My three-year-old daughter, Bea, is still at the age where she thinks everyone is Jewish, like her. I can’t seem to disabuse her of the notion. Last week she told me that Ji-hoon, her Vietnamese friend at daycare, is getting Christmas presents for Hanukkah.
And why not? For Bea’s self-identification as a Jewish girl, I see her in a golden age when she believes the whole world is of her exact culture. It won’t always be thus. While I keep a Jewish home, filled with matzo balls and copies of obscure Jewish journals by the toilet, we’re a secular family. Unless Bea turns to orthodoxy, or moves to Israel, she will likely spend a good deal of her life in a tiny percentile: a Jew in a largely non-Jewish world.
In our era, this is no longer a painful kind of otherness, but it is an otherness. And for kids, no time is that otherness more acute than Christmas. This fact was not lost on the American Jews who resurrected the generally unpractised holiday called Hanukkah in the early 20th century. Their plan: Counter gaily lit trees with gaily lit menorahs and a barrage of potato pancakes and one up St. Nick with stories of ancient rebel Jews made to look like superheroes.
And so I began my Hanukkah offensive last year, when Bea was two, by throwing her a children’s Hanukkah party. This is what my mother, a Tel Aviv–born Hebrew schoolteacher, always did. I have many memories of lighting the menorah with a construction paper candle affixed to my head, my hands greasy with the oil of potato pancakes and the jam-filled donuts called sufganiyot, surrounded by other Jewish kids doing the same. These are some of my first Jewish memories, and my best ones.
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I have a theory about what I call Childhood Judaism. Childhood Judaism is the most pleasant sort, because it’s comprised of family, holidays and a feeling of belonging. The heavy history, the difficult politics, the wrangling with the concept of God—these are all things that come along to confuse one’s adulthood.
For the toddler, it can all be a party—it should all be a party. The problem with Bea’s first Hanukkah party was that I had trouble locating Jews for it. My visions of a dozen children all singing the Hebrew prayers together fell apart as soon as I began going through my address book. My husband and I have many Jewish friends, but they all seem to have either teenagers or no kids. Bea’s friends from daycare are Muslim, Buddhist, Anglican. I began casting wide.
“What about that guy in your office with the Jewish wife?”
“Their kid just left for university.”
“Oh. What about Miriam? She has three children.”
“Miriam is a hard-core atheist.”
“Oh. Um, should we call your sister in New York?”
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In the end, I found a few Jews. I also invited some non-Jews, Miriam the atheist (who knew every prayer), some teenagers, plus a bunch of toddlers with construction paper candles on their heads.
It was a memorable evening, but not in the ways I’d imagined. When it came time to light the candles, Bea started singing “Happy Birthday.” When all the candles were lit—the candles that one never snuffs because they represent the sustainability of the Jewish spirit—the kids blew them out. The teens gobbled up all the doughnuts, leaving none for the small kids, and the chocolate Hanukkah coins that I remembered fondly from my own childhood tasted like chalk.
Afterward, I sat on my sofa. I didn’t know whether Bea’s Hanukkah had been a success. But then last week I told her that Hanukkah was coming up again. She beamed with recognition. “The holiday with the party and the candles?” she asked. I answered yes.
“The party where everyone can be Jewish?”
I thought about it, and then, why not, answered yes to that, too.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2014 issue with the headline “Home for the holidays,” pp. 78-86.