Despite the festive spirit in the air, things were looking a little bleak for me that first Hanukkah as a single mother of two.
It was a real shame—Hanukkah has got to be the least stressful Jewish holiday. There’s no laborious hut-building or freezing dinners to endure (see Sukkot), no marathon cleaning sessions and eight days of improvised, breadless menus (see Passover), and no tortured fasting and recounting of past sins you or your ancestors committed (see Tisha B’Av, Yom Kippur, Asarah B’Teves, and so on). Unless you need to contend with spoiled children who expect grandiose presents and you realize you’ve been parenting entirely wrong, Hanukkah is only fun.
Not so for me that year, though. While I was happy to be liberated from a contentious marriage, I had little time to exult in my newfound freedom. I was busy with the nonstop wrangling of two small children by myself for the first time, setting up a new home in a new community, and assuming all household-related tasks that had previously belonged to my ex-husband. I also felt a little shocked at my new reality. Failing marriages often march toward a slow and painful death so you know the end is coming long before it does. But until you’re in that new, small apartment sweating over the Ikea instruction manual for a cheap shoe rack, the transition doesn’t feel quite real.
More than the new demands on my time, emotional exhaustion was taking a greater toll. I was scared to be alone at night; that I was now the only person standing between my sleeping children and potential intruders seemed preposterous. (I kept a hammer and wrench in easy grabbing distance not because I hoped to become handy, but as hypothetical weapons.) Bill-paying had been one of those tasks my ex had overseen, so I was now forced to address the constant onslaught of bills that arrived like clockwork to my new address. It was both eye-opening and enraging. “The state takes how much money from my paychecks?” I yelped angrily to my father after I puzzled over the regular deductions I was now seeing for the first time. Yes, I had previously been ignorant of the way our country’s entire tax system is structured. I wish I was kidding.
I was also angry—at my ex, at the world, with God. I felt I had already struggled quite enough in my young life, thank you very much, and I wondered petulantly why I was now experiencing further hardship.
All things considered, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to confront the new looming existential question before me: What kind of Jewish home did I want—or was I able—to create for my children? Just as I’d let my ex-husband manage our finances because he was better at math, I had also let him infuse the house with his particular brand of religious ardor because he was better at transmitting the spiritual joy inherent in celebratory Jewish holidays, like Hanukkah, to our young children. He had a more purposeful zeal for it, and the unsullied joy distinctive of every ba’al teshuva I’ve ever met who had the privilege of choosing a pathway, not traveling the one already laid out for him.
Having experienced actual spiritual doubt and disappointment in my own journey, and not being a decisive person, I had felt less qualified to handle the nature of how we celebrated holidays beyond this directive: “Not too much Chabad stuff, please.”
Now, that responsibility also fell to me to create in my new home. I wanted to infuse it with happiness and tradition, but I was consumed with exhaustion and struggling with my frustrations at whatever deity it was that saw fit to throw me yet another one of life’s major curveballs. Any Jewish rituals were done by rote repetition. If it hadn’t been written into my divorce agreement that I had to observe certain Jewish customs, I can’t say with certainty they would have existed at all.
Hanukkah is all about light, but that first year I was struggling to find a sliver of it in my outdated and dimly lit apartment (purchasing lightbulbs had also never been one of my household tasks).
I tried to rally that first night of Hanukkah. I laid out my children’s misshapen menorahs they had created in school and day care on silver foil, teetering on an unsteady coffee table I pushed closer to the window facing outward to my garden complex. Then I rethought everything and instead put them on the only-slightly sturdier dining table far away from the curtains—or, as my anxious mother called them when I was growing up, decorative fire hazards. I led my children in song but my thin voice and off-key pitch paled in comparison to the rich tenor of their father’s, who—to be fair—is a professional singer. I was mired in self-pity at this sad scene that had looked so different from Hanukkahs past.
I was so preoccupied with all the worries occupying real estate in my mind that when my kids got just a little too close to the fire, I reflexively channeled decades of living with a pyrophobic parent and started screaming at them. “Get away from there! Fire is dangerous!” I shrieked. “Do you want to get burned?!”
Written on my children’s scared little faces, I saw my inherited anxiety, my present state of defeat and resentment, and a future that held too little of the joy I wanted to create for them in my new home. And I knew I had to do better.
