Hanukkah in Western MA

Not Your Grandparents' Shtel: Exploring Jewish Culture in Western Mass by Amy Meltzer

Hanukkah in Western MA

One way we celebrate is by displaying all our menorahs, from the fancy one we received as a wedding gift to the ones made by our children in preschool and kindergarten, and lighting at least two each night. (Photo credit: Amy Meltzer)

If you aren’t Jewish, Hanukkah may be the only Jewish holiday you’ve ever heard of. But in fact, it’s a relatively minor holiday. It falls into the surprisingly large category of Jewish holidays which can be neatly summarized as follows: someone tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.

In this case, the “someone” refers to  Antiochus, a ruler in ancient Israel who prohibited the practice of Judaism. A small and unlikely group of Jewish rebels, known as the Maccabees, stood up to the tyrant and ultimately defeated Antiochus in battle. When they retook possession of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life at the time, they discovered that it had been defiled with idols and pigs. According to tradition, when the Maccabees sought to rededicate the Temple (the word Hanukkah means dedication) they could only find one day’s worth of pure oil to light the menorah, the everlasting light in the Temple. Miraculously, that oil burnt for eight days, long enough for new oil to be prepared. (Looking for a good picture book version of the story? Try David Adler’s new book The Story of Hanukkah.)

Most Hanukkah traditions are connected in some way to the story of the miracle of the oil. In the United States we eat latkes, or potato pancakes fried in oil; in Israel, families make sufagniyot, or jelly doughnuts, also fried in oil. The menorah, or chanukiyyah, is lit each night for eight consecutive nights with candles or, more traditionally, olive oil. And the presents? Well, they don’t really have much to do with the story of Hanukkah. In fact, exchanging presents is a relatively recent phenomenon, most likely popularized because of the holiday’s proximity to another, slightly more well known, solstice-time celebration. One that typically features lots of presents.

Our family’s observance of Hanukkah is fairly modest. Don’t get me wrong – we’re really into holidays, but we make a much bigger fuss over Sukkot and Passover, which are traditionally more significant holidays.  We celebrate by displaying all our menorahs, from the fancy one we received as a wedding gift to the ones made by our children in preschool and kindergarten, and lighting at least two each night (the girls choose which ones). We make these potato latkes (usually only once – way too messy and well, too oily) and play dreidel with M&M’s. We also borrow and bend some traditions from our non-Jewish neighbors, decorating our house with blue lights and homemade decorations and decorating star-shaped cookies (Jewish stars, that is). The kids receive one present each night, with a few annual traditions – one night of  puzzles and/or games that we can do as a family, and one night of art supplies to share. The other nights’ gifts are small items like books and socks.

Some Jewish families feel a little threatened by the enormous appeal of Christmas, and find the need to sell Hanukkah to their children as being as-good-as-or-even-better-than Christmas. I understand the sentiment, but I’m not in favor of  the “we get eight days and they only get one!” refrain.  From my perspective, Hanukkah can’t possibly compete with Christmas, for the simple reason that Christmas is a major Christian holiday (what could be bigger than the birth of Jesus?) and Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday. Rather than trying to turn our holiday into something that it isn’t, we take time to enjoy the beauty of our friends, community’s and extended family’s Christmas festivities. We ooh and ahh over the holiday lights, watch the Christmas specials, and attend the Nutcracker. And with a non-Jewish set of grandparents, the girls even get a chance to do something I always wanted to do as a child – help decorate a Christmas tree. Of course, we also invite others to join in our Hanukkah celebrations. After all, what could be better for all of us than more opportunities to add light to our dark winter days? (The answer: more opportunities to add light AND a chance to learn about other cultures.)

There are a lot of wonderful pre-Hanukkah and Hanukkah events this month, including puppet shows, menorah lightings and festive meals. I’m especially looking forward to the conversation about Christmas and Hanukkah with award winning author Anita Diamant (see the December 4 listing below.) This month I’d also like to personally invite you to a party to celebrate the release of my new-(ish) picture book, The Shabbat Princess. Scroll down to December 10th for more details.


