The Miracle of Chanukah
Carrie Harris is an alumna of the Wexner Heritage Program, NewYork/Wachtel. Carrie is a member of GoldmanHarris LLC, a law firm specializing in zoning and historic preservation. Carrie is active in Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, writes occasionally for The Jewish Week, and has created a multimedia (photography/poetry/dance) program about Jews in Spain. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I finally got married four years ago, it was to a Jewish man with three young adult children, 19, 21 and 26 years old. In English, my relationship to these people is defined as “step-mother,” but “step” seems tainted and they didn’t need another mother.
I wondered if as “second wife of their father,” I would be able to influence their Jewish identities, as well as my husband’s. Just like their father, their formal Jewish education ended with their bar and bat mitzvahs. Typical of so many modern Jews, they identified themselves as Jews, yet were assimilated, unaffiliated, and felt Judaism was irrelevant to their lives. Their connection with Israel was tenuous, at best.
I didn’t have a plan, but I know I have had an impact. In retrospect, three approaches have been effective.
1. Share your passion unabashedly. My husband and I had agreed: he didn’t have to come to shul with me, but he would support me in home celebrations. That meant he agreed to eat all the Shabbat and holiday meals I prepared – no hardship there! Soon, he started bringing out the candlesticks. Then, he started singing Kiddush. When the kids joined us for dinner, they giggled and rolled their eyes.
2. Address their interests. I knew that a positive experience of Israel could be life- changing. Finding a trip that would appeal to my husband’s interests – law and military history – was the key. A mission organized by Shurat HaDin, an Israeli organization that fights terrorism by using the courts to cut off its funding fit the bill. The mission highlighted all the methods used to counter terrorism and included visits to various military outposts. By the time we left, he was hooked. He told the kids all about it.
3. Be honest – no candy-coating. Chanukah the year after our wedding posed a unique challenge. For the first time, my in-laws and step-kids were coming to dinner at our apartment, 12 in all. It was bound to be a lively party with this group, though their typical Chanukah ritual was perfunctory. I wanted to add more substance to it, to recount the story with its anti-assimilation message, while avoiding the dreaded accusations, “Boring!” or “Politically Incorrect!”
Instead of the “Disney” eight-day miracle oil version, we told the story of the Jewish-Hellenic conflict, replete with intra-Jewish community strife and the dilemma of how to celebrate the victory, based on Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s explanation in The Jewish Way. Implicitly, the miracle shifted from the vial of oil to the tenacity of the Jewish people. The “designer” latkes were inhaled. Everyone said it was the best Chanukah ever. It was for me, too, surrounded not by step-anybodies, but by my new family.
4. Shepping nachas. A year later, before the youngest went to Berlin for his semester abroad, he confessed to me that he had been embarrassed by being Jewish. Now, he felt pride. He thanked me for showing him that our history and traditions are valuable. In September, the now 25-year-old – who went on Birthright - asked if she could host a Rosh Hashanah dinner for her friends at our apartment. Two months ago, the unthinkable happened: the 30 year old, who wrote his doctoral thesis about Spinoza’s ethical humanism, joined us in singing the Kiddush. Now the boys are talking about going to Israel together. And last month, my husband attended his first Wexner Alumni retreat – and loved it!
We have no way of knowing whether any of them will continue to explore Judaism, marry Jewish spouses or raise their children as Jews, hopes that my husband now shares with me. But there is no doubt that even the second wife of their father can influence their lives as Jews and shepp nachas like a parent!