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By Joey Hoffman

 

The most important Hebrew word when it comes to Chanukah is sufganyot, an Israeli deep-fried doughnut filled with jelly or custard and
topped with powdered sugar. I love our people.

Angel Bakeries, a 4th generation Israeli bakery founded in 1927 – the largest commercial bakery in Israel – reportedly makes more than 250,000 sufganiyot daily during the
holiday. Hmm…6,500 Jews in Nebraska…loosening my belt buckle…that’s 38.46 doughnuts per Jew, per day.

I come from a highly religious family. So I polled them, “What is Chanukah?”
Daisy, my 11-year-old daughter, who’s in her fifth year of Hebrew school: “Uhhh…ummm…oh yeah, right. It’s about, like, I think it was Egypt, some
place in the ether. No, it wasn’t Egypt, it was like, the name changed, it was something and now it was something else. It was one of those places
that the named changed because the government stinks.”

Mom: “I’m not even sure because when I was in Sunday school I wasn’t even paying attention, I was too busy making spitballs. I think what it
means is they were supposed to leave Egypt or wherever they were with enough oil to last for one night – I think this is the story – and the oil lasted
for eight nights. I believe that’s the significance of the menorah with eight candles. In my family it was always about potato pancakes.”

She continues. “I can tell you what dad’s going to tell you about Chanukah, I’m sure that they never celebrated Chanukah, he probably doesn’t know what
that means.”

Dad: “Chanukah? I know nothing about it.”

Surprisingly, Mama Paula, my paternal grandmother, was raised in a deeply religious family. Her stepfather, Benjamin Levy, was a rabbi on the
Lower East Side. Brother Irving helped ignite the robust Orthodox movement in Monsey, New York. Somewhere between dreidels and “I do,”
she renounced religion in favor of a British accent, high teas and a Mediterranean-style home on the Long Island Sound where every
weekend, she and crazy Uncle Newt prayed to the God of Gin Rummy until dawn.

At Mama Paula’s funeral on May 7, 2001, I sat by her yellow rose-shrouded casket in a dim room at the tony Frank A. Campbell Funeral Home on the Upper East Side. At once, throngs of Hassidim arrived, enveloping my sepia trance with respects and stories of a woman whom I believed was just mine. Our secular bliss included lunching at Hamburger Heaven, playing backgammon on her custom dining room-sized table and her signature word game, “Are we in kohootz?” No mention of our
Orthodox family from Teaneck, NJ to Tel Aviv.

Once she got her sillies out, Daisy did know the story of Chanukah: “The Israelites were bringing oil and they only had enough oil to last for one
day and they made the oil light a lamp put this in the temple and then they came back after eight days to collect the lamp and it was still lit and that’s
why they call it, like, the miracle and that’s why we get presents because every present represents one day.”

One day, one candle, one shamash. I realize now that Daisy, Mama Paula, my parents, my newfound cousin Rivke who gave my daughter her
Hebrew name, Ariella, lioness…we are each a shamash, the light in each other’s lives. When it was dark, my Hasidich family showed up and held
me up with grace. In that moment, heart cracking, faith shaken, all I felt was love, fierce love.

 

Joey Hoffman is a freelance writer.  She lives in Omaha together with her daughter Daisy.