Friday, December 2nd

6-7pm – Tot Shabbat with Peggy Walker and Rabbi Riqi: A wonderful, musical hour welcoming the Sabbath & holidays for families of kids ages 0-6, ncluding a PJ Library Chanukah story, a healthy “Kids’ Kiddush” to follow while parents get to shmooze.A 7:30 p.m. Kabbalat Shabbat Service follows, families welcome and childcare provided. info@beitahavah.org. 413-587-3770. Beit Ahavah, 130 Pine Street. Florence, MA (FREE)

6pm – Family Shabbat Service and dinner with Rabbi David and Felicia Sloin: Musical sevice for all ages followed by dinner. Free, but reservations required in advance. Contact Rabbi Charni Selch for reservations: cbieducation@verizon.net. Congregation Bnai Israel, 253 Prospect Street. Northampton , MA (FREE. RSVP)

5:30pm – Intergenerational Shabbat Services: Friday night services followed by a vegetarian potluck dinner. UMass Jewish Accapella group will share some tunes. Amherst Contact Jody Rosenbloom, Director of Lifelong Learning, eddir@j-c-a.org or 413-256-0160. Jewish Community of Amherst, 742 Main Street. Amherst, MA (FREE)

Saturday, December 3rd

4pm – PJ Library Family Havdallah: Stories, craft, havdallah ceremony to mark the end of the Sabbath. jfb.volunteer@verizon.net.  413-442-4360, x14. Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, 270 State Rd. Great Barrington, MA (FREE)

Sunday, December 4th

10am-12noon – Chanukah and Christmas: Navigating the Holiday Season with Anita Diamant. Best-selling author Anita Diamant will speak about the “December Dilemma” and offer parenting advice for Jewish and interfaith families. www.jewishwesternmass.org. dpeskin@jewishwesternmass.org. 413- 737-4313. Springfield JCC, 1160 Dickinson Street. Springfield, MA (FREE)

3:30-5pm – Chanukah and Christmas: Navigating the Holiday Season with Anita Diamant. Best-selling author Anita Diamant will speak about the “December Dilemma” and offer parenting advice for Jewish and interfaith families. www.jewishwesternmass.org. dpeskin@jewishwesternmass.org. 413- 737-4313. Congregation Bnai Israel, 253 Prospect Street. Northampton, MA (FREE)

Monday, December 5th

10:30pm – PJ Pals Chanukah story and craft: Toddlers, preschoolers, and their parents/caregivers make holiday decorations and join in the rousing musical debut of Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah! by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov. jfb.volunteer@verizon.net. 413-442-4360, x14. Church on the Hill Chapel, 55 Main St. Lenox, MA (FREE)

Saturday, December 10th

5:30 – 7:30pm: Children’s Book and CD Release Party – Local artists Amy Meltzer (that’s me) and Felicia Sloin celebrate the release of Amy’s picture book The Shabbat Princess, and Felicia’s CD, Zeh Hayom, with a book reading, havdallah service, and concert. Boston bagels and cake!  pjlibrary@jewishwesternmass.org, 413-737-4313 x146 Congregation Bnai Israel, 253 Prospect Street. Northampton, MA (FREE)

Sunday, December 11th

3pm – Hanukkah Puppet Show: The Talking Hands Theatre presents a family puppet show with Anna Sobel,  The Mystery of Hanukkah Harry. jfb.volunteer@verizon.net. 413-442-4360, x14. Temple Anshe Amunim, 26 Broad St. Pittsfield, MA (FREE)

10:15-11:30am: B’Tzelem Elohim/In God’s Image – A monthly support group for raising Jewish children with special needs. Contact Jody Rosenbloom, Director of Lifelong Learning at eddir@j-c-a.org or 413-256-0160. Jewish Community of Amherst, 742 Main Street. Amherst, MA (FREE)

