Sunday, 2 December 2018

Outside looking in: A 2018 Chanukah update

This morning I went on a doughnut (donut) run. I originally wrote this post a year ago. But with Chanukah beginning tonight, it seems relevant to post it again - with an update and some extra photos.

Christmas: Outside looking in

At this time of year I sometimes feel like a trespasser. A ghostly apparition peering through a smudged window into a tinsel-draped world I'm not really part of.

On the outside looking in. 

Here, but not here.

I watch the fervent build up and read frantic discussions on social media from the sidelines. Present buying. Christmas trees. Delicious festive treats. Large family meals. I don't join in, but that doesn't mean I don't understand your stress and excitement. I have my fair share during the year, with the weekly Jewish Sabbath and several Jewish festivals (with a strong focus on food!).

I've never celebrated Christmas. 

During my childhood, December 25th was simply a family day, with a large lunch, as there was little else to do. No Christmas tree. No presents. No Christmas pudding. We would still eat turkey though, along with home-made stuffing, brussels sprouts and minced pies. I remember Christmas crackers on the table and watching festive TV. After all, that's what everyone did at 'this time of year'.

I knew all about Christmas, don't get me wrong. I had plenty of friends who celebrated it - non-Jewish ones and Jewish ones - and I didn't go to a Jewish school. I didn't take part in the annual Nativity play but would watch the rehearsals from the sidelines, learning the songs and the lines, just as I watch the build up to Christmas now. I didn't go to the school carol services either (we had a day off instead - shopping or cinema, if I remember right, though we were probably meant to do school work(!)). Yet I knew all of the carols anyway.

I guess not much has changed.

For me, this time of year has always been about Chanukah (Hanukkah), the Jewish festival of lights, which lasts for eight days. A festival of miracles and hope and joy. Unlike Christmas, Chanukah doesn't occur on a set date each year, as it's determined by the Hebrew calendar. One year, it may be in November, and the next year in December. This year it begins on 2nd December - Sunday evening -  as soon as darkness falls.

In keeping with tradition, each night we will light candles on a nine-branched Menorah (also called a Chanukiah), an extra candle each night (with the ninth candle called a Shamash (helper) to light the others).

So one candle on the first night, two on the second and so on, until all eight candles are twinkling in a row. The candles symbolise a miracle in the second century BCE, when a handful of Jews defeated the Greeks to reclaim back their Holy Land and rededicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem. When they wanted to light the Temple's Menorah, there was only enough oil for one day - yet miraculously the oil lasted for eight days, known as the miracle of Chanukah.

There's a whole Rugrats episode devoted to this!

At Chanukah, it's traditional to eat fried foods - especially donuts and latkes (fried potato pancakes like rosti) - and to play a game with a dreidel (a four-sided spinning top) for coins, nuts or chocolate.

We can buy Chanukah biscuits (including candle or dreidel shaped ones) too.

Chanukah is often associated with presents, but that's not a Jewish tradition so I assume it's the influence of Christmas. We give money called Chanukah gelt (or chocolate coins) to children, as well as to charity. You can now buy Chanukah decorations, as sparkly as the Christmas ones, and lots of crazy Chanukah-themed items.

Even Chanukah socks this year (no, I didn't buy them).

As a child, I would receive one Chanukah present each night (some small, some large), as did my two boys when they were younger. Now they are teenagers, the eight-present tradition has faded away in our house. But not the candle lighting - never that.

Chanukah is also a time for community, with activities and celebrations at our Synagogue. This year we will have another interfaith event with the local church - our Rabbi will light a large Menorah as the vicar beside him switches on Christmas tree lights. There will be Jewish songs and carol singers. There will be mulled wine and minced pies and kosher donuts for the children.

Some people worry they'll offend me if they wish me Happy Christmas. But not at all. 

When I say I'm on the outside looking in, I don't mean this in a negative way. I enjoy watching friends building up to their big event of the year - my Twitter and Facebook feeds are filled with that positivity. After the last few years of world politics (and Brexit on the horizon), we all need plenty of that.

People who know I'm writing fiction often ask me what I'm writing. 

I'm usually suitably vague and don't say much about what I'm doing or what stage I'm at. But the truth is that I'm writing Jewish-themed crime fiction, set in a fictional multi-cultural town in Hertfordshire, UK. I'm very open about my Jewish heritage and proud of it too. My book also happens to be set at this time of year - Chanukah and Christmas season.

Last year, I wrote in the original post that I planned to finish this WIP in 2018. Erm... well... that hasn't quite gone to plan! But I am getting closer to finishing my second draft. If I'm a little quiet on social media, or Off-the-Shelf Books seems to be taking a few days off, assume that I'm editing or writing, or both, when I'm not busy working. Feel free to give me a virtual kick (or just a message will do) from time to time, to make sure I am!

I'm hoping that one day you'll get a chance to read my novel (if you want to) and learn more about Jewish traditions, the worrying rise of anti-semitism in the UK (what it's like to experience it for real 'on the frontline', not what you read in the newspapers) and the huge sense of family and community spirit that I know so well.

Thank you for reading to the end of this non-bookish post and for supporting Off-the-Shelf Books, which turns four on 30th December 2018.

I wish you all a Happy Christmas, Happy Chanukah or whatever you're celebrating within the next month. And a Happy New Year too.

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