As a kid, one of the highlights of my year was traveling up to Massachusetts for “the Cousins’ Chanukah Party.” It was one of the few occasions when my father’s entire extended family—six children, 23 grandchildren and 50 great-grandchildren (and counting)—would all get together to catch up, reminisce and eat. It was always a loud, chaotic event, with lots of hugs and kisses, boisterous laughter, wild children and enough food for the entire neighborhood. In one room of my cousin Stephanie’s house, the graying uncles, their sons and sons-in-law would lounge in front of the football game, heckling each other— and the television—in their thick Boston accents, while their red-faced children ran around out in the yard. In the kitchen, the aunts and female cousins arranged platters of cheese, crackers, crudités and dips, chatting about the latest developments. As I grew older, I abandoned my siblings and younger cousins for the gossip and family secrets that flowed with abandon over the serving trays, as they tend to do in the exclusive company of women. After the game, the men would head outside for a playfully rough game of touch football; then everyone would line up for the requisite family picture. I always loved the Cousins’ Party—the noise, the activity, the attention I got from my uncles and aunts. (And of course, the gift exchange.) Despite the large number of people, there was a feeling that each one of us was a vital piece in an intricate puzzle.
Everyone belonged. Even as a kid, I sensed that this feeling of belonging was something to treasure. Naturally, I didn’t think twice about the fact that there were chicken strips or deli platters set out among the cheese trays, or that on several occasions the parties were held on Saturdays. My great-grandfather, Joe, was a chicken farmer who walked to shul each week and kept a kosher home. His children, my grandmother’s generation, were more American than Jewish; they’d all married Jews, but they were not interested in the religious aspect of Judaism once they lived on their own. By the time their children had grown up, most of them knew nothing about Torah and mitzvot, and the majority had intermarried. As a result, a good number of Joe’s great-grandchildren—my generation—weren’t even Jewish. It was not uncommon for me to attend a bar or bat mitzvah for one of my cousins on a Saturday. It would begin with a ceremony at a synagogue and end with a party at a nearby hotel, complete with a DJ and “kosher-style” menu. Needless to say, our yearly Chanukah parties weren’t religious affairs in the slightest; they were simply an American family’s excuse for a get-together, with a polite nod to our roots in the old country. My family was one of the factors that held me back when I considered the prospect of becoming Orthodox. I saw how they looked at my father, who had become frum years earlier, with the yarmulke on his head and the tzitzit hanging from beneath his shirt. They were gracious, but there were also those moments when a cousin would ask him, “So do you guys really wrap those things around your arm every day?” Dad was welcome, of course, but the line had been drawn; there was “them,” and there was “us.” I didn’t know if I was willing to cross that line and sacrifice my place in their world, and the feeling of belonging that came with it. Eventually, I made my choice and crossed the line. I became a baalas teshuvah and changed almost every aspect of my life.
Within a few years I was married with a child, on the road to building a bayis ne’eman. Despite my fears, the invitations from my family kept coming. We regretfully declined to attend the simchos held on Saturdays, despite their offers to order glatt-kosher food especially for us. But when my cousin called to tell us they were holding that year’s Chanukah party on a Sunday, I was more than happy to accept. Our hosts were already adept at accommodating us “kosher folks”; Boston’s best kosher caterer had been recruited for our triple-wrapped meal, and my mother had brought up extras from the Supersol in Manhattan (along with extra paper- and plasticware, just in case). Everyone was thrilled to see us, cooing at my baby and asking after us, just as they always had. Once in a while, there was a small culture clash —“Your wedding was certainly an education!”—but with all of these familiar, smiling faces around me, it was like nothing had changed. Then the door burst open. In strode my cousin Kenny, carrying an enormous tin platter over his head. “Shrimp’s here!” he bellowed. Room was made on the buffet table for an elaborate arrangement of scampi, which everyone attacked. Instinctively, my husband and I looked at each other. We had had no illusions about what we were getting into, but shrimp? At a Chanukah party? As I watched my cousins stuff themselves, I was struck by the profound irony of it. Here we were, a mostly intermarried Jewish family, celebrating the holiday of our people’s triumph over the threat of assimilation by watching football and eating treif. From where I stood, not much had changed since the Greeks ruled the roost; in fact, in some ways things these days were worse.
My husband noticed that the sun would be setting soon and it would be time to light candles. Having planned to stay over, we’d brought a menorah with us, which we now set up on Stephanie’s dining-room table. A few cousins gathered around us, watching curiously as we lit the candles. One of them even answered with a long-forgotten “amen” to our brachah. Another produced a menorah and asked us to lead her through the blessings. It was a lovely moment, an infusion of holiness into the mundane. What struck me in that moment were the children, peering at us from beside their parents. This might have been the first time they’d ever heard anyone recite a blessing in Hebrew, let alone seen a menorah. We might have been their first brush with real Yiddishkeit. As I looked at the flames, I prayed that they might remember this moment, that the memory of these lights might stir something deep inside them one day. Because although our generation might have strayed from the derech of our ancestors, I was living proof that we can always find our way back.