The Maccabees didn’t stand a chance against the catalogs that began to appear in in mid-November. Our children, Jonah and Maia, began to look through them as a hobby. They each settled on one expensive present that would link their longing with that of a gazillion other children, Jewish and Christian, a terrifying and determined mob, plotting their conquests around the globe. We dreaded the arrival of the catalogs each afternoon. The children could spot them sticking out of our mailbox like eagles spotting a mouse from a great height. They were their Torahs, their holy books.
“I get to see it first!” Jonah, who was six, screamed.
“No, me!” Maia, who was two, shrieked.
Jonah could read his electronics catalog by himself, and did so with a strange sort of tenderness, as if learning for the first time of the world’s bounty. “Good news, Dad,” he said, when we went to tuck him in for the night. “Nintendo DS comes with a game bundle, and it’s only $149!” He seemed genuinely glad—not for himself only but for us, that this miracle was possible.
Maia still needed a little help, however. She would sit cross-legged on the floor with her American Girl catalog on her lap and say, “Read!” with that threatening look on her face that presaged an explosion. We would spend what seemed to be interminable, eerie hours reading aloud the text accompanying pictures of scarily vapid, saccharine dolls in period costumes, until we could simply recite the words by heart. Maia would caress the pictures as we spoke, staring with longing as if recalling a long-lost love. Over time, we noticed that there was one picture in particular to which she kept returning: Marisol, a girl in a purple tutu. “Is Marisol the one you want?” we asked.
Maia nodded shyly.
“Then you will get Marisol.”
Maia jumped up and began doing a genuine dance of joy, waving her hands over her head and swaying, her delicate face radiant with pleasure. The price tag: only $87 with a jazzy girl outfit; $26 more for the tutu.
This wasn’t exactly what we had intended. When we’d had our children, we’d wanted to improve upon our own experience, to give them the holiday experience that we now wished we had had. While we had, as a young married couple, celebrated Hanukkah carelessly, whenever we saw fit, we now wanted to know exactly when Hanukkah fell; we wanted to know what the letters on the dreidel meant. Suddenly, as parents, we were the ones who could construct the world that would help our children create their own memories.
Plus, while we had been raised in the cities of Los Angeles and Manhattan, among two of the most concentrated Jewish populations on the globe, our children were being raised in Wilmington, North Carolina, where our son was the only Jewish child in his entire elementary school. During the month of December, houses everywhere became artistic tributes to various forms of Santa; our next-door neighbor had designed a Santa out of potato sacks, plopped him on top of a tractor, and parked this odd creation in front of his house. Our house was the only one on the block that was dark.
We had bought our first menorah at a sale by the Ladies Concordia Society at the Temple of Israel, the Reform temple that we had joined soon after arriving in Wilmington. We had been surprised by the variety of items and tchotchkes on sale. There were menorahs with ceramic sports figures, with Disney characters, and a military one featuring metal replicas of tanks. There were Hanukkah doodads of astounding variety: bags of gelt, but also a bag of jelly beans called “Maccabeans,” a yo-yo with a menorah on it that played “I have a Little Dreidel” when you tossed it, electric dreidels that bounced, kits where you could roll your own beeswax candles, Hanukkah finger puppets, coloring books, and so on. We loaded up. We would create our own version of Hanukkah for our children. But what would it be?
Our Hanukkah would focus not on the presents, which we’d learned was a recent innovation to compete against Christmas, but instead on the story that the holiday was meant to celebrate: the victory of the Maccabees against King Antiochus, who tried to suppress the Jewish religion, and the miracle of the Temple light.
Needless to say, the children had never really cooperated in that venture. It didn’t help matters that Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish tradition. Yes, a successful revolt, men with spears, a guy named “The Hammer,” but what it all comes down to is oil that lasts longer than expected. Ultimately, that is a tough sell to two children in a small southern city temporarily inundated with images of wise men with camels, drummer boys, talking animals in a manger, a fat man in a red suit who hands out gifts for free, and something they can really identify with: a baby his parents think is God.
Jonah was two when he began to notice the Christmas frenzy going on around him and started throwing tantrums in front of department store windows, having breakdowns at friends’ houses when he saw all the new toys they had scored, and asking confused questions about Santa Claus and where this incredible bounty of bleeping, whirring, flashing goodies came from.
Rather than being an expression of our Jewish identity, Hanukkah very quickly became the thing that would protect us from the evils of Christmas. To an extent it worked: we didn’t have to haul him out of the mall kicking and screaming—or not all the time, anyway—and we didn’t have to worry about him converting to Christianity each December. Every time he saw one of those Santa shows on TV—the kind that seem to function as infomercials for some hidden cabal of toy manufacturers—we could just say, “Forget about Christmas. You get Hanukkah, you lucky dog, and it lasts for eight days instead of just one! Tell that to your little gentile friends!”
Of course, this did not really address the greed problem. If anything, it made it worse; we were essentially signaling to our children that they would find a better rate of return in being Jewish than Christian. So while we were disturbed and frightened by the greed we had unleashed, we were nevertheless captive to it, and telling them once again about the Maccabees was beginning to feel futile. “So you see,” we said, “the greatest miracle of them all was the decision to light the lamp, not knowing whether the oil would last—the miracle of hope.”
“Can I get the enhanced game bundle?” asked Jonah.
“And I want tutu!” said Maia.
“Don’t you understand?” we asked. “If Judah Maccabee hadn’t beaten the Romans, we would be praying to Zeus right now.”
Jonah thought about this. “Does he give toys too?”
