"We have come to banish darkness," begins a popular Hebrew children's song for the holiday. Once day turns to night, earlier and chillier than a mere few weeks before, we light our menorah in front of the window to proclaim the Hanukkah miracle: that a little bit of olive oil can go a long way.
Though it technically lasts for eight days as well as eight nights, Hanukkah is, at heart, a holiday of the night. So, I thought, what better time to host my oldest daughter Rimonit's first sleepover party? Sure, her 8th birthday was actually in September, but in our house, the early fall — the hectic start of a new school year combined with the flurry of the Jewish High Holiday period — is an incredibly busy time. My daughter's September birthday came and went, and I kept pushing off her party.
Eventually, I hit on the sleepover solution. Rimonit loved the idea of having her first slumber party, and I loved the idea of hosting the kind of birthday party where we could get away with inviting just a couple of close friends. By this point it was almost Hanukkah — and winter vacation — so I figured we may as well do it then.
In hindsight, both the sleepover party — and the Hanukkah holiday itself — have helped me see that, amid the never-ending to-do list that governs so much of family life, sometimes it's best to aspire not to greatness, but to mediocrity.
To some extent, the same holds for the Maccabees, the heroes of Hanukkah.
For the Maccabees, mediocrity came in the shape of a single undefiled cruse of olive oil lying amid the debris of a ransacked Temple. Jewish tradition has it that, though a container of this size would normally light the Temple menorah for just one day, the oil miraculously lasted for eight days, long enough to prepare a new batch of pure olive oil. A perfectionist Maccabee might have rejected that little vial for not being enough, but instead the heroes of the holiday worked with what they had, and found that what appeared mediocre and insufficient was actually just what they needed.
I am not a perfectionist Maccabee, and my party prep on the third night of Hanukkah involved a dash to the mall to buy a chocolate cake I could reasonably pass off as a birthday cake and a failed attempt to get birthday candles at the grocery store. I was still on the phone ordering the pizza when one of Rimonit's friends showed up. When her other friend arrived, I put out the foam flowers, rhinestones, and glue I had picked up that day from a nearby craft store, along with one wooden dreidel each, and instructed them to start decorating.
Rimonit and her friends, along with her three younger sisters, seemed settled in with their art projects, so I got a head start on movie time by making the popcorn. The microwave hadn't been working recently, but that was okay; there were popcorn kernels in the pantry. I heated up the oil, poured in the kernels, and covered the pot.
On Hanukkah, Jews celebrate their victory over the Hellenists of the second century BCE, a moment in time when the Maccabees defeated the Greeks (well, technically, the Seleucid Empire) and rededicated the defiled Temple. Judah Maccabee's defeat and death in a later battle, like the power-hungry intrigue that pervaded his Hasmonean clan, remain off-screen. The Hanukkah story, then, is a collection of hand-picked good moments packaged as an unvarnished tale of triumph. At Rimonit's sleepover party, there were several such likeable moments. They were not to last long.
A knock on the door: pizza. I put the boxes down on the table as the six girls peacefully decorated their flowers and dreidels.
A crash. A shout. The tiled floor of the living room sparkled with rhinestones. I grabbed a broom and wondered if there was a way to get the rhinestones back into the container without also including the dust bunnies that our manic pre-party cleanup had missed.
I smelled something burning and pivoted toward the kitchen. Smoke was starting to fill the room. Too late, I turned off the popcorn, opened the windows as wide as I could, and dragged out two fans. I told the girls they could go out on the balcony if they wanted to escape the smell. I went back to sweeping up the rhinestones.
By comparison, the rest of the party was anticlimactic. We lit the Hanukkah menorah without setting the apartment on fire. The girls ate pizza. The cake boasted unintentionally holiday-themed Hanukkah candles.
After putting pretzels in a bowl and leaving the blackened popcorn pot to soak in soapy water, I turned on the movie. About 20 minutes later, I discovered that Shrek 2 is apparently a scary movie, and turned it off at the girls' request. Shortly after, one of Rimonit's friends started crying and asked to be picked up by her parents, rather than stay the night.
When it was all over, the outtakes (The popcorn! The movie fail! The crying kid!) may have seemed like a disaster, but the birthday party actually felt like a success — because it happened, and because my daughter enjoyed it.
What I have discovered in over a decade of motherhood is that if I were to dismiss the mediocre as inadequate, I would never find out whether the small amount of time or patience I can muster would have sufficed after all. It's only when I pursue the good enough rather than the perfect that I'm able to ignore the lingering odor of burnt popcorn in favor of that tiny vial of pure oil that might just power me through to bedtime.