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How I Brought the Holidays from Home to Hillel

by Gabriel Lesser | Dec 21, 2021 |
A white mug with text that says "love you a latke"

Before I got into my car, my mom handed me a Hanukkah gift: a mug from Marshall’s that said, “Love You a Latke” on it, with gelt and a dreidel inside. Normally, I’d find this kind of item to be a little tacky, but at that moment, it felt heartwarming to receive a cute gift before going back to school after Thanksgiving break. I tucked the mug securely in the backseat cupholder, and then hit the road.

As a college student, it’s hard to spend the Jewish holidays away from my family. I didn’t want to celebrate Hanukkah without them, but I had to return to campus for finals. As I drove, I thought about what I’d be missing: gatherings around the table with my grandparents, cousins, and family friends. Lighting the chanukiah and singing Hanukkah songs. Spinning the dreidel and winning all the gelt. Whether I was celebrating with my family in New York or Rio de Janeiro, I always cherished spending time with loved ones. Even last year, when I was isolated with my family, I celebrated with my sister and parents and made my own sufganiyot and latkes for the very first time. I’m not the best at dealing with changes, and I often get attached to one place and one set of traditions. What would the holidays look like for me this year, being on campus without my family? How could I embrace something different?

A family smiles at the camera from behind several lit menorahs.

After a grueling, six-hour, post-Thanksgiving drive, I finally pulled into an empty spot in my building’s parking garage. I retrieved my duffel bag and backpack from the backseat and grabbed my mug. As I shut the car door, my hand slipped and I dropped the mug onto the concrete floor. I heard a jarring bang! echo through the garage. I bent down to pick up my mug and saw a huge crack running alongside the handle. The bottom was partially broken. I couldn’t believe it. I was miles away from my family, unable to celebrate Hanukkah with them, and I had ruined the only thing that felt like home. Hanukkah was going to be terrible this year.

I walked into my dorm room that night, disappointed and defeated. In those few hours, I had grown attached to my mug, and even though it was cracked now, I didn’t have the heart to throw it out. Instead, I placed it on my shelf, the remains protected in wrapping paper. 

To clear my head and prepare for my exams, I headed to the library to study. I buried myself in my books, memorizing arbitrary organic chemistry reactions while wishing I was home lighting the candles. After a couple hours, I walked out of the library, exhausted. A familiar smell hit my nose: freshly made latkes and sufganiyot. I turned and saw a Hillel table laden with welcoming treats. I ran over and filled up on Hanukkah goodies while I chatted with other Jewish students. They told me about the festivities planned for the next eight days. It actually sounded fun. Maybe Hanukkah wasn’t going to be as bad as I thought. 

A plate of latkes and a menorah

After that, I went to a Hillel event every night of Hanukkah. I gathered with friends to light candles, sing Hanukkah songs, and spin the dreidel, just like I had done with my family. We met around a campfire one night, and another night I got to decorate my very own sufganiyot (I ate a lot of them this year). On the last night of Hanukkah, I FaceTimed with my sister, parents, and grandparents, and we sang and lit the candles together, virtually. Even though we were miles apart, I still felt at home. 

As I look at the cracked mug on my shelf, I think about how scared I was that things would be different. I had been afraid I wouldn’t find new ways to celebrate without my family, and then, to my surprise, I created so many amazing holiday memories on campus. Maybe the crack in my mug wasn’t a sign that something was broken, but a clue that the cherished feeling of family and celebration could come in many forms. All I needed was a little latke and a little love to make it happen.

 




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