As we prepare for the holidays, our most important inspirations are our memories, and, for many of us, our grandmothers. Our grandmothers have woven the tapestries of our holiday memories — cooking, with love, food that we still can taste; decorating their homes with surprises we still remember; wishing us well with voices that still resound in our hearts. Even if we did not celebrate with our grandmothers, we have felt their touch in the traditions our mothers and fathers held dear. They seemed to set the standard for how holidays ought to be.

As a child, I took in holiday rituals like the air that I breathed — without understanding how it all came to be, but thriving because it was there. I longed for my turn to light a candle on Bubi Bessie’s menorah and expected some chocolate treat to follow. I waited on tiptoes for Grandma Helen to give me “just one more, please” taste of cookie dough, certain that I would get more than just one. I expected these same Christmas and Hanukkah treats to rain joyfully down every year, until forever.

Children’s Hanukkah stories celebrating grandmothers
As a grown woman, setting up my own household, all the significance of the holiday rituals comes home to me: the desire to recapture the spirit of love and perfection that we felt when our parents and grandparents labored for us. I now truly treasure the recipes from my grandmothers. Thinking of my children, I sense the weight of the decisions I make. Whether I give small gifts all eight nights of Hanukkah, or whether I wait until Hanukkah ends before putting up our Christmas tree, I am now weaving family traditions, mingling beautiful threads woven before me by my mother, grandmother and the women before them.

Hanukkah Celebrated at Home in the Woman’s Sphere
Hanukkah rituals traditionally occur within the home. This is in striking contrast to the Jewish high holy days, which were traditionally led by men at the temple. The theme of Hanukkah is miracles. Historically, the central miracles were oil that burned for eight nights instead of one, and the victory of a small band of defenders over a large army.

Women Weave the Holiday Traditions
Traditionally woven into the celebration of Hanukkah are brightly lit menorahs, shiny spinning dreidels and, to the delight of children of all ages, delicious potato pancakes, “latkes.” A menorah is kept as a family treasure, polished for Hanukkah, lit with a blessing often said by the woman of the house and placed with pride in a window for all to see. Dreidels and Hanukkah gelt are given to children to play a game. Traditional foods that require oil are prepared, including latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), to commemorate the miraculous oil of long ago.

Simple gifts
Remembering One Grandmother During Hanukkah
As children, it is enough to enjoy the sweet holiday creations of our grandmothers and mothers. As women, we want to master these recipes, but we find greater inspiration learning their recipes for living. Betty Schimmel’s stirring “To See You Again” (Dutton, 1999) adds dimension to our Hanukkah in incredible ways. It is the story of the trials and blessings of her life and her experiences as a survivor of treacherous conditions during the Holocaust.

Her greatest blessing was her mother, Ethel Markowitz. Ethel’s spirit is emblematic of the strength, courage and love our grandmothers had to have in order to ensure our survival.

Ethel Markowitz was born in Czechoslovakia, where her family had thrived for generations and had been both patriotic and Jewish. As World War II unfolded, Ethel’s family was subjected to horror. Her husband, Jacob, had been in the Czech army. When Jacob left the army to help escort other Jewish people out of the country, he put his extended family in danger. Ethel and Jacob uprooted their three children by trying to keep everyone safe. In each new place, Ethel made the best home she could, with the few household items she could take along.