Kate Speizer, a rabbi at a large reform congregation in Seattle, first points out that Chanukah (also spelled Hanukkah) is a minor holiday in Judaism. The celebration was never intended to be a huge deal.
Historically, Chanukah — which takes place December 7 to 15 this year — commemorates a Jewish victory over those who had desecrated their Temple in Jerusalem. Some see it as a holiday that celebrates freedom from oppression and the ability to practice religion openly. The most widely known tale from the Chanukah story is that of an oil lamp. With only enough fuel for one day, it stayed burning for eight, a miracle that inspired oil-rich treats like crisp potato latkes, sufganiyot (a jelly-filled donut), and in America at least, cause for eight nights of gifts.
“We both want to honor the dominant culture that this is a festive time of year with parties, and we don’t have to do Christmas to fit in,” observes Speizer. “We can participate in it, but we can mark some of our own things, which are all at the same time of year.”
In her own home, yes, they do gifts, yes, they eat chocolate gelt –but mostly the holiday is about light.
“During the shortest and darkest days of the year, Jewish tradition invites us to spend time in our homes where we light Chanukah candles and place them in our windows for the world to see,” Speizer says.
Light holds significance beyond the candles glowing in the Chanukah menorah. For Speizer, her husband, and two children, Chanukah is an opportunity to “bring more light into our world” through giving and acts of service. These, she says, are related to the Jewish value of tzedakah, which she describes as “acts of justice.”
“Any time we enter into Jewish sacred time we’re invited to give to those in need before we take care of our own celebrations,” she says. “Donating in someone’s honor is a long-held Jewish custom.”
While Chanukah provides an opportunity to donate to a cause her family cares about, Speizer points out that giving can take many forms.
“We can’t, as a family, always write the biggest checks,” says Speizer. So in addition to donating money, they uphold the value of tzedakah through service and donating items that others might appreciate.
For her kids, this might mean volunteering at the University District Food Bank. For Speizer, it might mean helping to build tiny homes with Sound Foundations NW. Part of the beauty of tzedakah is that it is rooted in solidarity with a larger community. “We’re all responsible for one another,” says Speizer, “and when someone is lacking, we’re all lacking.”
Of course, her family still celebrates with presents, often from relatives – this is America, after all, where giving gifts during the winter holidays is prevalent. But the presents are as varied as those receiving them.
Speizer herself appreciates gifts of time and service. “A handmade coupon book from my kids, offering breakfast in bed and neck massages. tops my list of favorite gifts for any occasion.”
Her 13-year-old daughter looks forward to the prospect of bigger, more significant gifts during Chanukah. Her 15-year-old son is more nonchalant, and once suggested stretching a box of juggling balls over multiple nights for his Chanukah gifts. “Like, give me the box of the juggling balls the first night and a juggling ball the second night so I have something to open each night,” Speizer recalls, laughing.
The Jewish values that they live by during Chanukah are the same values that anchor their family year round: respect, giving back, and being responsible.
“They undergird all that I do,” Speizer says. “That’s what I hope my kids are finding strength and support in when they show up as students or ultimate frisbee players, or as actors, jugglers – that they know Judaism as the foundation on which they can stand, proud and strong.”