I’ve never liked having the buck stop with me. I like renting homes and working for The Man. I’d make a terrible sea captain; I’d have a real problem adhering to some ancient maritime tradition and going down with a ship that was sinking through no fault of my own. In short: Responsibility is scary. But there’s no other job like parenting, especially single parenting, that teaches you that you simply cannot pass the buck to someone else. No one else will be building that shoe rack. Addressing and paying those bills. Or infusing your home with peace and serenity as you try and transmit the joy inherent in a rich Jewish life to your children—even when you don’t particularly feel it yourself.
The same way I put on a happy face when I felt worried or sad, I began to recommit to the Jewish rituals I had let lapse or exist in faint intonations of past practice, even if I was only pantomiming the rituals instead of genuinely feeling them.
I took my kids to shul each week and began going to Saturday night learning with them. I made Shabbos dinner more fun by letting each kid choose to make kiddush or slice the challah, tasks imbued with a small measure of responsibility that inordinately excited them. I involved my children in lighting candles for chagim and Shabbos so they could be active participants, and watching their faces alight with the glow of the flame as I quelled my congenital fear of fire made for moments of pure transcendence that almost—almost—erased the memories of that first gloomy Hanukkah.
Striving toward meaning was purposeful in itself—aspirational Judaism, if you will. I extracted value from every positive experience my children and I shared around these traditions, which helped instill a degree of fulfillment that I was seeking. Pretending to love and continue to uphold Jewish traditions, when I felt too stressed and preoccupied with worries to muse how much spiritual contentment these things offered me personally, still helped create a sense of order, tradition, and joy.
Sometimes it was really hard. Generally, single parents occupy an amorphous space in Orthodox Jewish communities, modern as they may be; it felt slightly disenfranchising to be nontraditional in a structure whose foundation rests on tradition. Three-day holidays with no technology or devices to which I could send my children for brief periods of respite from being perpetually “on” veered from difficult to agonizing. Making a fun Shabbos dinner after an arduous week of work was infinitely harder for me than just flopping on the sofa with a glass of wine and a good book. But there was no else there to pick up my slack.
That aspect of divorce—more than the bouts of loneliness or worry about the future—is perhaps the hardest new reality that people don’t often anticipate. The successful degree to which families function hinges on a clear division of labor, but when you get divorced, you inherit all the extra tasks that previously fell to someone else. It’s draining. And sometimes, you’re just not as good at some of those things. You need to do them anyway. So I do, even when I’m exhausted or feeling particularly frustrated with my vast scope of responsibilities.
Still, if I can’t match the purer spiritual joy for certain Jewish traditions and model that for them exactly like their father, I take solace in the knowledge that I manage other aspects of my children’s lives quite well: the social niceties of play dates and birthday parties, taking ownership of their extracurricular activities, and meeting deadlines for, well, anything. And if I don’t always feel the genuine spiritual joy that these things mean for others, and instead feel conflicted or tired of modeling happy adherence to certain Jewish practices, so what? My kids don’t intuit my inner diffidence. Or maybe they do. But they see me trying. And that’s something.
In truth, over time, things that had been rote and meaningless have become measurably richer. Or some of the things, anyway. I can’t lie: I still dread three-day holidays the way a Thanksgiving hostess dreads the watchful eye of her mother in-law. But the one-off moments, like the lighting of Shabbos candles, and every time I was able to push through an extended yom tov without descending into fits of defeated yelling, contribute to the cumulative, trickle-down effect of a more peaceful, joyful Jewish home.
Six years after that first Hanukkah, I’ve become a pro at learning how taxes work and buying lightbulbs but carry the weight of new stresses: an arduous co-parenting relationship, continually keeping up with more bills for unexpected expenses, and the collective pain of friends and loved ones whose divorces were much more excruciating than my own. My mother used to tell me things would get easier. In the past six years, I’ve realized that things never get easier. Only the way we respond to them.
I’m the captain of my ship, if the ship is a rickety apartment that needs a good cleaning. I don’t want my kids to drown in the sea of my own internal anguish and disappointment, especially not during times that are supposed to be joyous and filled with spiritual meaning.
This past year has proven exceptionally difficult for me. Yet as Hanukkah approaches, I prepare to swallow all that and prepare a festive holiday for my children. I’ll fry some latkes, light some candles far away from any ornamental fabrics, and distribute presents, the purchase of which will assuredly strain the confines of my limited budget.
But the most critical part of the holiday will go unnoticed by everyone else but me. I’ll pretend to feel the joy that right now eludes me. I’ll do my best to make a happy chag for my children, even though I don’t personally feel it, and even though it comes more naturally to their father.
In a world filled with darkness, we need all the light we can get. Even if it’s not our own.
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Tova Cohen is a fundraising communications professional and freelance writer. She lives with her family in New Jersey.