My daughter Tamar wanted to celebrate her becoming a Bat Mitzvah -- the ritual that marks the 13th birthday of a Jewish girl -- with a party, complete with music and dancing. This was a change from the quieter, more intimate celebrations we hosted for our other children, but we agreed to her wishes. Toward the end of the party, I approached Tamar and asked, "Are you having a good time?"
"It's alright," she replied. But I knew from the tone of her voice that she was disappointed; she told me later that the big party hadn't made her feel the happiness she had expected.
She was not able to articulate her disappointment, but I suspect that it had something to do with the fact that the manner in which many of us think we need to celebrate is not always the best way to express and experience our joy. A party can be fun, if you enjoy dancing. If the food is good, you will leave having eaten well. But if you find more joy in spending time speaking with friends, swapping memories with loved ones or just sharing unfettered time with those you never seem to have enough time with, the loud music, throngs of people and partying may become a distraction if not an impediment. I myself enjoy, at times, the music and the dancing. But I have learned to distinguish between the partying and the deeper sense of joy and celebration that I believe we also crave.
Living hectic and somewhat public lives, my family and I have come to appreciate the quiet, more personal celebratory moments. My children, now 19, 16 and 14, ask to have birthday celebrations with "just our family." Similarly, holidays are anticipated as "special family time." The "holiday" is not so much in the calendar date or the special service held in the synagogue. To be sure, those are important; necessary but not sufficient. The true joy of the holiday will emerge during the special family meal, the uninterrupted conversation, the special songs and the familiar jokes, repeated whenever we gather for holidays.
One of my favorite holidays is Hanukkah. On the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah is not considered a major holiday. But despite its diminished status in the constellation of Jewish holidays, I love it. I have fond memories from my childhood of standing in front of the Hanukkah candles, kindling the lights and singing the songs with my family gathered round. To this day, when I think of celebrating, those simple images come to my mind. And I think they are similar images that my wife and children cherish today.
Perhaps it is because Hanukkah, and Christmas for that matter, comes at a time of year when days are shortest and darkness prevails that makes these holidays so important to us all. Gathering in the darkness, huddling together to light candles, singing softly and feeling the quiet warmth radiating from a small group of family and friends is a joy that remains even in the light of day, and for years to come.