Celebrating Hanukkah with a 2020 twist

The festive Jewish holiday begins Thursday night

At about this time of year Masha Kisel and her family are getting ready for their annual Hanukkah party. Since moving to the Miami Valley, Kisel and her husband, Sam Dorf, have been hosting a holiday get-together for faculty colleagues at the University of Dayton and their families. In addition to having their own event, the family always visits other friends during the eight-day Jewish holiday.

Things will be dramatically different this year.

“The first days of Hanukkah usually fall around the time of final exams at UD,” explains Kisel, who says their gathering is both a celebration of the Jewish festival of lights and a celebration of the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel after a long semester.

In previous years, families brought their own menorahs and joined together to sing the traditional candle-lighting blessings. Highlights of the party were always Dorf’s latkes (potato pancakes), his Nana’s secret recipe. There was always a game of dreidel with spinning tops. “We’d get donuts from Stan the Donut Man and have applesauce, lox (smoked salmon) on the latkes and chocolate babka from Trader Joe’s,” Kisel says.

Kisel says Hanukkah celebrations have always been special in Dayton because it’s a small Jewish community compared to Boston and Chicago where she and her husband grew up. Her twins, Jonah and Lana, attend public school in Oakwood and, pre-COVID, Kisel and her husband would visit the school to explain Hanukkah traditions. “It was always a big hit and other parents would tell us about how much fun they had playing dreidel as a family,” Kisel says. “I myself only learned about Hanukkah when I was 10, after immigrating to Chicago in 1989 from the Soviet Union. So it feels a little strange but also really special to be an emissary for the holiday in my kids’ school.”

Because of the pandemic, all of those usual traditions have been put on hold. “This year we are not inviting anyone over, but Sam will make latkes and we will play dreidel as a family,” Kisel says. “We might play Zoom dreidel with relatives in Boston and New York.”

The family will also attend a virtual celebration on Wednesday, Dec. 9, hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton in partnership with a number of synagogues and organizations. You don’t have to be Jewish to attend.

Dayton’s Zoom Hanukkah

The goal of this year’s virtual Hanukkah party is to bring the community together. “We were looking for an event that would be interactive and uplifting,” says Kate Elder, who oversees Dayton’s PJ Library, an international organization that provides free books to Jewish children around the world.

It was through the PJ Library that Elder was introduced to Bob Tarushka, a New York-based entertainer specializing in virtual family programming. ”He is really entertaining and different and audiences will learn about Hanukkah through interactive games, stories and songs,” says Elder. “I have three kids — ages 8, 5 and 2 — and I think all of them will enjoy the show. Older people will like it, too.”

Tarushka is the director of performances for Mainstages, a New York-based theater and entertainment company. “For the last 11 years we have been bringing theater programming and performances to kids and adults across the country,” explains Tarushka, who says the group works with summer camps as well as schools, community centers and private individuals. ’'In March, when everything began locking down, we transitioned to the virtual medium through Zoom. In spite of the abrupt shift in everything about our shows and business model, we pride ourselves on being exactly what we always were — interactive, engaging, and fun.”

The shows, Tarushka adds, are designed to feel like “TV you can participate in,” where audience members get to be silly and make each other laugh. “These shows are meant to be reminders that your community is a funny and weird place full of wonderfully creative people.”

A drive-through holiday

Dayton’s Temple Israel has had great success in hosting drive-though events in conjunction with various Jewish holidays and are planning a similar event for Hanukkah.

The synagogue’s music and program director Courtney Cummings says the goal is to keep Judaism alive and relevant during the pandemic and to create a meaningful Jewish experience —whether it was through a screen or otherwise.

“We knew our members wanted to stay connected and we wanted to err on the side of caution,” she explains. “We were looking for a way our members would have the opportunity to have some time with our rabbis and staff and engage in a Jewish holiday celebration.”

The basic format involves stopping at various stations in the Temple’s parking lot staffed by the rabbis, staff and volunteers. For the Hanukkah event, there will be song sessions, donut holes to represent the sweetness of the holiday, and the lighting of the huge menorah that sits on Temple Israel’s Riverside Drive grounds.

Teens have been invited to participate in a Wacky Hanukkah Contest; participants can make wacky menorahs or create wacky recipes. Winners will be announced and displayed on a large screen at the drive-through event and a peddle-power menorah will be available and sanitized between participants.

For the Zeisloft family of Tipp City, attending Temple services had become a consistent routine pre-COVID. “It’s important for us to preserve not only our traditions, but our connectedness to others,” says Danielle Zeisloft . “The drive-through events are a great opportunity to see our friends and further teach our children about the meaning behind the holidays. Every lesson we learn can be applied to some aspect of what we are experiencing on a daily basis, even in this new normal.”

Cummings is delighted that the drive-through holiday events been a hit. “They have given people the opportunity to engage with people outside of their own household in a safe manner,” she concludes. " We can see the smiles even through the masks.”


What: A Virtual Community Chanukah Program with New York entertainer Bob Tarushka

When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 9

Register online: www.jewishdayton.org

About the Author