Hanukkah is a time for children. There is Hanukkah gelt and Hanukkah presents, parties and latkes. It’s a fun holiday when families gather to light the hanukkiah and sing songs together.
Hanukkah is also one of our most nationalistic holidays. It is a time of remembering our national liberation when the Maccabees of old fought guerrilla battles defeating the superpower of their time. The Hanukkah story is a retelling of how our defiant ancestors refused to assimilate or concede their beliefs to the dominant surrounding culture. They did this not only for themselves, but also for their children.
Children are an integral part of modern Israeli values and family is central in Israeli society. This is obvious especially on Shabbat, when families reunite and take time off to reconnect with what they find to be truly important. In Israel college dormitories empty on Shabbat as children return home for family times. Whether they are religious or not, grown children gather with their parents, connecting the generations, bringing grandchildren to create memories of Shabbat meals with their grandparents.
In Israel is not uncommon to receive unsolicited parenting advice from a stranger on the street or on the bus; after all we are all family. Each child is a treasure. In the wake of the Holocaust and the founding of the Jewish State, Jewish continuity has taken on a paramount role in the way we define ourselves, our families and our society. With our fallen soldiers and the victims of terrorist attacks, the value of each young life increases.
My wife and I are in our mid-thirties. It is a time when many of our peers are having children. At any given time we have friends who are pregnant and who have just had a child. There are a lot of simchas.
Not having children in Israel is very hard. Couples do what is necessary to procreate. Even single women have children on their own in order to create a family. In our community it is not uncommon to see a family with twins or triplets, the result of infertility treatments. In my son’s nursery school class of 25 students there are two pairs of twins and a set of triplets.
Unfortunately between the simchas, there are tragedies. News travels fast and hits everyone hard when a couple looses a baby. In a community where each life is precious, we all mourn. In recent months, several of our acquaintances have suffered such a loss, some giving birth to babies that did not live past their first day of life.
With each loss, the miracle of life is more apparent to me. I appreciate each breath with awe and wonder. As I look into my children’s eyes, the sparkle that shines back makes my heart swell with thanksgiving.
As the Hanukkah season is upon us, I think of my children and the decisions I have made which affect them in the context of this holiday’s meaning. The decision that has the largest impact on every aspect of our lives is my decision to live in Israel. Remembering my own childhood, I recall how central the theme of assimilation was in my Jewish American education. I think of the battle the Jewish people continue to fight remembering friends who were leaders in their youth groups, who went to Jewish day school all their life and who intermarried. Similarly, I look at my friends in America who have compromised many aspects of their Judaism as they raise families and I contrast them with myself and my American Israeli peers who have chosen to bring up our children in Jerusalem.
We too make many compromises, not the least of which is both our economic and physical security and comfort. Sometimes I question my decision to raise children in Israel. I think of all that I could give them in America their own room, a playroom, a yard – space! (We live in a two-and a half bedroom apartment that cost about ten times our annual income.) I think of the stress my wife and I are under to pay our debts and make it by another month. Despite the current economic hardships in America, in this regard our lives would be much easier and comfortable in the States. In general, the marketplace in America provides so much more selection than what is available in Israel; the merchandise is usually much more affordable and of better quality. In many respects we could give our children a lot more if we lived in the United States.
My five-year-old reminds me as he says the blessings over the Hanukkah candles in Hebrew, the language he speaks every day. He is unaware that there are other Jewish children who go to special schools because they are Jewish in order to learn these blessings in what to them is a foreign language whose words they do not understand. Like them, all he has on his mind are presents; oblivious to the role he is playing in the continuing battle against assimilation that we commemorate during these days.