By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
When I was growing up, Hanukkah was not a major celebration. Forget eight days’ worth of gifts; we received one present and had the pleasure of listening to my mother tell us how all she received when she was young was a quarter and an orange. The major Hanukkah activity was lighting candles in the menorah. We didn’t make Hanukkah crafts, nor did we decorate for the holiday.
Fast forward several decades: I walked into a holiday party at Broome Developmental Center and the room looked wonderful. It contained more Hanukkah decorations in one place than I’d ever seen: plush dreidels, some of which played music; decorative menorahs; and Hanukkah-themed garlands. The coworker who helped me organize Jewish celebrations found them at a major department store, something that would never have happened when I was young.
That may explain why I jumped at a chance to receive a do-it-yourself Chanukah House cookie decorating kit from the Manischewitz Company. The cookie house kit is part of a promotion by Manischewitz to raise awareness for the PJ Library, which sends free Jewish books to households in the U.S. and Canada. Included in the kit is a subscription card for PJ Library. Books for two age groups are available for this year’s holiday: for the youngest crowd, “Hanukkah” by Roni Schotter with illustrations by Maryline Hafner; and for the slightly older crowd (and the young at heart), “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” by Eric Kimmel with illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman. The cookie kit and the books (which are not included in the kit, but can be ordered separately) sounded like a lot of fun.
Since I’ve never made a cookie (or a gingerbread) house before I invited some friends to help. Being together during the pandemic is not easy, especially in the fall and winter months because of the need to meet outdoors. However, we were lucky with the weather. It was so nice outside that we didn’t have to wear a coat. My friends had thought of wearing their Hanukkah sweaters, but it was too warm for them. I, on the other hand, did wear a pair of Hanukkah socks to get into the holiday mood.
What makes this cookie house a Jewish one? First of all, it’s kosher. Second, it includes two Jewish stars and two menorahs, which are not edible, as part of the decorations. Anything else Jewish is left to the person decorating. The kit is very convenient since everything you need to put the house together is included. Plus, there is a plastic stand with slots to keep the house from falling over. I’m told that is not featured in every cookie/gingerbread house. The directions on the box were easy to follow and included photos with the step-by-step instructions.
How did it come out? You can look at the photos included with this article to see. I think we did – well, they did almost all the work – a nice job. We didn’t eat the house, although it is edible. (I had another snack for us.) As I write, it’s sitting on my kitchen counter reminding me that Hanukkah will arrive in a few weeks. It also serves as a symbol that – pandemic or no pandemic – we can still create light during some of the darkest days of the year.
The cookie Chanukah House is available in stores and online. The PJ Library website, PJLibrary.org, has information to help parents celebrate the holiday with their children. Its Hanukkah Hub features crafts, recipes and information about the holiday. There is also a children’s podcast, “Have I Got a Story for You,” featuring Jewish folktales. All PJ Library resources are available at no cost.