Queering the Jewish Holidays: How I Celebrate Hanukkah

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It’s almost Hanukkah, which means it’s time for friends, latkes, and stressing out about how to actually spell Hanukkah. (Ch? Just H? Two n’s? Unclear!) Or at least, that’s what my December Jewish Holigay season looks like. I’m a Jewish queer girl living in Portland, OR and let’s just say the Jewish community here is not quite so robust as it was when I lived in Brooklyn. While in New York I often had several different queer Jewish events to attend on any given weekend; here in Portland it feels like I’m constantly trying to rally my sweet (non-Jewish) girlfriend and a small group of enthusiastic Jews together to celebrate Jewish things. Why do I bother? Well, it’s important to me to celebrate the Jewish holidays. I like doing it. It reminds me of traditions I enjoyed as a child with my family, and it reminds me that I like my religion, and it reminds me that history is very long and humans are very resilient. Also, the food is fucking delicious. I’ve spent the past few years partaking in old family traditions, creating new rituals, and queering the Jewish holigays as much as I can so that I can celebrate them fully and happily each year.

Even though I’m not particularly religious, and actually identify more as a Jewitch than anything else, celebrating the holigays is a meaningful thing I like to do. But I like doing it 100x more now that I’ve added my own special gay flair to the scenario. I’m going to share with you how I personally queer Hanukkah, and how some of my friends do it, and then we’ll hop into the comments so that you can share what your Hanukkah traditions look like, because I think that will be fun and useful for all the Jews around here who love celebrating / want to celebrate but don’t know how / literally forgot it was Hanukkah in a week but sure are probably down to light a menorah, maybe! (Also please feel free to yell at me in all-caps if I’m spelling Hanukkah wrong aka not the way you like to spell it!)

And if you’re stoked about this article, you’ll be pleased to know I’m plotting a few more articles like it over the course of 2018 – we’re going to talk about queering Purim, Passover, and Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur, too! Maybe we’ll even talk about queering Shabbat!

But for now: The Festival Of Lights.


Rainbows!

Okay, maybe it’s cliche, but listen, queer people are into rainbows. It’s just a stereotype we often play into, please just let me have this thing without telling me to stop stereotyping my people. Get yourself a rainbow menorah (I know it’s really a hanukiah but everyone calls it a menorah and I use the terms interchangeably)! Do what my friend Tamar does and arrange the candles in rainbow order. Make a rainbow cake to serve with your latkes. Take Hanukkah and put a rainbow on it!

My friend Alex makes these beautiful rainbow menorahs and honestly my current goal in life is to own one. You can achieve that goal too, if you wish — check out Alex’s Etsy store!


Teaching & Learning

Like I said, my girlfriend is not Jewish, but she is an incredibly curious and appreciative pupil. Alley loves when I explain to her the traditions of Judaism or when I fill her in on the story behind a specific holigay, and I really appreciate that. I have some other friends who also enjoy learning about Judaism, and the act of sharing my culture and religion with folks who don’t know anything about it is really special. It’s also a good excuse for me to dive deeper in my knowledge about Judaism.

Sometimes Alley will ask a question and I’ll have to say, “that’s a great question!”, which is what I say to the toddlers I nanny when I mean, “I’m going to have to Google that!” But it’s cool to have people around who can challenge your own perceptions of what you know about your religion, and it’s an instant refresher course. Other fun things to teach your friends and chosen family are the actual rituals and traditions that go along with each holigay now, in the modern world. My friend Mandy says she always has guests over at least one night of Hanukkah, and she asks if anyone who has never lit the candles would like to light them. She told me: “Very special years have included times where I asked queer friends to do the honor who have lost touch with Judaism, especially via their family, and it helped them feel connected to something they used to hold near.”

This is my girlfriend Alley, isn’t she a babe? Also how good do you feel about that lipstick menorah?!


Telling Stories

If you know anything about me, you know I really value the power of storytelling, which is why I love the approach my friend Doc takes to queering Hanukkah. “Whenever I retell the Hanukkah story, I invoke it as a form of resistance and rebellion to all kinds of forced assimilation,” she told me, as I swooned. “Hanukkah has a lot of meaning to me about what makes Judaism important and what is worth dying for, and in a sense, being a lesbian goes into that: how we choose to live our lives openly, and the miracle of lasting despite everything,” Doc continued. “Hanukkah is about a light that doesn’t go out, even if it should, and that’s a valuable idea for me as both a Jew and a lesbian.” And then, when I thought I couldn’t possibly love Doc anymore, she shared a tradition that I adore and will definitely be incorporating into my queer Hanukkah celebrations of the future: After the retelling of the Hanukkah story, “we all read a story we wrote that year, to commemorate the importance of all stories and their unique qualities.” Damn. I am so into this!

