My mum threw the best Hanukkah parties. Now, I’m trying to be the matriarch she was

December 5, 2021
My mum threw the best Hanukkah parties. Now, I'm trying to be the matriarch she was

This First Person column is written by Wendy Litner who lives in Toronto. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ

I want to throw a Hanukkah party for my husband and six-year-old twin boys but I’m having trouble with some of the details. As a graduate of the Hebrew day school system, I can tell you the story of Hanukkah, but I don’t know where to buy Hanukkah candles. Amazon? I’m trying to buy local, except I live in Toronto’s Greektown, which has the sweetest loukoumades but is slim on Judaica party supplies. 

There is some irony to this: It was the Seleucid Greeks who the Maccabees defeated, bringing about the celebration of Hanukkah and subsequent rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Or maybe it’s because of the anti-assimilationist message at the very heart of Hanukkah?

Either way, here I am with two impressionable little boys, my late mother’s Hanukkiah (the nine-branched menorah we light for the holidays), and no candles to put in it. 

And do you have a recipe for latkes? Many recipes come up when I Google it, but I don’t know which one is my mother’s. I’m no health nut, but they all seem to use a lot of oil.

I remember the sizzle of my mother’s frying pan, but I haven’t been able to replicate them. Was there a certain flick of the wrist in the frying?  My mother’s latkes were wonderful: soft in the middle with just the right amount of crispiness around the edges. She would serve them at our Hanukkah party on Hanukkah plates, with matching Hanukkah cups, and Hanukkah napkins. 

My mother died when I was 23 and even 18 years later, I am finding it difficult to take her place during the holidays.

Wendy Litner with her mother in Thornhill, Ont., sometime in the 1980s. (Wendy Litner)

 head to the Dollar Store to buy blue or gold plates but somehow I also find myself buying a green felt tree on which the boys excitedly Velcro reindeer ornaments and candy canes. We had a lovely time.  

“I’ll make dreidels too,” I tell my confused husband who wonders how celebrating Hanukkah turned into Christmas. 

I cut out colourful felt dreidels, but as I curve the pipe cleaners into the Hebrew letters, I find myself crying. Dreidels, it seems, hold some grief for me. They are heavy with all I’ve lost: memories of my mother, of my parents’ marriage that ended in divorce. I don’t know how to be a matriarch. I don’t know where to buy candles or which latkes to make or how you get the jelly inside a doughnut. There is a pain, a deep ache that no amount of chocolate gelt can fix. I’ve tried.

I want to give my sons the warmth of the Hanukkah season I enjoyed while growing up but I find it difficult with my own culture. Christmas just feels so much lighter. Easier. Whimsical. It’s all right there on the shelves at the store. It feels so much easier to embrace the magic of something new. Something my mother never did. My mother never hung lights or made elves. There is no shadow of her in these things. 

There is just me, trying to give my sons a happy holiday; trying to make them citizens of the world. It is just us here — singing songs about dreidels out of clay and sleigh bells in the snow. Their eyes light up when I tell them the oil lasted for eight nights and their breathing quickens when I read them Twas’ The Night Before Christmas. It’s a beautiful poem and I want their world to be full of poetry.   

Old gives way to new. This is true for traditions, relationships and latkes. 

After my mother died, my father took up the latke-making mantle — except he makes his with sweet potato. 

“This year I’m making them blended,” he tells me proudly. “Sweet potato mixed with russet.” I can’t think of a more perfect metaphor for our holiday festivities.

“I love celebrating everything,” my son says between bites of latkes and candy canes. 

I do too. I love that we’re making our own holidays, our own way. I love my Dad’s latkes. 

Wendy Litner’s new menorah pays homage to Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the first Jewish woman to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. (Wendy Litner)

I take one last look at my mother’s Hanukkiah and pack it back up. I have a new one. It’s of former U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, with the words “I DISSENT.”

Maybe my boys will use it when they’re older. Maybe they’ll find one that’s just right for them. But no matter how they choose to celebrate the season, I hope they will always feel the light of my love.   

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