Chanukah. The Jewish festival of lights incorporates themes of oil, dedication and renewal. For many families, last Chanukah was spent lighting candles, playing dreidel and cooking family recipes with their grandparents and extended family over Zoom instead of in person. Did it work? Yes. Was it how we hoped it would be? No.
This past year has been a year of ingenuity and creativity. Thanks to COVID-19 vaccines, great weather for outside events and the thirst for family connections, many families have found ways to be together during the year. At the Macks Center for Jewish Education (CJE), Jewish grandparents and grandchildren have been connecting via Zoom or in person for volunteering, cooking and hikes, all thanks to the Saba-Ba, Grandparents on the Go! initiative. The Saba-Ba initiative is funded by a grant from the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Fund of the Associated, Jewish Federation of Baltimore.
The eight-day-long festival of Chanukah is one of the holidays that has few religious restrictions yet is rich with ritual, making it comfortable for families of all religious affiliations to participate and enjoy in the fun and excitement. Lighting candles made of wax or oil, cooking latkes (potato pancakes) or sufganiyot (doughnuts) also in oil, playing the game of dreidel, singing songs and spending quality time together are fun ways of celebrating the holiday as a family.
The song Maoz Tzur, or Rock of Ages, is traditionally sung every night after lighting the candles of the Chanukah menorah, known as a Chanukiah. This song tells the story of Jewish salvation and freedom from four different oppressors, ending with King Antiochus, the king of the Seleucid empire. During his family’s reign, the Holy Temple had been desecrated and was being used for idolatry. With the defeat of the Seleucid army by the Maccabean army, the Jewish Temple was recovered and needed to be cleaned and rededicated using pure olive oil.
One of the miracles of Chanukah (the Hebrew word for “dedication”) is that the one sealed carafe of untainted oil found in the temple, an amount enough to last one day, lasted the entire eight days and nights until more oil was obtained for the rededication. In honor of this miracle, oil-based candles are traditionally lit in the Chanukiah and placed in a location where the light can be seen by all, such as a window or doorway. This Chanukiah symbolizes the freedom of the Jewish people and our joy of this celebration. This year, the first night of Chanukah is Sunday, Nov. 28.
Having conversations about Jewish history and legacy are topics that every grandparent wants to discuss with their grandchildren to instill their importance for generations to come. A group of local Jewish grandparents, who have grandchildren of all ages all over the world, runs the Saba-Ba initiative. These grandparent connectors are creating opportunities for families to make Jewish memories, have fun and strengthen the bond between generations.
This Chanukah, two Saba-Ba Chanukah events will take place. For the grandparents with the youngest grandchildren (ages 5 and younger), the event will include a Chanukah Hora dance party with stories, crafts and Chanukah snacks. For grandparents with older grandchildren, a Zoom event will detail the miracle of oil and doughnut making. Registration for this event includes a kit with all the ingredients for the doughnuts. For more information about these and upcoming grandparent programming, visit www.cjebaltimore.org/calendar.
I hear from grandparents all the time that they are looking for ways to engage their grandchildren in Jewish traditions and holidays. One of the easiest ways for grandparents to do this is with books. PJ Library—a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, powered in Baltimore by the CJE—gives the gift of free Jewish books to families raising Jewish children (pjlibrary.org/Baltimore). Don’t get PJ Library at home? Use the link to register. A list of PJ Library books that grandparents can read to their grandchildren about Chanukah, as well as activities for the family, can be found at pjlibrary.org/hanukkah. The CJE also has a full library of books accessible to all members of the Baltimore community, including cookbooks for family dinners and craft ideas for kids (cjebaltimore.org/library).
The holiday of Chanukah is surrounded by light, freedom and family. Grandparents have a special role to play in the memories created around the holidays and are an important part of family legacy and tradition. I wish everyone a healthy, happy Chanukah and Chanukah Sameach, and hope that families find lots of ways to enjoy Chanukah together this year.
Gabrielle Burger is the director of Jewish educational engagement at the Macks Center for Jewish Education.