the idea that being a good and kind person should pay off.

But then I’m reminded, by this or that song, that this is not my holiday. I do not sing songs about Jesus. I don’t believe in the virgin birth. I am not the target audience for movies about the crucifixion, or stories about how Jews add the blood of gentile children to their matzot at Passover (where did that idea even come from?). These stories remind me that there are large groups of people who think I have horns coming out of my head.



And then I watch an ice skating show on TV, or hear someone singing Silent Night (or singing a Jewish prayer to the tune of Silent Night, at Friday night services at my synagogue), and I change my mind again. There’s something so peaceful and kind about the intentions behind Christmas: the generosity of reaching out to strangers who need help; families returning to each other; angels bringing miracles to people who need them.


“Dear Santa, can I have more chicken?”

I’ve been watching all of the Christmas movies on the Hallmark Channel again this year, because they soften the edges of a harsh world for a little while, with all of that love and magic and inevitable good fortune. But they also force me to see all of the holes in my life, where things and people are missing. I see a cozy family in front of the fire, or a bright shining star in the sky, and I think of my Butterfly, and how she embodied all of the sweetness and light the world could offer, and I miss her terribly. And I miss the good fortune that all of these two dimensional heroes and heroines on TV are experiencing, getting everything they’ve ever dreamed of. And it hurts.


My Butterfly


And then it changes again, and I feel hopeful that some of that magic is still out there for me, and it will find me, no matter what my religion or culture or skin color or gender, when I’m ready. I’d really like to believe in that.



Christmas Movies, Again


Mom is getting VERY tired of Christmas movies. I try to tell her that it’s either a Christmas movie or another two hours of watching the news, or, we can watch repeats of Law & Order for the tenth time each. She acts like I’m purposely making her suffer through Twee Season (see what I did there? Twee for Tree?), and blocking all of the sensible shows from the TV.

This is not my fault. Actually, there have been more than a few Christmas movies this season that I had to stop watching early on. Usually I like the sugary sweet love stories, and the magical touches that make everything turn out alright, but sometimes the acting is too unbelievable, even for me.


“Am I sugary sweet, Mommy?”

Poor Mom is stuck, because she doesn’t like the too sweet movies, and she doesn’t like the edge-of-your-seat-the-world-is-ending movies (or news), and there’s not much left in between right now.


“The world is ending, Grandma!”

This is the time of year when I wish I could forget the plot lines of all of the shows I love, and then I could watch the repeats for hours on end, in pure bliss. But, damn it, my memory is too good. If I try to watch the reruns, I get impatient with my favorite characters for making the same mistakes they made the last time I watched this damn episode.

And I still haven’t given in and joined Netflix, or whatever it is you do with Netflix or Hulu or Amazon. I still borrow DVD’s from the library when I want to catch up on episodes of Miss Marple or Foyle’s War (not kidding).

It helps to have something relaxing on TV while I’m doing my schoolwork at the computer, because if I paid too much attention to the darkness and despair we read and write about in my social work classes, my head would explode. Instead, I listen to Christmas movie dialogue, and reach down to scratch Butterfly’s head, and look over at Cricket’s enigmatic face every once in a while, for reassurance that we haven’t all gone to hell in a handbasket.



Ideally, all Christmas movies would star Jimmy Stewart, or Tom Hanks, and be directed by Frank Capra or Nora Ephron, and I could just relax my critical mind and let them take me on a floating journey. I could listen to Louis Armstrong singing about a wonderful world, and watch snow fall on the screen, while I sit in my warm, cozy living room, and believe, for a few hours, that everything will be okay.


Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?



Star Wars, Again


“What are Star Wars, Mommy?”

I was worried about seeing the new movie. I dragged my heels, afraid to be stuck in a movie theater, flooded with alienation and disappointment. The prequels were traumatizing, I guess. All of the hype and commercialization leading up to The Force Awakens has overwhelmed me, and I was worried that the old stars would just be there for cameos, and everything would be unfamiliar and boring and patched together.

Thank God I was wrong.

No spoilers, in case there’s anyone left who hasn’t seen the movie, but I loved it.

When I was seven years old, my school bus passed a movie marquee every day where they counted down the days to the premier of Return of The Jedi. I don’t remember if I’d seen Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back by then, or just heard so much about them that I was caught up in the excitement.

We went to see Return of the Jedi on a Saturday night, and the first thing I saw was Jabba the Hut, and I was horrified. Maybe I was already tired, but after a few minutes of watching Jabba the Hut stick his tongue out, pull on Princess Leia’s chain and shake his snotty belly, I fell asleep as an act of self-protection. I didn’t even get to see the ewoks!

I made up for it later, though, and saw each movie too many times to count. I loved the ewoks. It’s not so much that I loved the idea of a race of militant fluffy creatures with high pitched voices, speaking a language I did not understand. I loved that they were the perfect combination of teddy bears and puppy dogs. I would travel to the planet of the ewoks in my mind and spend hours there.

As a kid, I did not identify “The Force” with religion, even though Obi Won Kenobi (Obey One?) was clearly a religious figure. The force, to me, was the unspoken energy in the world, all of the bits and pieces of connections and information and energy that no one talked about or acknowledged. The force was all of the things I knew but could not articulate and the air was thick with it. I could feel it. It was the ESP-like knowledge I had about people but couldn’t explain. I would notice a facial expression, or a tone of voice, or remember disparate pieces of information, and in some part of my brain all of that came together and I knew things no one had told me. All the time.

