By Doni Joszef
Family gatherings. Family dinners. Family parties.
Chanukah is a uniquely family-centric festival. The story of Chanukah entails a family. The laws of Chanukah entail the family. The customs of Chanukah entail the family.
Yes, these are family-friendly days. Fueled by family-friendly feelings. And if life were a Hallmark card, these feelings would flow naturally.
But they don’t. Because life is not a Hallmark card. Life is complicated. And so are families.
Families are not always functional, nor were they ever designed to be. Families are touchy, sensitive, volatile, and moody. The dynamics are difficult, and so are the personalities. To escape the dissonance, we exchange platitudes and scripted snippets of small talk. We let the kids play kiddie games while we play adult games. We trade gifts and gossip, rumors and recipes.
We do this because this is what families do. What else is family for?
And then we go home. From our extended families to our immediate families. We exchange more gifts and more games. We love each other, yet invariably we escape. Left to our own devices, we each seek refuge in the private screens and scenes of our individuated identities.
We offer our presents, but we struggle to provide a sustained sense of presence. The intimacy is inevitably disrupted, dissected, diluted, and diffused. The innermost chambers of family intimacy have been breached and besieged by external intrusions.
A modern manifestation of an ancient tale.
On Chanukah we take a moment to reconvene and reconnect. The light is not meant to utilize, but to unite. We are not using the light, we are sharing the light. It is not a pragmatic activity so much as it is an enchanting experience.
Families like presents, but they need presence. Our spouses want our presents, but they need our presence. Our children want our presents, but they need our presence. It’s nice to get what they want, but it’s nicer to give what they need. v
Doni Joszef, winner of the 2014 Cedarhurst “Best in Mental Health” award, works in private practice with individuals, couples, and families. Trained as a cognitive-behavioral therapist, he is completing his Ph.D. in media psychology. Doni presents innovative workshops at schools and organizations on a variety of psychosocial topics. For more information, visit or e‑mail


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