Her face cast in a golden hue from the dim lights overhead, Grace carefully surveys the table before her. Flickering against the natural darkness of the room are candles in every imaginable design: some tall, some short, some white, some colorful. The flickering flames reflect in her thick-framed glasses with their iridescent quality, exuding a sense of warmth and serendipity throughout the room.
Grace smiles wistfully, her eyes softening as she brushes a lock of her curly, ginger hair behind her. And as she turns to her family — eyes still gleaming — the true beauty of the night is unveiled. The night is full of possibilities: communion, laughter, joy. The night is full of celebration.
The Jewish festival of Hanukkah — also known as the festival of lights — is typically observed during December as a way to commemorate the Jewish victory over the Syrian Army during the Maccabean Revolt. And for junior Grace Adler, Hanukkah has always been a way for her to embrace her Judaism and take pride in her family’s heritage, despite the insensitivity that she sometimes faces at school.
“So when the Syrians tried to destroy the temple in Jerusalem, there was only a little bit of oil left, but it magically lasted them for eight days. As a result, we typically celebrate for those 8 days,” Grace explains, her lips drawn into a longing smile. “The first night we typically have a large dinner that’s similar to a Thanksgiving dinner. There’s turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce. For all of the eight nights, you also typically get presents, play games, and sing songs too.”
A look of concentration paints itself across her lightly freckled face, quickly replaced by an arching smile as her brows soften. She shifts softly in her seat, eyes beaming with pride as she delves into the most important Hanukkah tradition: lighting the menorah.
“I love lighting the candles. We typically light multiple menorahs on the dining table and my whole family sits on the carpet [in the] dining room. There was awful lighting and it was super dim. I remember sitting by the window and just watching the flickering candles against the darkness and also looking out the window at the snow and neighbor’s Christmas lights,” Grace reminisces, her shoulders dropping as she relaxes into her white bed sheets.
She chuckles bashfully, her eyes briefly glancing towards the sparkling LED lights outlining her walls. In this moment, it’s clear that Hanukkah is much more than an annual observance of historical phenomena, it has evolved into a way for Grace and her family to carve their own traditions and become closer to one another.
“There’s this song [or prayer] when you light the candle that you sing and our family made up our own version which is really silly and we’ve done it for as long as I can remember … It brings my family together because we know that we have this one thing in common that always makes us smile,” Grace adds, the rawness of her voice underscoring the deeply emotional celebration that Hanukkah has become.
Always seen adorned in bright, expressive clothing and jewelry, Grace’s appreciation and genuine optimism towards life leaves Hanukkah as no exception. Her exuberant personality and attitude towards her faith are infectious, especially for her mother Wendy Adler, a teacher at a local Jewish preschool.
“I love seeing my children, especially Grace, grow up appreciating their culture. I hope by sharing the joy of holiday with [my kids and students], they will grow up to share the same joy with their children,” Wendy says with a shake of her head, her golden curls bouncing gently behind her.
The true serendipity of the holiday, Grace admits, comes from the time she spends with her family. Recalling some of her fond memories during that dinner on the first night, all she can do is smile — the haloing warmth of sunlight from a nearby window encompassing her in an ethereal glow.
“It’s really just such a happy feeling to be sitting at the table with your entire family around you. The whole family is laughing at jokes and the kids always have that excitement on their face. They have that [special] spark in their eyes because as kids we’re always excited to get the present and light the candles after dinner,” Grace says.
And although the holiday does merit cultural significance, Grace’s family believes that its true value lies in the emotions it elicits. Her dad Geoffrey Adler explains that while certain Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are more religiously significant, Hanukkah is pivotal to truly appreciating Judaism.
“It’s about overcoming adversity. It’s about justice where justice was needed. It’s about courage, faith, and conviction,” Geoffrey says, his deliberate choice of words conveying his sense of passion. “And the menorah along with the Maccabees tell a story about bringing light to a spiritual darkness.”
Being a minority in a Christian-majority community, Grace echoes her family’s love for keeping in touch with their Jewish roots. And especially as a once impressionable young child, she recognizes how Hannukah helps children share and embrace their culture.
“I think it’s important that our parents not only teach me and my siblings about Hanukkah but that we pass it down to our kids and so on … Some kids look at it like just another holiday for presents, but a lot of kids know that their peers are getting gifts from christmas and this gives them a chance to brag about their judaism,” Grace explains, her brows creased and her eyes imploring. “It gives them a chance to brag that “Look, I get to do this,” so it really needs to be passed down as a way to make kids proud of their religion.”
Growing up, learning to appreciate her culture was not something that came easy for Grace. She would often become target of anti-semitism and bullying in middle school, impacting her mental health and cultural identity.
“In middle school I went through a lot of antisemitism from my peers. I would be called Anne Frank and they would do the Hitler salute so I definitely felt very different and I kept asking myself why is no one else facing this? … I think it all comes down to the fact that there are not [many] Jewish people around. My religion was just so different from everyone else and also it definitely did stem from the Holocaust unit because I’m very open about being Jewish and once the unit came, all the boys constantly felt the need to pick on me,” Grace recalls, her lower lip quivering as the words slowly come out.
She pauses for a moment, biting her lower lip but quickly dismissing any vulnerability with a reassuring grin that creeps over her face. Despite years of torment for her religion — something central to her identity — Grace has remained strong, displaying a sense of maturity well beyond her years.
“I do understand that there are not very many Jewish kids and while that doesn’t justify their actions, you forgive and you forget. Nowadays, it’s more of just my identity. It’s more something that people now know and respect but it’s also really hard because a big part of being Jewish is Israel … and it’s kind of hard because everyone in the classroom thinks that since I’m Jewish, I must be pro-Israel and it puts this box around me depending on their opinions,” Grace adds, the strength in her voice indicating that she will continue to dispel these stereotypes. “It’s definitely hard having all those stereotypes and opinions already formed about you just because you’re Jewish.”
It turns out that Grace’s religious upbringing and special relationship with Hanukkah have lit the flames of self-identity — and now she uses this newfound appreciation to inspire others about their faith.
“Hanukkah was something that I could brag about and it really helped me build that stepping stone for my Judaism and being proud of it. It was the first time I truly embraced it because I felt special that I could take a day off because this is a Jewish holiday. It also helped me really teach others about Judaism and what it really means to me,” Grace explains.
And sitting here — as a Jewish teen in a majority Christian community that is not always accepting of her culture — Grace is appreciative. She looks up not only to her parents that have taught her these virtues of Judaism but also her siblings, like her brother Jake Adler who faces this insensitivity with strength and continues to embrace his faith.
“Growing up I took a lot of pride in my Judaism, especially in grade school because I used to love sharing my culture with my classmates [and never felt embarrassed about my identity],” Jake says, striking his classic cheerful smile.
And after 16 years of struggling with her identity, one thing’s for certain: Grace will continue to spread the light of her Judaism. Whether it’s by teaching younger generations about traditional customs or helping others embrace their faith, Grace is ready to take on the world.
“I think Hanukkah is important to teach because it makes other kids think about Judaism especially during that Christmas time,” Grace adds. “It may not be the most important in Jewish culture, but I will definitely continue to teach my kids about it since it helps you come out of that shell and be more vocal and proud of who you are.”
Aryav Bothra is the Personality Editor for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl