A festive Chanukah banner. Photo courtesy of Hannah Lebovits.

(JTA) – When I go out with my kids, we often play a homemade game called, “I spy with my little eye something very Yiddish.” The kids pick up on anything related to the practices, laws and symbolism of Jewish tradition.

See two triangles that almost look like they could be a Star of David? You win a point! A mezuzah on someone’s door? Two points! It’s a great way for them to secure their sense of identity and see themselves in the things around them.

In prior years, during Chanukah, the game has reached silly levels. Living in a Jewish community near a major city, there are just so many things to find that relate to our lives. Menorahs in windows after sunset, any random donut shop, even a bag of potatoes in the grocery store.

Outsourcing Chanukah
But last year, with the pandemic making this kind of urban exploration impossible or impractical, I realized something about the game. Playing it outside of our home means that my kids take the Jewish items inside of our home for granted. When preparing for Chanukah, this became clear.

Because the truth is, I’ve outsourced the Chanukah experience more than any other holiday. Many of my fellow parents have done the same.

Parents of school-aged kids know this well. Unlike most major Jewish holidays, Chanukah doesn’t require any school vacation days. Though one day of Purim can also be celebrated in school, Chanukah is eight days long. And those days are some of the most enjoyable. Regular academic practices are replaced with school trips, fun activities and, of course, lots of junk.

Community events are early enough in the day, with menorah lighting happening at around 5 p.m., that even young kids can enjoy public affairs. The spiritual meaning of the holiday and its timing often around Christmas make it incredibly visible as well. So it makes sense that many of us end up relying on others to make Chanukah meaningful and celebratory.

But last year, our home became our community. We had to learn how to adapt and bring what we could from our normal communal structures into our home. We learned a lot along the way about what was most meaningful to our family, about how we want our communal spaces to change in the future, and how we can keep holiday traditions alive even when we aren’t with our families and communities.

But I hadn’t quite figured out how to do that on Chanukah. Our kids were in school but restricted in how they could celebrate there. Communal activities were out of the question. We had previously travelled over Shabbat Chanukah, which was no longer an option.

Then it hit me.

We could do anything.

The beauty of this holiday — and especially of experiencing it amidst a global pandemic —is that we had an opportunity to make it our own. Eight full days to play as many games of dreidel, eat as many latkes and sing as many songs as we’d like. It was an incredibly freeing feeling.

The Advisory Board
So, with this newfound knowledge, I turned to my go-to fun advisory board: my kids. They requested a parade, dessert for dinner, dreidel with Chanukah gelt (instead of just chocolate chips), a game night, and something to put outside of our home to show the world what we were celebrating.

We ordered some photo booth masks and put together a parade (which also turned into a play). We settled on wholewheat waffles with marshmallows for “dessert for dinner” night. We let them count out three chocolate coins each when they played dreidel. And we’ordered a “pin the candle on the menorah” for game night.

But my kids’ last request gave me pause. The idea of decorating the outside of our home was incredibly foreign to me. While I myself had grown up in an area with many brightly lit homes on the block, in my Orthodox Jewish upbringing I was often taught that the practice was exclusively for those celebrating Christmas, and that we should be proud of our own holiday and its traditions, which did not include decorating the outside of our home. My husband came from a similar background and understood my discomfort.

So, we made a compromise with the kids — we agreed to  put something up, but it would not  be lights. And it wouldn’t be a Christmas decoration that’s Jew-ified. It had to be something that suited us and our holiday. We settled on a large Chanukah-themed backdrop to hang across the front of our house. We figured that not only could others admire it, but they could also use it as a selfie background, if they so choose (#happyChanukah).

We knew our home would be our community. What we hadn’t expected was that our practices might catch on or be noticed.

Immediately after we put the backdrop up, people started slowing down when driving by. If we were outside, drivers rolled down their windows to wish us Happy Holidays or a Happy Chanukah. When they saw us walk to our home after a quick stroll around the neighborhood, several of our new neighbors who had noticed the image wished us the best. And then, two days after we put up our decorations, a Jewish family across the street put up a sign as well: “Eight nights, eight lights,” it read, the pride spreading like fire from our home to theirs.

I don’t know if we’ll celebrate like this in future years. Most of my list of Chanukah activities is so candy-filled that they might not be ideal for a year when the kids get donuts in school, chocolate at a public menorah lighting and cake from a bubbe over a Chanukah Shabbat.

Learning To Engage
But I am certain that I’ve experienced a paradigm shift — a different perspective that I couldn’t reach during any other holiday we’ve experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. While preparing for and managing the other holidays, I had intuitively understood that many things inside of our home would not change. That those things that would be done differently revolved around the ways that we engage with others —services, having guests, visiting family. But when it comes to Chanukah, we realized we didn’t have much inside our home. The small activities we engaged in were dwarfed by the communal and institutional ones.

We now see it as our family’s duty to directly engage with the holiday, in a way we never have. I know that’s something we’ll try to hold on to for a very long time.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.