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When I was a child, Hanukkah represented a time of gathering, sharing, connecting, and laughing. And cooking. By the time I was six, I was helping my mom in the kitchen, cautiously flipping latkes, as she’d taught me, to avoid getting splashed with hot oil; playing with sufganiyot dough; and reveling in the deep, aromatic, savory notes of brisket braising away in a six-hour-long oven bath. My dad would downshift his overwhelming workload to be present for the nightly lighting of the menorah, when we would sing and laugh and sit around the table, friends and neighbors occasionally popping over for a nightcap as the candles slowly burned down on the kitchen windowsill.
My father was an amazing man. He devoted his life to making sure that my mom, sister, Ariella, and I were safe, happy, and had everything we needed to feel confident and have a strong sense of purpose. In August, he passed away after battling multiple physical and emotional issues that seemingly developed over a brief window of time; it was difficult watching him deteriorate a little more with each visit. Some of those issues can be explained by age (he was 82) or the life he lived as an obsessive workaholic, always filled with stress, anxiety, and the need to anticipate or solve any problem. But the true underlying root of his ailments was likely his own suppressed trauma as a Holocaust survivor, memories from his childhood that he stashed away in a locked emotional compartment for the better part of 75 years.
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As a Jewish kid living in Eastern Europe during World War II, my father had to navigate the most desperate and terrifying elements of what it means to be human, persecuted and tormented simply because of his family’s religious philosophy. That backdrop to his character defined my childhood and impacts the way I am living and raising my own children today. In fact, thanks mostly to my father’s DNA, which blessed me with the ability to avoid pausing in favor of productivity, I have only recently begun to process his passing; I avoid my grief in quiet moments by staying perpetually busy. After all, having poor work-life boundaries as I do can be a gift when confronted with overwhelming emotional pain, one that I choose to unwrap cautiously and with great care. But the opportunity to write this story about my childhood memories around Hanukkah has moved me to reflect, and to honor the man who has singularly defined my perspective of fatherhood.
Each night of Hanukkah, as we sat around the table after the meal my mother lovingly prepared, my dad would make chamomile tea and cut up some fresh fruit, his culinary contribution to the festivities. After my sister and I went to bed, he and my mom would sneak into our rooms and arrange a chair with stuffed animals and a gift so that when we awoke, there would be a thrilling moment of discovery. Each present built toward the next, from a Hot Wheels car to a GI Joe figure, ending in a grand finale with a Nintendo game or a long-anticipated skateboard. Sharing a backdrop with Christmas, we would all help my mom roll her famous rum balls in sprinkles, packing them into metal tins to be hand-delivered to our neighbors. Dad would tell stories about his adventures and travel, repackaging his tragic childhood into beautiful tales to delight our imaginations. As my sister and I grew older, being home for the holidays became a satisfying blanket of security and familiarity, a moment in time to reflect and regroup as our lives became more separate, and more complicated, in a world that felt like it was spinning faster and faster.
Over the years, I traded Judaism for Buddhism and then explored Eastern philosophies, which morphed into Jewish mysticism. Today, my family lives together in a very open and transparent house, where our kids know that our prevailing philosophy is to seek joy and spread kindness, to take care of each other and contribute to the world in a meaningful, impactful manner. This can easily be translated as the Jewish concept of “tikkun olam” (world repair), or it can be explained as a human desire to nourish, nurture, and heal.
December is a time for honoring many things, from global religions and planetary wellness to peaceful meditations and enlightened spirituality. A favorite memory from a few years ago comes to mind: As the first night of Hanukkah approached, we couldn’t find our menorah, which had somehow been misplaced the year before. As the kids were scrambling around the house searching, my wife Steph and I noticed a bag of clementines sitting on the kitchen counter. Quickly connecting nine of the fruits with bamboo skewers, we pressed a candle down into the first one and called the family over to gather around our invention, the citrus menorah! It makes me think of one of the last things my father said to me, which is a wonderful way to declare the spirit of these moments: “Open the door to the world, and it will remain open to you forever.” Thanks, Dad.