Friday, December 16th

6-7:30pm – Musical Shabbaton at Beit Ahavah: From Darkness to Light: Jerusalem’s inspiring “Nava Tehila Ensemble” Daphna Rosenberg and Navot Ben Barak lead an uplifting and magical musical Shabbat service evening with Rabbi Riqi Kosovske.  Children and families are welcome, and childcare is available.  Please RSVP for a vegetarian Shabbat dinner to follow. info@beitahavah.org. 413-587-3770. Beit Ahavah, 130 Pine Street. Florence, MA

Saturday, December 17th

9-10am – Heart of Chanukah on Air: Recording artist Mama Doni will be the guest DJ for a “Heart of Chanukah” radio broadcast of Hilltown Family Variety Show on Northampton radio station WXOJ-LP 103.3FM (Valley Free Radio). Encore airs on Sunday, Dec. 18th from 7-8am. Podcast available at www.HilltownFamilies.org immediately following Saturday’s broadcast.

Sunday, December 18th

10:30am – Chanukah Pajama Party: Come in your pajamas and enjoy a community-wide celebration of the Pajama Drive and Chanukkah with Singer/ Songwriter Felicia Sloin. Free, but please bring new pajamas for the Pajama Drive and consider bringing any new or gently used children’s books for Link to Libraries. pjlibrary@jewishwesternmass.org, (413) 737-4313 X146. Children’s Museum in Holyoke, 44 Dwight Street, Holyoke, MA (FREE)

11am-4pm – Family Chanukah Celebration and Concert: Activities for all ages as well as a concert presented by the South Hadley Children’s Chorus. Concert at 2pm includes Yiddish, Israeli and Ladino theater pieces; folk music; lullabies and dancing; complete with violin, clarinet, percussion and pianist accompaniment. Storyteller Rona Leventhal will perform holiday-themed tales. Yiddish Book Center (located on the campus of Hampshire College), 1021 West Street, Amherst, MA ($)

3pm-5pm – Family Chanukah Experience!: Explore the holiday through songs, stories, dramatic play and art. For families with children ages 2-7 yrs. 413-549-2008. Chabad House, 30 North Hadley St. Amherst, MA (FREE)

3:30-5:30pm – Ready, Set, Chanukah: Latke Factory, Dreidel, Gelt & Games!: Featuring Anna Sobel’s marionette show “The Power of Light” based on I.B. Singer stories, and Chanukah singing led by our URJ camp songleader Brett Hausler. Suggested donation for non-members to support family programs. info@beitahavah.org, 413-587-3770 Beit Ahavah, 130 Pine Street, Florence, MA (>$)

Tuesday December 20th

6pm – Giant Menorah Lighting on the Amherst Common: Hot cocoa, donuts, gelt, latkes and more! Sponsored by Chabad of Amherst. 413-549-2008 Amherst, MA (FREE)

Friday, December 23rd

5:30pm – Family Chanukah and Shabbat Celebration: Bring your chanukiyyah (menorah) and candles to our celebration of Shabbat and Chanukah! Light candles, sing songs, and maybe even enjoy some latkes, too. rebrachel@cbiweb.org, 413-553-5830. Congregation Beth Israel, 53 Lois Street. North Adams MA (FREE)

5:30-8:30pm – Sixth Annual Community Crib and Chanukah Dinner: Chanukah menorah lightings (participants are encouraged to bring their own) and a tableside Shabbat Service. Stories and songs for all ages will follow. A dinner will then be served featuring chicken and latkes. Please bring donations of clothing (including coats), baby formula, diapers, books, and toys. Reservations are required for the dinner and will be accepted up to 12/19. 413-442-5910. Temple Anshe Amunim, 26 Broad Street. Pittsfield, MA


Amy Meltzer

Amy is a Kindergarten teacher at Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton, MA, and the author of two children’s books, A Mezuzah on the Door, and The Shabbat Princess. She writes the blog Homeshuling for Beliefnet, and a monthly column for the Jewish parenting site Kveller.com. Amy lives in Northampton, MA with her husband and two daughters.

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