Alex was probably telling a story at this very moment (also, check out her themed shirt!)


Gratitude Practice

Another beautiful new tradition that a friend who didn’t want to be named in this article shared with me is a kind of gratitude practice. She explained that she’s had a tough yeah and is really grateful for all the people who have gone above and beyond for her, but she isn’t sure they know the true depth of her gratitude. So she is planning to write her friends letters, to share her gratitude in detail! Her initial plan was to write eight letters to eight friends, one for each night of Hanukkah, but as she was telling me about it she started to laugh and admitted she may have more than eight people who deserve letters. “Maybe I’ll have to write two letters for every night!” she said, and I felt so inspired. How beautiful, to thank those who hold us up in a tangible way on this holigay about light and miracles. What miracles our loved ones are in our lives, truly. I’m not as organized as my friend so I don’t think I’ll be able to get letters in the mail in time for my friends to open them on Hanukkah, but I do plan to write at least one letter to one friend each night of Hanukkah, and I’m looking forward to taking this celebratory time to celebrate the miracle humans in my life.

What if I wrote this babe a letter to let her know how grateful I am to have her in my life? (Spoiler alert: I’m totally going to do this!)


Keshet & Synagogue

I have never responded particularly well to organizations telling me how I should practice my religion, but many of my Jewish friends partake in activities organized by Keshet, a national organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life, and/or belong to lovely synagogues that make them feel seen and appreciated, so if this is a way you enjoy celebrating Hanukkah, I strongly support you! Sometimes if you don’t know where to start with finding and celebrating your religion and specific Jewish holigays, a synagogue or an organization specifically for LGBTQ Jews can be really helpful and nurturing, so if you’re overwhelmed or don’t know a single other Jew or just want to start from scratch, I would Google synagogues in your area (some areas even have synagogues that express explicitly that they are supportive of their LGBTQ members, and if you live in a big city like NYC you might even find an LGBTQ-specific synagogue which is so cool!) and check out Keshet’s Hanukkah section on their website to see if they’re hosting anything in your area or if they have any suggestions about what you can do solo to celebrate.

I’ve literally never been to synagogue or a Keshet event on Hanukkah, so here is a picture of some Hanukkah cookies Alley decorated a couple of years ago instead


Traditional Traditions

“Traditional traditions” sounds a bit silly, but sometimes sticking close to the traditions you grew up with can feel like the queerest way to celebrate a Jewish holigay. A lot of folks who I chatted with for this article expressed that they didn’t connect with Judaism and/or Jewish holigays as children, so they felt excited to reframe the narrative into something they could connect with as an adult. And that is so rad. But a fair number of folks told me they actually loved their childhood Jewish holigay traditions, and I want to celebrate that too, especially as I am one of those people. I still use my mama’s latke recipe, and it’s still the best. My family had two hanukiahs, so my brother and I could each light the candles and so we would have double the light and magic in our dining room, and I love hosting a Hanukkah celebration and encouraging everyone to bring their own hanukiah so we have the absolute most amount of light/joy/miracles in the room as possible. My mom is an incredible host and would always have friends over for at least one night of the holigay, and that’s still important to me – I have found a handful of other Jewish queers in Portland and we all happen to be dating non-Jewish babes, so we jokingly call ourselves The Jewish Girlfriends Club and like to host little gatherings together. The community, however small, is very important to me, and it reminds me of my childhood in the best possible way. I am basically turning into my mom, and I’m grateful for it.

Some members of The Jewish Girlfriends Club, celebrating Hanukkah together last year


Rituals That Reflect You

Whether you loved Hanukkah as a kid and are happy to keep up “traditional traditions” or whether it’s your first time celebrating the holigay ever as an adult because you hated it so much as a kid you thought you’d never celebrate again, you’re probably going to want to add some new rituals that reflect who you are today. Everything I’ve listed already in this post is a good idea – Gratitude letters! Rainbow menorah! Tell individual stories! – but I also wanted to point out that a ritual can be very small and not require a lot of effort. Maybe you light the candles on your altar as well as the candles in the hanukiah. Maybe you make Jewish star cookies and everyone decorates one. Maybe you buy this themed velvet dress and overall set and wear it with your best friend for every Hanukkah celebration for the rest of all time? (Don’t you dare judge me for wanting those outfits, capitalism is a bitch and Target finally hopping on board with Hanukkah as well as Christmas is dubious but the heart wants what the heart wants okay?!) A ritual is a ritual exactly when you say it is, is what I mean, so don’t be intimidated by any of this. You know the drill: do you.

