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Hanukkah 2020: In some ways it will be different, but in others it will be just the same

Emily Caruso Parnell says Sudbury’s Jewish community finding new ways to celebrate holidays
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(Supplied/Emily Caruso Parnell)

We usually host 30 people for Passover, Jewish and not. We rent tables and chairs, tablecloths, napkins and glasses. We use special dishes that only come out of their boxes once a year. I clean and cook for days. 

There are symbolic foods that take hours to prepare, seasonal songs, and storytelling. By the time we tell the story at our Seder, we’re ravenous and the food tastes even better than we remembered from every previous year. 

Guests compare my cooking to the cooking at every other Seder they’ve ever attended; my matzah ball soup may never measure up to what their grandmother served in 1972. 

Last April, however, was very different. We had only been in lockdown for a couple of weeks and COVID still felt quite abstract. We were scared but we weren’t tired. 

I cooked a small dinner, focused on the things my kids like best – fewer fish balls, more matzah balls – and we connected with our friends through an online Seder. We even found a haggadah (the book we use to tell the story of Passover) that was available for download so that we could all use the same version. 

We told the story, we sang the songs, we ate the food… we even used the special dishes. It was different, but it was lovely. There was a lot less cleanup and a lot fewer leftovers.

Since then we’ve celebrated, in order, Shavuot (the giving of the Bible at Mount Sinai), Rosh Hashanah (the new year), Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), and Sukkot (remembering the 40 years in the desert) in ways that we’ve never done before. 

We’ve held services online and outside. We’ve had picnics and hikes, we’ve connected with other communities, and participated in events that would never before have been available to a small community like ours. Have we missed our traditional celebrations? Sure. Have we adapted? Absolutely. 

Hanukkah runs Dec. 10-18 this year, and, despite what you may have heard, it’s not the Jewish Christmas; it’s just a minor holiday with a really great marketing team. Normally we host a big party that features too much fried food and side bets on the dreidel game happening in the living room. 

This year, we’ll have to find other ways to celebrate. We’ll meet friends for sliding and take-out hot chocolate or we’ll go for a snowy walk and light candles outside if it isn’t too windy. Then we’ll go back to our own houses and eat too much fried food. In some ways it will be different, but in other ways it will be just the same. 

If Christmas is the first COVID-era holiday you’re celebrating, it will undoubtedly be different, a memorable Christmas for a whole new set of reasons. 

It will be a year of firsts and of missing some of the traditions that you’ve always looked forward to. But you will find ways to make it special, new ways to connect and maybe even new traditions that you might carry forward into the post-COVID world. 

Take it from a people with a very long memory: this too shall pass, and the most important thing is that we’re all still here when it does. 

Emily Caruso Parnell is the board president of Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue in Sudbury. Her writing has been published by The Canadian Jewish News, Kveller, and The Forward.