Ira Hillman -

Dec 18, 2023

Eight Hanukkah Nights of Nurturing Connection

communities gathering and building

Growing up, my mother paid great attention to detail in her approach to finding gifts for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, a holiday observed to bring about hope and shine a light on the path forward. Whatever number night it was, my gift matched that number: four VCR tapes to record my favorite shows, five rolls of film, a six-pack of blank cassette tapes. You get the idea.

While I love many of my family traditions, the pressure of the number-themed gifts was too much for me. But I did inherit my mother’s tenacity and desire to try new things, so this year I was eager to add another dimension to our Hanukkah. In addition to opening gifts, I wanted to try out a new approach to nurture connection with my kids during the holiday.

Even if you do not celebrate this festival, the gift of emotional connection — the reciprocal feeling of being seen, heard, valued, and cared for by loved ones — can be given and received any time of the year. Like many people we know, my husband and I feel much less connected to our family, friends, and community than our parents did at our age. Our nearest relative is at least two hours away, and our friends are busy with kids, jobs, and hobbies, making for infrequent game nights or dinners out.

On top of that, relaxing as a family and even engaging in “self-care” often means looking at a screen, which has long-term implications that worry me. One study found that just having a cell phone visible during an interaction had “negative effects on closeness, connection, and conversation quality.” According to other studies, smartphones distract parents from feeling connected when spending time with their children and undermine the enjoyment of face-to-face social interactions.

Yet, we know that connection with others is critical to our health. The Harvard Study of Adult Development followed a group of people for 80 years and found that people “who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected.” Other studies have found that relationships make us less susceptible to disease and help us heal more quickly from injuries.

Many of us yearn for the gift of physical and emotional health, so here are my eight Hanukkah Nights of Nurturing Connection:

  1. A night to see: Put away the phones and other devices for five minutes. Spend time to turn to one another and look in each other’s eyes. When our eyes focus on one another and we mirror that interaction, it activates our brains and bodies to share emotional states and connect more deeply.
  2. A night for telling: Start a meaningful conversation with your loved ones by sharing stories and experiences that shaped who you are. If you don’t know where to start, here is a list of beautiful questions from StoryCorps that you can use to get the conversation going. One of my favorite stories to share with my daughter is the story behind her name. Her Hebrew name is D’Vorah which represents a lion and personifies courage. When she fell and scraped her knee in elementary school, she stood up, raised her arms, and said, “D’Vorah!”
  3. A night to listen: Just like when you play dreidel, we need to take turns. After sharing your stories, it’s time to listen. StoryCorps offers a four-minute video with simple tips for active listening.
  4. A night for smelling: Who among us doesn’t recognize the smell of oil in a frying pan? Smells remind us of moments of connection and rekindles our relationships. Prepare a food associated with fond memories and enjoy the odor. Consider giving a gift of a shirt spritzed with your perfume or cologne to help a child or adult in your life feel close to you even when you are away.
  5. A night for touch: Hold someone you love. It might be as simple as taking your child’s hand into yours, or cuddling a baby in your arms, while you sing the candle-lighting blessings. Or snuggle on the couch as you reminisce about what movie you watched last year on Christmas Day.
  6. A night for what’s wrong: Life is not all doughnuts and chocolate coins. This holiday (like so many!) is all about the fact that we almost died. All emotions – even negative ones – can and should be expressed as a path to connection. This is true even with babies. Tell your children stories of sadness and disappointment. The sound in your voice of authentic emotions will act like a magnet and bring them closer to you. Think about how good it feels every Yom Kippur when we acknowledge our shortcomings and feel a sense of renewed possibilities.
  7. A night for support: Just like Judah had the Maccabees, none of us can survive alone. Connection is rooted in mutuality and reciprocity. We all need support from others, whether it’s when a neighbor watches our kids for 30 minutes so we can do a quick trip to the grocery store or a friend dropping off homemade dinner after a difficult loss in our lives. Make a list with your family of those who you know would be there in a pinch for you, making your lives better, and dropping most everything to help. Tell them how much that means to you. Ask how you can be more available and supportive to them.
  8. A night for song: Fiddler on the Roof. Yentl. Funny Girl. Singing makes things better. Make up songs as you wrap your baby in a shmata. Turn on Adam Sandler’s The Hanukkah Song and follow along. Or choose a song from your (or your kids’) younger years and turn up the volume. You don’t even need to know the words. Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.

No matter your faith, spiritual, or non-religious background, the popular saying at this time of year is, “It is better to give than to receive.” The good news about the gifts of connection is that the givers are receivers, and the receivers are givers. I hope the light of connection illuminates your homes for the holidays and the year ahead.

Ira Hillman leads Einhorn Collaborative’s Bonding strategy. Learn more about our work in Bonding and more about Ira. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Ira’s blog posts.