This time, we told the children that they would get all their presents on the first night, after dinner and the lighting of the candles. The idea was that taking care of the gift giving right away would leave the rest of the holiday free of greed. After some arguing it was decided that the schedule could be moved up—we would open presents before dinner, though after the candles. . . well, before the candles. . . . It was midafternoon and still light out when they began ripping furiously at the wrapping. It was like watching piranhas feed. We stood by stunned and a little frightened, waiting for the joy that would be our reward.
We moved closer to Maia as she began to unwrap the American Girl doll that she had pointed to in the catalog again and again. Marisol. We had ordered Marisol on December 1, as supplies were limited, and the customer service agent had said that Marisol was on back order but was guaranteed to arrive by December 25, which was now happily the first night of Hanukkah.
“Maia, here’s Marisol,” we said. She lifted Marisol out of the box and placed her on her lap.
There was silence.
“I hate her,” said Maia.
“What?” we asked, realizing, with horror, that she was not wearing the tutu she had worn in the catalog.
“Not right doll!” shrieked Maia and threw the doll across the room.
It did not go well with the Princess Alexa carriage, either, which we opened and found in many pieces, with instructions so complex they might as well have been for a spacecraft. Maia stood by the dissembled pieces and wailed, “Where my carriage?”
Jonah tore open the Nintendo he had been pleading for, which we had once caught him murmuring about in his dreams (“comes with Mario for 149”). He had never seen the thing before, but he was caught in a kind of trance as he instantly found the on button, pushed it, and began playing, as though simply resuming a game that had been interrupted in some past life. “Jonah, do you like it?” we asked him. He stared at the screen, mouth open. We watched, forgotten.
We sat, disappointed by the children’s reactions. Or maybe “disappointed” was not the word—we’d been cheated. We had hoped that our generosity would make our children turn to us with renewed love and faith in the world s goodness. Instead, they’d had the bad manners to either protest or ignore us. What was this? What had happened to the joy of Hanukkah?
The sight of Maia throwing Marisol across a room littered with shredded wrapping paper and other very expensive toys in various states of disassemblage and nonappreciation was shocking enough to lead us to a resolution: we were tired of celebrating Greedikah. The kids would have to learn the true meaning of Hanukkah, even if it killed us (or them). And so we threw ourselves into Hanukkah as a project. Each night, we had a different activity. We made latkes by hand, grating the potatoes, throwing them into the bubbling oil. We went to a friend’s big Hanukkah party—with 50 people, perhaps the largest Hanukkah party in the city.
We tried to tell them the story. “How would you feel,” we asked Jonah at breakfast the next morning, “if someone said you couldn’t play soccer?” He was wide-eyed; we could see that we were reaching him. We tried to think of his version of a holy book. “How would you feel if someone said you couldn’t read Captain Underpants?”
He nodded gravely. “I’d feel really bad if someone said I couldn’t have my Nintendo,”
Was this it? Was it close? “Well, yeah, that’s it. That’s sort of how the Maccabees felt, sort of.”
What was the Hanukkah story, exactly? We read the children’s versions we had bought for them. It had everything, frankly, that children would like. Unfair rules. Rebellion. Battles. Magical fire.
We played up the battle part.
“Then Judah the Maccabee spurred the Jews to take back the Temple!”
We learned the dreidel game and played it with pennies; somehow, Jonah figured out how to twist the dreidel, or turn it, so it landed on gimel and he always won. He exulted, perhaps not unlike Judah the Maccabee.
“I am Jonah the Maccabee, king of dreidels’“ he proclaimed. We talked about the oil. “What if your Nintendo was losing its charge,” we suggested, “but it kept going. And going. For days. It still worked.”
He stared at us; he was listening. We spent a night rolling candles made from strips of beeswax. Jonah and Maia stood still at the table, watching the flames. There was an appealing pyromaniacal aspect to Hanukkah. There was one flame, then two, then three. There was something basic and mesmerizing about the flames, something so superior, we felt, to the gaudy ornamentation of a Christmas tree. The simple spectacle of the row of light. We did not necessarily feel a connection to anything miraculous but, instead, a sort of breathlessness, the understanding that the Maccabees, whoever they were, had watched flames just like this in a ruined temple 2,200 years ago.
The fifth night, Jonah asked if he could light the candles. “He can,” said his grandmother, and we looked at her, aghast—a seven-year-old armed with a shamash, a tiny torch? But Jonah looked as though his own miraculousness had finally been acknowledged. We lit a candle and handed it to him.
We said the prayer, and Jonah slowly, carefully, lit each candle.
“Let’s turn off the lights!” Jonah suggested.
We did. The candles glowed in the darkness.
“Let’s watch them melt,” he said.
We were quiet. The flames rose up, watery, pale, in the dark kitchen. We watched them melt.
Then our son told us the Hanukkah story. He told about the Greeks who told the Jews they would have to worship the Greek gods. “They said, You can’t worship any gods but ours!” he said with gusto, clenching his fist. He described how the great Temple was ruined and how, when the Maccabees entered it, they had only one night of oil. He knew it all. He told the story of what had happened thousands of years ago slowly, like a miniature rabbi. The way he told it, it was a good story. It was the fifth night of Hanukkah. He was seven years old. We sat in the darkness, the light on our faces, and listened to him.
Karen E. Bender is the author of Like Normal People. Her fiction has appeared in magazines including The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, Ploughshares, and the Harvard Review. Robert Anthony Siegel is the author of the novels All The Money in the World and All Will Be Revealed. They both teach creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where they live with their two children.
This essay originally appeared in the anthology How to Spell Chanukah, edited by Emily Franklin and published by Algonquin Books.
Illustration by Jenny M.