Hanukkah always has been one of my favorite holidays. Family and friends gather to celebrate with food, games and gifts. The prayers, songs and the story of Jewish Festival of Lights are uplifting and spiritual. This year, Hanukkah begins on Dec. 22.
My earliest Hanukkah memories go back to my childhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in the 1960s. My family invited my friend Isabelle, who wasn’t Jewish, to celebrate with us on one of the eight nights. We would recite prayers and light the menorah with my parents. Being old enough to strike the match and light each candle around age 8 was special. I arranged the candles so no two identical colors were next to each other. I still do at our home in East Meadow.
One custom for all ages was playing dreidel, a game that dates to ancient times. Each side of the top shows a Hebrew letter. Depending on which letter the dreidel lands, the player has to put in or take out real or chocolate coins. The stakes can be high and, given personal experience, a bad spin could generate tears for kids.
Hanukkah also meant celebrating at my Uncle Hy and Aunt Mary Lev’s Brownsville apartment. They were childless, and would invite perhaps seven nieces and nephews. We lit the menorah, said prayers, sang songs and received gelt from Uncle Hy. (Maybe a dollar or two!)
My family hung an electric “Happy Chanukah” sign in our fifth-floor apartment window in Brooklyn. Five decades later, having changed the light bulb once, I still hang my childhood sign in the window in my own home.
I received a gift each night by playing search. Starting in the living room, my parents said “hot” or “cold” as I looked for a gift. Search was easy in a three-room apartment.
In addition to pajamas or other apparel, I received a theme-based toy. One year, I received a toy garage and, on each subsequent night, a Matchbox car. The next year, it was a toy car wash and more cars.
When I got married, my wife, Lauren, and I continued the tradition for our children, Amanda and Lathan. One year, Lauren and I gave a Sesame Street set on the first night, followed by miniature figurines of Elmo, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, etc. A favorite gift to me from Lauren was a train set, which reminded me of one I had as a child.
In recent years, we have celebrated with an event we call “Latkefest.” We serve homemade potato pancakes of sweet potato, apple, vegetable and vegan varieties to guests. For dessert, we serve sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts). Fried foods remind us of the story of the holiday, when a tiny amount of lamp oil lasted eight days. We no longer exchange a gift every night, but we still say prayers and light our menorah.
Reader Howard Lev lives in East Meadow.