As a convert, I have always felt a special responsibility to actively choose Judaism. Each new choice I make reminds me to live a Jewish life with kavanah, with loving intent. I have to make being Jewish happen.
My fledgling faith was galvanized by the charge to make Shabbat. I was just building my Jewish home back then, balancing a young toddler and graduate school, and there was something magical about cleaning house and setting the table because the very week depended on it. This special charge, to choose and make my faith, informed my observance of other mitzvot, other holidays. I could and did make them my own, and, throughout the Jewish year, it was empowering and moving…
…until Hanukkah rolled around, like a record scratch.
I never approached Hanukkah with curiosity or wonder. Growing up in America, I was pretty sure I understood Hanukkah just fine. Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday American advertising notices: In Hallmark ads and craft stores, Hanukkah is the “Jewish Christmas,” blue-and-silver instead of red-and-green, subbing in menorahs for yule logs. Hanukkah, I thought, was a mandate to race around town (or, as the years went on, Amazon), piling up presents and toting 10-pound bags of potatoes.
One year, on the first night of Hanukkah, my 6-year-old opened his present, found a book, and burst into tears, wailing, “I want a real present!” Once I stopped wincing, I had to admit to myself that, like a canary in a coal mine, my son was expressing what I couldn’t yet articulate. Hanukkah was so unsatisfying because I was living a sterile, commercial definition of the holiday. Far from making Hanukkah, we were simply accepting it.
So I decided to take drastic action. We would make Hanukkah. Literally. By hand.
For much of the year, I imagined our family would make each other’s Hanukkah presents, learning a valuable lesson about love and commercialism. Six weeks out from our Handmade Hanukkah, I admitted to myself that the odds of convincing anyone else to do this were almost nil, and revised my plan: we would engage in a hands-on activity every day, something that would, hopefully, inspire us to approach even this holiday with intent.