Clara (far right) and her Minnesota family.

I’ll Be Home for Hanukkah

A strange holiday season leads to new traditions

A note from Nora Katz: in December 2020, the History and Heritage & Interpretation Departments at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) welcomed two externs from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. In addition to developing upcoming episodes of the ISJL Virtual Vacation and conducting oral history interviews about the southern Jewish experience during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, they reflected on their time at the ISJL and their lives as college students in 2020. Please enjoy this first installment from Clara Posner, and keep an eye out for Elias Levey-Swain’s post next week.

For the last nine months, I’ve become accustomed to living out of my suitcase. Literally, I’ve spent most of 2020 accompanied by just my 24- x 16-inch suitcase.

Let me start with some important background information. I’m currently a junior at Carleton College in Minnesota, which is halfway across the country from my hometown. When my college announced the transition to online classes at the beginning of the pandemic, I was terrified of flying home due to my mom being severely immunocompromised. So what was I to do? Go back home despite the risk? Stay on campus? Nope. I moved in with a classmate (who at the time was a complete stranger) and her parents in northern Minnesota.

A snowy Hanukkah in Minnesota.

Even though this initially seemed like a rash decision, I ended up making a new family in the most unexpected way. This was only supposed to be a three-week living arrangement, but it turned into my home for the rest of the year. Before I knew it, the holiday season was approaching, along with immense feelings of nostalgia. In order to protect my mom and slow the spread of COVID-19, I decided to continue living with my newfound Minnesota family over winter break, leading to reflection about my usual holiday traditions and relationship to Judaism.

Although both my parents practiced Judaism throughout their childhoods, they both had negative experiences in their local synagogues, which resulted in the decision to raise their children unaffiliated. I never attended Hebrew school and I barely had any understanding of Jewish religious traditions, but my parents never failed to remind me about my Jewish ancestry. The pinnacle of my Jewish experience was at the end of each year when I would visit my grandparents during Hanukkah to light candles and make latkes. Since I had such a limited understanding of Judaism, I usually avoided talking about this part of my identity, which created some concern as the 2020 holiday season arrived.

The week before Hanukkah, my grandparents shipped a menorah to Minnesota. Although I appreciated being able to celebrate the holiday, it resulted in a slew of questions from my new Midwest family about my Jewish identity, which I was not prepared to answer.

But guess what? It ended up being totally fine! Not only did I have the opportunity to share my Hanukkah traditions—like making latkes and playing dreidel—but we created new traditions that combined aspects of the ways both of our families celebrated the holiday season. From singing musical ballads while lighting the candles each night to painting the menorah bright pink on the last day of Hanukkah, we were able to make the best out of celebrating the holidays during a difficult time. I also realized that there is so much I can learn about Judaism, and that I shouldn’t be uncomfortable asking questions. Despite being surrounded by collective loss, I’ve been able to build relationships and find joy in unexpected ways.

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