Here I am again this year, wondering which Hanukkah my family and I will have:
A glorious week of heavy latkes and sour cream, Hanukkah gelt and penny-gambling with a dreidel on the floor, amid the litter of torn wrapping and crumpled foil wrappers?

A pseudo-Christmas, decked in blue and silver, with eight days of presents and parties, eight days spent explaining again why we don't have a tree or stockings, eight days of holding up our little candles against the season's dazzling, domineering lights?

A rousing Festival of Lights, the way it's taught to us at synagogue, with its miracles and fierce faith and lovable underdogs, the handsome fighting Maccabee boys?

Or a military holiday that reproaches itself-after so many years, so little has changed-so many Jews out of harmony with non-Jews over so much of the world, and with one another too, a tradition that also goes back to when Mattathias Maccabeus cut down an idol-worshipping fellow Hebrew and started the whole damn Maccabean revolt.

After the latkes and brisket, after the presents and chocolate, what values should I kindle in my children's minds, to accompany their memories of love and light?

I begin at the beginning. The framework of Jewish rituals, and most human celebrations, rests on three basic elements: light, bread, and beverage.

Every Jewish holiday combines these differently. Shabbat, as the fulcrum of Jewish observance, makes these three elements central. Festivals like Hanukkah are more complex because they sprang from village observances and ancient celebrations of folk heroes. These were folded into religious liturgy by rabbis of the "if you can't beat `em, join `em" variety. (Another example of such a festival is Purim, whose characters and traditions stretch far back into pre-Judaic folk practices).

So, small wonder that the central symbol of Hanukkah is the oldest of the "big three," and the most primal link between ourselves and G-d: light.

And small wonder that it is a winter holiday, intended like others of its season to get us through the darkest, shortest, coldest days of the year with fragrant cooking fires and heavenly lights.

Traditions of light
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  • Winter holidays inspire a special kind of togetherness, a huddling and protectiveness among kin. Maybe that is how this winter feast was tied to the fight of the Maccabee family, alone in the mountains raining terror as best they could on the dominant Greeks below. It's said that the Maccabees were basically terrorists, and certainly they were guerrillas. The fury of winter and the fury of man are a tough combination, unbeatably grim.

    Even as a child, before I fully understood war, the Maccabee story at Hanukkah made me uneasy. Now that I am older, and have studied the apocryphal texts of the Maccabees, including the second book, I wonder about any movement whose heart is religious "cleansing," and whose tactics involve stealth, ambush, and butchery. I haven't worked out how to teach this side of Hanukkah. The closest I have come is to teach togetherness across traditions, similarities along with differences. And to base it all on the miracle of light.

    It'd be fun, for starters, to tie Hanukkah into the Jewish lunar calendar and its close kin, the ancient lunar calendars of other cultures. Hanukkah falls in Kislev, the same Jewish month as another great miracle of light: when Noah saw the first rainbow after the flood, a sign of G-d's renewed covenant with humans. What about making prisms for the windows this year, welcoming nature's light to complement the candles we bring outside each evening?

    My nine-year-olds, whose mother is half-Christian and who celebrate Christmas, may be really interested in finding out why Christmas always falls on the 25th day of December, and comparing that with Hanukkah's firm date on the Jewish calendar, the 25th of Kislev.

    And what about the connection between Hanukkah's timing and that of older and other holidays, all of them framed by the lunar phases: Great-Grandma Winter Solstice, for example. Or Diwali in late fall, which always begins on the dark night of a new moon. Perhaps most important for my family to understand, I believe, is Eid, the conclusion of the Islamic holiday of Ramadan, which marks the reappearance of the crescent moon and derives its name from the promising cycle of light: "that which comes back, time after time, and rejoicing."

    In fact, I think it is time for my children to learn a little Arabic with their Hebrew, to hear the sister tongue beneath the brothers' quarrel: salaam and shalom (`greetings, peace'); tzedakah and sadaquah or zakah (charity); ner (candle) and nur (light).

    Our newest-minted tradition of light is sure to make a comeback this year. Last Hanukkah we wound up with multiple small Hanukkah menorahs, called Hanukkiot in Hebrew, because of various school projects and because our four sets of in-laws are paring away their possessions as fast as they can. So now we have one menorah for each member of the family. The more portable and modest ones are even better, especially for Stuart's twins, who often see four sets of relatives in about two weeks' time and like to take their Hanukkah lights to go.

    You can make them yourself: We've got Hanukkiot that are homemade clay bars with nine deep depressions, and extra-heavy Popsicle sticks with nine hardware nuts glued on. Whatever the material, the important part in our ritual is to place the lights in our windows for all the neighbors to see.

    Once, this was a gesture of defiance and specialness, a marking of doorways similar to the blood-mark of Passover-though it's said an entire village of gentiles in the Old Country once put out the Hanukkah lights of their Jewish brethren to protect them from pogroms.

    This year, I'd like our family lights to be a sign of greeting, a going forth and a guiding radiance from our home, five people and 40 lights strong.

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