How should a hanukiah be? Any damn way you want, right?!

What do you do to celebrate Hanukkah? Do you play dreidel for gelt? Do you give tiny gifts every night or one large gift on the first night or no gifts at all? Do you donate to specific causes this time of year? Do you have kiddos and if so do you dress them in cute holigay outfits? Do you go to synagogue? Do you have special queer traditions? Have you ever made zucchini latkes successfully? Tell me everything. Happy Hanukkah, my beautiful Jewish queers! I see you, and I hope you have a beautiful holigay of light.

PS: This year, Hanukkah starts at sundown on Tuesday, December 12 and ends at sundown on Wednesday, December 20. You’re welcome.

Vanessa is a queer feminist writer and photographer currently based in New York. She really misses Portland. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 258 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. Everything about this article is perfect, from Doc’s kick-ass midrash to the reminder about the dates. I’m stoked to see more Jewish content here!

    This year I’m in the Pacific Northwest and the Jewish community does seem a lot smaller here. So I guess it’ll just be and my girlfriend, but I make a mean latke!

    If anyone knows of queer Hanukkah around Seattle, do let me know, or if you’re looking for one, you’re invited to mine!

  2. I am also a Jewish queer living in Portland OR and this article made me so so happy. I currently am the aggressive Jewish holiday organizer (seders for Pesach, hopefully latke making for Hanukkah??) so these are all great ideas and its nice to know that there are other jewish folks queering our judaism in the PNW.

  3. This is a perfect article and you are a awesome! For a while Hanukkah was just one gift and lots of chocolate. Now, it’s not even the chocolate, though vegan chocolate thin donuts would be a good Hanukkah treat imho. My mother does an Iranian version of latkes, which pan sized, and has certain spices like turmeric & more potatoes.

  4. This is such a lovely and helpful piece!
    I keep an emergency dreidel with me at all times , and my mother and I have a collection we bring out for our family hannukah parties. We usually try to spin them all simultaneously rather than actually gambling for chocolate, which could be interpreted as queering things up…sometimes my experience of Judaism is combining the practices that keep me connected to tradition with new ones that bring me joy in their discovery.

  5. Thank you for this article! I look forward to the rest of the series. I sadly misplaced my grandmother’s hanukiah during many apartment moves and you’ve inspired me to start looking for a new one.

  6. Related Jewish holigay content: has anyone else had to suffer being dragged along to the MatzoBall “Biggest Jewish Singles Event” where “the Jewish man hunts for his wife like a lion hunts for his prey”? Deep rachmones for you, if so…

    Good news, MatzoBall (and it’s new cis gay counterpart HeBro…wonder who that’s for) is no longer the only game in town! Check out IfNotNow’s series of consent affirming, #JewishResisDance parties! (New York invite is up, more to follow) We promise lit post-Hanukkah parties with lots of queer babes and for sure no vaguely islamophobic pictures of topless White women on camels https://m.facebook.com/events/320761074983826

  7. Love this! I’ve thrown a latke party for years (using my dads amazing recipe) but I love some of these suggestions for queering it up.

    Also I’m totally here for queering other Jewish holidays especially if I can find ways for it to resonate with my non Jewish, generally opposed to religion things, girlfriend

  8. I can’t wait for the rest of this series!

    One of the things that is hard for me about this holiday though, is how much people love it (including myself) while at the same time realizing that a lot of the holiday is not as holigay as we would like it to be.

    The Maccabee revolt was not responding to forced assimilation. It was responding to assimilation in general. The Maccabees were much more fundamentalist than everyday Jews, and were angry about the way Jews were involving themselves in theater, the arts, gymnasiums, and other aspects of Syrian Greek culture. This led to a full out civil war, with the Maccabees killing just as many Jews as Syrian Greeks. It also reshaped Jewish history.

    Hundreds of years later, when the Talmud (500ce) is being shaped and redacted, the Rabbis decide to leave out the bloody Jew-vs-Jew history of the holiday. The story they record is of a single pot of oil that lights the menorah for 8 days… a story of light being brought to the people instead of being squashed out. The Rabbis did not want to up-vote the infighting and extremism of the past.

    I used to teach this story in the Jewish Day School where I worked (now I’m a rabbinical student) as a warning against intolerance within our own community. We have to keep up dialogue and remain in community with all Jews, even those who understand God or queerness differently from us.

    When I lit last night, I thought about how much light I hope we’re all bringing into the world, instead of hatred or violence. Happy Hannukkah everyone!

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