Here comes Thanksgivukkah
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Ellen Slotnick of Charleston pulled out all the stops for Hanukkah, which begins Wednesday evening. A basket of dreidels sat atop a kitchen shelf, while menorahs were placed throughout the home.
The centerpiece of the Slotnick family dinner table? A painted pumpkin was paired with a ceramic turkey holding eight brightly colored candles that took the place of tail feathers.
A ... menurkey.
"I thought it would be fun," Ellen said of the holiday hybrid menorah.
This year marks a once-in-a-lifetime event: Thanksgivukkah.
The term has been woven into recent media coverage of the convergence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving -- an occasion that hasn't happened in 125 years. It's not set to happen for thousands more.
Joni Deutsch, a student at West Virginia University and a Charleston native, said Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are more alike than the Jewish festival of light's usual perceived counterpart of Christmas.
"Thanksgiving is the Puritans and pilgrims coming over and trying to escape religious persecution," Deutsch said. "And then Hanukkah ... you have the Maccabees fighting to retain their Judaism and as a family staying together and as a tribe staying together."
Hanukkah is an eight-day commemoration of an ancient revolt against Syrians, who attempted to conquer and expand their influence in Jerusalem. The Maccabees -- a Jewish family who fought for independence -- successfully reclaimed the city and its holy temple after decades of fighting.
But the miracle that Hanukkah embodies is that of the temple's holy oil. While it was expected only to last one night, it burned for eight until more oil could be brought to the temple.
Oil-rich foods, such as donuts and latkes (fried potato pancakes) are passed around the table during Hanukkah, said Marc Slotnick, Ellen's husband. Food is an integral part of Jewish holidays, even minor ones like Hanukkah, he said.
"We love to eat. We all love to gather and eat," Marc Slotnick said. "Why do we have a big turkey dinner? It's because it's a way for the family to get together around food."
While the Slotnicks will be celebrating Thanksgiving with Ellen's brother's family, they are hosting a Hanukkah dinner on Friday. Marc has been asking himself an important question in preparation for the meal.
"How do we combine those traditional Thanksgiving-type foods with traditional Hanukkah foods, or Jewish foods for that matter?" he asked.
The couple has been collecting recipes in hopes of creating some inventive twists on traditional Jewish fare: pumpkin challah (a braided bread eaten on Sabbath and holidays), curried latkes (to appeal to a vegetarian daughter) and challah stuffing.
Deustch said her family's Thanksgiving dinner might take on a Jewish flavor, as well -- replacing mashed potatoes with latkes and having matzo ball soup alongside the turkey.
"That's going to be a great hybrid of food," Deutsch said.
Family is a major focus of Jewish holidays, and Hanukkah is no different. For Deutsch, as well as the Slotnicks, it's not often everyone is able to be together for the holiday. This year's early date is changing that.
Frannie, the Slotnicks' eldest daughter, will be home for the majority of the holiday. With that time off, she and Jennifer -- her younger sister -- won't be on the move as much, the Slotnicks said.
"Between dance and homework ... it can be tough to fit in the menorah lighting," Marc Slotnick said.
For Deutsch, this part of the tradition is most important. Keeping a menorah in her apartment at school, Deutsch said she and her parents traditionally made time to light it together over the phone.
The Slotnicks lit theirs together last year via Skype, Marc said.
The Deutsch family has even made it a priority while traveling, employing do-it-yourself efforts by fashioning a menorah from aluminum foil.
"The problem with bringing candles and a menorah with you through TSA is they'll be like 'What are you doing?'" Deutsch said, laughing.
Sue and Bob Rubenstein, self-described "Tucker County mountain Jews," plan to have a quiet Thanksgiving and Hanukkah celebration with their youngest daughter in their Canaan Valley home.
"For years, the Rubenstein brothers did get together for Thanksgiving," said Sue Rubenstein.
Those family gatherings have become more complex as each family's children have grown, said Bob Rubenstein, Sue's husband. Balancing has become a key priority for the Rubensteins.
"[We] don't try to make this any bigger than it really is," Bob said of Hanukkah and holidays in general. "[We] just enjoy it."
Growing up in a small community, the Rubensteins were struck by the elevated status of Hanukkah in more populated parts of the state. When the family moved to Charleston, Hanukkah "seemed like a bigger deal," Bob Rubenstein said.
"Part of it is because of the commercialization," Bob Rubenstein said. "Back when we were still in Tucker County, it was like: get together and make some potato latkes, play dreidel a little bit, light the candles. But it wasn't something you were thinking year-round, 'Oh I can't wait for Hanukkah next year.'"
"It was really more the spirit of giving and being part of family," Bob Rubenstein said.
Marc Slotnick suggested Hannukah's early appearance might distance it from the Christmas season of which it has become associated.
"Maybe this year it changes Hanukkah into more of a family celebration," Marc Slotnick said. "You don't have that rush to go buy gifts and do all those things you might do in December as everyone's caught up in gift-giving."
Deustch referred to this year's holiday hybrid as "a two-for-one."
"Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, they're the holidays we really try to spend together as a family as much as we can," Deutsch said. "On one day, we will definitely be there with each other."
Reach Rachel Molenda at email@example.com or 304-348-5102.