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What to do about Hanukkah 2020? Count your miracles

This is an adaptation of our weekly Shabbat newsletter, sent by our editor-in-chief on Friday afternoons. Sign up here to get the Forward’s free newsletters delivered to your inbox. And click here to download and print a PDF of Your Weekend Reads.

For our Big Fat Jewish Wedding in 2004, the husband and I registered for gifts on as well as Bed, Bath and Beyond. It was December, so we selected a number of unusual hannukiyot, each a piece of art as well as a ritual object.

Every year since, we have added a new artisanal menorah to our collection — and hosted a big fat Hannukah party, where we risk the wrath of the fire marshal by packing in enough friends to light them all

So very not 2020. There will of course be no crowd this weekend to kindle our many hanukkiyot at once, no excuse to fry up scores of latkes, no new menu experiments like 2019’s “Jew-shi” (dyed-blue rice along with white, plus smoked salmon).

Bereft, I decided to (finally) buy an electronic menorah for our front window, placing it next to the “Everything is going to be OK” rainbow sign our daughter made in the first weeks of the pandemic.

The husband stuck to tradition and surprised me last night with this RBG “I Dissent” masterpiece that my cousin Rebecca Renkosiak made using some blocks her boys no longer played with and copper plumbing accessories (yes, she is selling them on Etsy, along with a Momala “I’m Speaking” version). So very, very 2020. 

Image by Jodi Rudoren

We’re experimenting, also, with a new tradition, around Hanukkah’s central idea: miracles. Each night, one of the four of us will share some thoughts about a “miracle” in our midst. The dictionary definition of miracle is “a surprising and welcome event” not explicable except as the “work of a divine agency,” but that bar is a bit high for me. I’m just talking about remarkable things we too often take for granted, miracles we humans make — and could make more of.

I know it’s super-hokey, but here’s my stab at eight miracles for eight nights:

Caramelized onions. Yes, I’m starting small, but seriously: you take a hard, cold sphere that makes you cry when you cut into it, add heat, and end up with this sweet, luscious, jammy thing that turns pizza or a burger into something approaching the divine.

It’s just a tiny example of the broader miracle of cooking — the myriad ways that adding heat or salt transforms ingredients, the way that combining flavors like chili and chocolate surprise and delight, the journey that someone, somewhere, sometime must have gone on to figure out  what to do with an artichoke, the way that cooking and baking brings people together (just not this week). 

Walking. I mean, exercise in general, but I already wrote my paean to my Peloton. And there’s something even more magical about the simple act of walking — with another person or with a podcast, with a destination or, frankly, around the neighborhood.

I remember when I lived in Los Angeles after college and friends invited me for a hike in Topanga Canyon, and I got nervous, because I didn’t grow up hiking, didn’t “know how” to hike —  and then I went, and realized that hiking was basically just walking in a pretty place, ideally with sturdy shoes.

This year, I’ve been doing walk-meetings with my boss, lunch-walks with my daughter, and walk-walks — hikes! — with my mom-friends. Sometimes it makes my arthritic knees ache, but it always makes my soul feel better.

Vaccines. Nuff said. 

Storytelling. The simple power of a human narrative to explain complicated things, to generate emotion, to connect people across cultures.   
Amazon. I know this one is controversial, and I love my local bookstore, too. But I’ve been a working parent for 13 years now without ever having to spend a weekend day at a mall buying underwear.

Just in the past two weeks, I was able to get gifts for two nieces and the twins’ “secret latke” swap, my hair goo and another emergency personal-hygiene product, natural wood fire-starters for our fire pit, socks, a full-length mirror for my son’s room, supplies my daughter needed for art class, a handheld vacuum, various pantry staples we have on bimonthly preorder and the above-mentioned electric menorah (plus some cool specialty bulbs that did not fit but we will be able to easily return).

And at least Jeff Bezos used some of the money to keep the Washington Post excellent. 

Data journalism. What would we do without The New York Times’ coronavirus tracker?

Democracy. A higher percentage of Americans voted this year, despite everything — because of everything — than we have seen in a century. Street protests changed things this year: laws, sports-team names, discourse. Our First Amendment is surviving under unprecedented assault. As Winston Churchill (sort-of) said, it’s the worst form of government — except for all the others. 

A capella singing. This, like caramelized onions and cooking, is part of the broader miracle of music, but as a person who loves to sing but is never on key, I have always been particularly taken with what people can do with their voices alone, especially when they do it in harmony with others.

Zoom. Again, a stand-in for all the tech tools we didn’t know how much we’d need. I shared last week the miracles of our Zoom-Mitzvah, my friend Lynn Harris wrote this spring about the miracle of her mother’s Zoom-Shiva, and many of you shared your own stories this spring of miraculous Zoom-Seders.

Beyond keeping us connected during this most difficult year, Zoom and other technologies have helped us innovate and distill to the essence what it is we do and why. That’s a true miracle. 

Let me know what miracles you’re celebrating: [email protected]

Your Weekend Reads

Did you know that women are supposed to refrain from work for 30 minutes after lighting the Hanukkah candles? Most scholars say this includes making latkes.

Why women specifically? Because it of the young widow, Judith, who decapitated a commander of the Assyrian army. Anyhow, especially in these days of blurred boundaries between home and work, I’ll take it. Since you’ve got  those 30 minutes, why not download and print this PDF of the stories I’ve selected for you to savor this Shabbat and Sunday?

Or, just click on the links below:

Jodi Rudoren is Editor-in-Chief of the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @rudoren, or email [email protected]

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