I didn’t think of it as something I could harness and use, for good or for evil. I thought of it more as the threads that kept me attached to other people, so I wouldn’t feel all alone in the world.

Obi Won represented a grownup who would teach me and protect me and be kind and reliable. He was not Yoda, who was always speaking in riddles and making me feel stupid and not good enough, and he was not Darth Vader or Jabba the Hut, using their adult power against me.

By the way, I did not appreciate the redrawing of Jabba the Hut, in George Lucas’s re-edit of the original films, where you could see the lost scene of Jabba walking with Han Solo. It was just wrong that he could walk, that he was thin enough to pass through a doorway. No. Jabba was a giant slug in a dark cave, the most disgusting, hedonistic, immoral creature ever witnessed. He was there to contrast with the clean, precise evil of Darth Vader. He was the Id run wild: killing, eating, taking whatever he wanted without conscience. He was never on a diet.

This Christmas Eve, friends of ours gave Cricket and Butterfly Star Wars toys, one of which I did not recognize (the new droid), and the other was a storm trooper. The storm troopers never really had much impact on me, except that when SUVs became popular, every time I saw a huge white SUV towering over me, I thought of the evil empire. The girls are ready to see the new movie, and all of the movies that came before.


Butterfly thinks her storm trooper makes a nice pillow.


Cricket won’t let the new droid out of her sight.

Butterfly is like an ewok, in looks and in personality. She is childlike, and stubborn, and full of love and loyalty. And she thinks Chewbacca is a tall drink of water. And Cricket would like to have a light saber and a droid of her own.


“I’m an ewok?”


The force is strong with this one.

I ate all of my popcorn before the movie even started, because we got there early thinking there’d be a line on Christmas day. But I didn’t need the popcorn to distract me during the movie. I know that Mark Hamill was the least successful of the three lead actors in the first three movies, but he was the one who stuck with me. He was the heart of everything, and if he hadn’t been believable, none of it would have worked. Luke was me, and I was riveted to my seat waiting to see him, and now I can’t wait for the next movie!

Maybe I’m too old for the training, but I want to be a Jedi. I wanted to be a Jedi way back when too, but now it actually feels possible.

Christmas Movies


I have been gobbling down Christmas movies for the past few weeks. Partly because my regular TV shows are on hiatus, but also because the world is so upsetting and dark lately that a little true-love-wins-out is necessary.

I’m exhausted. I can’t quite tell if it’s about the political noise, or the news, or the end of my first semester in social work graduate school, or the endless disappointment of getting my writing rejected that’s wiping me out. I just feel like my motivation tank is getting close to zero, and these movies are keeping me from scraping the bottom.


Exhausted puppies.

Sugar helps too. I did my own Chanukah Cookie Jamboree, but I only got to four types of cookies before I ran out of space in the freezer. There were the triple chocolate cookies, chocolate chip with Macadamia nuts, almond thumbprints with lemon curd filling, and fruitcake cookies (surprisingly yummy!). I gave away a lot of cookies, but there were enough left over to help smooth out some of the anxiety.


Cricket likes to bake.

I didn’t realize that taking one graduate class at a time, online, would wear me out so completely. I thought I’d have energy left over to get my own writing done, but I’ve just barely been able to keep up with the blog this semester, let alone work on the other ten projects piled on my night table.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the school work, for the most part. I like the feeling that I’m really starting to understand something about this country I live in, and how social policy actually works, and more often doesn’t work. I feel more grounded because of the reading I’ve done on social justice. I feel like I understand the news better, and understand more of the history that shapes today’s issues.

But instead of feeling inspired and energized, I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. And then I eat a cookie and watch one of these Christmas movies, which are more about love and family and magic and hope than they are about religion, and I feel a tiny bit better.

Mayim Bialik (a more Jewish girl you could not find) was in a Christmas movie this year. They explained away her very Jewish looks by making her mother Jewish and her father Christian, so she went to Hebrew school but the family still celebrates Christmas every year. Her movie was one of my favorites, because there was only a little bit of magic, in the form of a Santa Clause-esque man who helped her find her plane ticket and nudged her in the right direction. She wasn’t the perfect, blond, success story, she was just an interesting, hardworking, grumpy woman with bad taste in men. And she got a happy ending. Falling in love didn’t land her a great job, or a good friend, or a loving family, because she already had those things. Falling in love only brought her love.

I’ve watched almost all of the Christmas movies, no matter how silly, and there seem to be more than ever this year, with different channels competing to flood the air waves with hard luck stories and plucky heroines. I try not to get too angry about how easily the undiscovered writer/artist/musician finds success before Christmas, and it helps that a lot of these movies are made in Canada and have lots of Canadian accents to cut through the bitterness.

My favorite message in these movies is to slow down and open your eyes to what you already have. Listen to the music. Play in the snow. Laugh with a friend. That’s where the meaning of life has been hiding all along. It’s simplistic, yes, but it’s still true. When I wake up to Cricket’s doggy breath in my face, or watch Butterfly bring her kibble into the living room so she won’t have to eat alone, I feel so much better. These are the moments that save me.


Cricket’s doggy breath. Can you smell it?


“Hey Mommy, I have doggy breath too!”

Though I wouldn’t mind if Santa, or the Jewish equivalent, would perform some magic for me this winter and nudge me in the right direction to find a publisher; validation that a lifetime of work really can pay off would be a nice way to start the New Year. And more cookies.