This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.
6 December 2015
I had the opportunity to contribute an article on Meine Weihnacht (my Christmas) in Die Weltwoche – a major Swiss publication. I’m appreciative of this opportunity to share my experience over the holiday season – especially as someone who is Jewish. Here is the English version of the article.
Every year until I was about seven years old, our whole family would visit our neighbors, the Lincoln family, to help decorate their Christmas tree. To this day, I can still smell the fresh-cut pine ready for decorating, taste the buttery popcorn we used to string on the tree, and feel the warmth, joy and mystery of learning about our neighbor’s traditions. As I look back, I can’t help but chuckle wondering if the Lincolns knew that my siblings and I ate more than half of the popcorn to be used for decorations – or maybe they simply made twice as much as was needed because they recognized that we would gleefully consume the edible elements of the tree.
Along with our sharing and learning about their heritage, the Lincolns would sometimes come over to our house to learn about and share in our celebration of Hanukkah. We would read the story of Hanukkah – a story about an underdog, about standing up for what you believe, and about miracles:
The Maccabees, led by Judah Maccabee, were persecuted and, as a much larger Empire came to conquer and destroy the Jewish Temple and crush the Jewish faith. Fewer in number and less well-equipped, the Maccabees led a revolt and retook the Temple. However, when they went into the Temple, they saw that it had been defiled and that the sacred light (Menorah) in the Temple only had enough oil for one night – not enough to last until they could resupply. According to the story, the oil miraculously lasted for eight nights, enabling them to hold onto their triumph, their spirit, and their culture.
Whether or not the story is true, I have and continue to love the traditions that have been derived from it, such as the food, singing, games and gifts.
For example – latkes. Anyone here in Switzerland and Liechtenstein who comes to visit us over the winter holiday season will think they are simply eating mini-rösti. But latkes are slightly different because most of them are made with potato, flour and eggs and then fried in oil (I won’t say which is better, latkes or rösti, as taste is in the belly of the beholder and I think both are great). Latkes, along with donuts, are traditional Hanukkah dishes because the oil in which they are fried is an homage to the oil that lasted for eight days in the Temple for the Maccabees.
And speaking of eight days – my favorite part of Hanukkah was (and still is) that we celebrate it for eight nights – lighting one more candle every evening. When I was small, we’d light the candles, sing prayers and songs and then, afterwards, play dreidel. We could play for hours. A dreidel is a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side. Those four letters spell out the phrase “a great miracle happened there” and, while different people have different rules for the game, in my house, we would each get a pile of chocolate candies and, depending on which letter turned up when the dreidel stopped spinning, you would get more candies, lose some to the pile in the middle, or even lose your whole collection (a very sad moment if you’re only five years old!).
Gifts were not historically, as I understand it, a standard part of Hanukkah. However, over time, probably because of the holiday’s proximity to Christmas, they have become a modern tradition. As a kid, it meant that, instead of getting a pile of presents under a tree on one day, I would get a gift every night for eight nights. I LOVED that!
As a parent, I now understand the challenges in both honoring the tradition for eight nights, and, at the same time, not overdoing it. I now have a deep appreciation for how my parents very efficiently handled that. For example, one year, they gave me a pair of mittens and mitten clips (critical for an active kid who always lost her mittens). Rather than giving them to me all at once, though, they gave me a single mitten and then a single mitten clip each evening, turning one gift into four. For our own kids, we have created our own traditions for simple and fun gifts, giving the kids things like small craft tools – not lavish gifts but things that spark their imaginations.
As Jews who live in a diverse culture in the United States and now here in Switzerland, we love the opportunity to share the traditions from our faith and to learn from and honor other cultures and their winter holiday traditions. This year, we hope to visit Christmas Markets all over Switzerland and look forward to honoring Christmas with those who celebrate that holiday in our Embassy community and across Switzerland. And, of course, we also are excited to light our menorah, spin dreidels and eat latkes this year again with new friends we’ve made since we’ve moved to Switzerland. In these times where there is so much misunderstanding and so much mistrust, opportunities like this take on an even deeper meaning.