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A New Twist on A Hanukkah Tradition

Remembering her late mother's love for the holiday, the writer makes lists and Zoom plans for 2020

By Candy Schulman

My mother's Hanukkah party always took place on Christmas Day. No matter what the calendar decreed, we ate latkes on December 25. Christmas was the only day we could count on everyone gathering under one roof.

This year, our Hanukkah will be under multiple roofs, due to the pandemic and courtesy of Zoom.

Hanukkah menorah, Hanukkah traditions, Next Avenue
Credit: Adobe

Eleven years after Mom's death, I've carried on her tradition with my husband, daughter and an extended family of friends. I adhere to Mom's favorite menu, culminating in brownies with whipped cream, strawberries and an array of ice cream flavors as if she owned a Baskin-Robbins franchise. She'd hide a serving of whipped cream in the fridge, a spoonful for my morning coffee. 

My mom merged family from New York and Atlanta into her Florida apartment. It was more important to have 100% attendance than to adhere to a Hebrew calendar.

Our get togethers were more about family and food, menorahs and dreidels than about the historical significance of the Festival of Lights.

Planning Meant Lists

Hanukkah means "dedication," and Mom was dedicated to orchestrating yearly gatherings. Forever fearful that the worst would happen, she refused to use real candles as the typical symbol. She relied on an unattractive, tacky electric menorah until my brother brought back an authentic one from Israel made out of Jerusalem stone.

Convincing her that her home would not burn down if we lit candles was our modern family miracle.

One year, in her mid-80s, Mom attempted to write down three generations for her upcoming holiday dinner. Her dementia was progressing, but she was still trying to hide her symptoms from me. She became increasingly frustrated, crumpling each attempted guest list and starting over.

"I count seventeen one time, nineteen another!" she said, near tears. 

Mom set the table for holidays before buying the food.

I offered to help her create a new list, gently reminding her which grandchild belonged to each of her three children. She was having trouble remembering names. Together, we finalized the list as if solving a difficult geometric equation.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"I'm sure," I said.

"Now I can set the table."

She had control over that.

Mom always set the table for holidays before buying the food. Days before the guests' arrival, we'd have to eat our meals standing up. It used to annoy me, but now I understand.

A first generation American, Mom grew up in an orphanage. She never recovered from a feeling of abandonment by her mother. She struggled from anxieties and phobias.

Making lists and setting the table in advance brought a sense of control. I grew up to be a list-maker, too. Now I buy Post-Its in bulk. 

"You love lists," my 26-year-old daughter says, refusing to even use Notes on her smartphone.

Whenever I set the table days before hosting a holiday dinner, she laughs at my advance planning.

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Gathering Together With Pride

My mom lived 1,500 miles away, yet I spent every Hanukkah with her. After my father died, Mom became teary whenever I had to leave. She'd insist on going downstairs to wait for my cab. I'd wave to her out the back window, wishing her face hadn't collapsed into such a sad, lonely expression. She kept waving, watching the distance between us expand.

My mother's in-person Hanukkahs were like playing the lottery. We came close, but always seemed to miss one number when it came to guests. She viewed every family gathering as Maybe The Last One.

Whenever one of her grandchildren broke the news that she couldn't join us, Mother anguished, as if grieving over a death. There was always someone missing. And one day that missing person would be her.

Distance on the holidays is no longer measured in miles.

Once, Mom aimed a camcorder at nine great-grandchildren in her living room, a boisterous affair of babblers, pacifiers, diaper-changing and not enough chairs. She labeled the videotape: Naches on December 25. ('Naches' is the Yiddish word for pride.)

After Mom died, I never knew when we were going to converge for Hanukkah, depending on school breaks. When Hanukkah began on December 22, it was the best possible gift for the holiday.

My daughter snapped the beaters into the electric mixer, whipping cream. I hoped we'd always live close by to share Hanukkah. And if not, like my mother, we'd just pick a date when we could all be together in one place.

My Mother's Daughter

This year, my Hanukkah guest list is shorter: my husband, daughter and me. Before the pandemic, an easy 20-minute subway ride brought us together in a jubilant hug. Now, my daughter often seems as far away as when she studied abroad in college. She's afraid of unwittingly transmitting the virus to me (age 68) and her dad (72). 

I schedule my Zoom invitation.  Technology can bring our family of friends together, no matter the place or time zone. Yet even with my lists, I'm not sure who will log on. 

Distance on the holidays is no longer measured in miles.

This Hanukkah, we'll be linked with the click of a mouse and Wi-Fi. I'll "launch the meeting," as I do with the university classes I teach remotely. We can't enjoy the fried aromas of latkes. We'll rely on the visual image of each other's meals in online rectangles.

Mom would be thrilled knowing we got together somehow — Zoom was not even within her wildest imagination.

Even if the world is unpredictable and unimaginable, lists and advanced preparation make me feel in control of Hanukkah.

Early Hanukkah means I have less time to ponder over my lists. Unlike last year, I won't have to set the table in advance, my husband forced to eat on our kitchen counter for days.

There was a time when the biggest insult anyone could ever give me was, "You're just like your mother." I am, and I'm not. But as I count up the potential virtual guests, I feel closer to Mom, thinking about the strengths I've inherited from her. 

Will Hanukkah be less celebratory if it's just a few of us on the sterile environment of Zoom?

I have an idea, requiring organization and planning. I haven't seen my 98-year-old mother-in-law in person since last December, the last time I felt safe to fly to Florida. She hasn't been able to travel to our house for a decade to see my daughter, her only grandchild.

I pack up my iPad and ship it down south. I want her to "see" her only granddaughter. I'll host a shared FaceTime and Zoom Hanukkah; my daughter can orchestrate the technology.

Even if the world is unpredictable and unimaginable, lists and advanced preparation make me feel in control of Hanukkah.

Mom taught me how. 

Candy Schulman
Candy Schulman’s award-winning essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Salon and elsewhere, including anthologies. She is working on a memoir about mothers and daughters. She teaches writing at the New School in New York City. Read More
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