By Natalie Silverstein, P’15, ’17, ’22
I was raised Ukranian Catholic by immigrant parents. Christmas was a very big deal at my house, but mostly from a religious and culinary perspective. My parents didn’t have much money, so I grew up understanding that my wish list for Santa had to be brief and reasonable. I always received one or two special gifts, and I have many happy, magical Christmas memories.I think the modest celebrations of my childhood helped me appreciate the things I did receive, and focus on the joys of cooking, decorating and being with family at the Holidays.
When I married my husband and we decided to raise a Jewish family, I grieved the loss of Christmas for a bit, but then fully embraced Chanukah as an opportunity to create new traditions and warm memories for our kids. I had already learned how to make a perfect latke from my Mother. (Ukrainians love nothing more than fried potatoes and sour cream). I bought dreidel lights to adorn our front hallway, and our Holiday cards are displayed on a wire “wreath” with a menorah on top. Regardless of when Chanukah falls each year, we decorate early and find new ways to build excitement (I’m still looking for a gelt-based “advent calendar” equivalent…I may invent one).
The one thing I couldn’t really support was eight nights of gifts. It always seemed excessive and with three kids, who could come up with 24 unique gift ideas? I was also determined to introduce community service to my kids at an early age. We don’t wait to start reading to our children, why wait to start volunteering with them? I wanted to be sure some of the eight nights didn’t involve receiving gifts but were still special and fun. One night we bake cookies for our neighbors and deliver them. Another night we wrap gifts that we’ve purchased for donation to the New Orleans Women’s Shelter, an organization we discovered through a Congregation Rodeph Sholom service trip after Hurricane Katrina.
Our favorite family tradition is our annual Chanukah visit through Dorot (www.dorotusa.org). Dorot is a social service agency helping the elderly in Manhattan. They offer great family programming, including friendly visits during all major Jewish Holidays. I signed up for our first Chanukah visit over a decade ago. We were matched with Betty and Fred Schwartz, Holocaust survivors who lived on the Upper East Side. Fred had been incapacitated by a stroke but was always present for our visits, wearing his kippah and sitting in his recliner. Betty was spry and sweet. She always wore her finest fluffy pink sweater, and with the help of an aide, prepared mini latkes and honey cake for our visit. We would light the candles, play dreidel and sing songs together. Of course, we requested the Schwartz’s again, year after year. The best feeling in the world was having my kids ask me each Chanukah, “what night are we visiting the Schwartz’s.”
After 8 or 9 years of our annual visits, Betty suffered a fall and a broken hip. She was shaky and using a walker that Chanukah, but we still had a wonderful time. The following year, she passed away, and Dorot informed us that Fred was no longer requesting visits. We visit other folks now, different people each year, and all are lovely, but we still talk about Betty and Fred. Connecting with them created a meaningful, impactful tradition around Chanukah for my family, and I’m grateful for the experience.
Of course, we also still have many gifts, donuts, dreidels, chocolate gelt, and candles. Oh – and latkes, lots of latkes.