Hanukkah provides this Chapel Hill family with a joyful feeling of connection and cherished community traditions
By Chris Vitiello | Photography by Adina Davidson
While the bustle of winter holidays can stress many families, the feeling of Hanukkah is one of presence and connection for Mencken Davidson, Adina Davidson and their family, both in their home and at Kehillah Synagogue in Chapel Hill. Adina and Mencken’s house buzzes with activity all year long with four busy children: Ari Davidson, 13, Eliot Davidson and Jahmir Davidson, both 10, and Aaliyah Davidson, 7. As Hanukkah approaches, that buzz takes on a particularly joyful tone.
The couple comes from very different family backgrounds. Adina, a family and fine art photographer and adjunct faculty in the UNC School of Education, is one of six siblings raised in South Florida. Mencken, a senior solution architect for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, grew up in a smaller, “secular WASP” family so he likens his first Thanksgiving with Adina’s family to a stadium rock concert. But, at Hanukkah, family time is a unifying factor for the Davidsons.
“For me, it means a sense of community and reflection,” Adina says. “There was a time in my life when I wasn’t practicing the traditions as much, but when I became a parent, it all came flooding back. We enjoy one another’s company even longer than we usually do. During Hanukkah, we spend hours at the table together.”
One of the big activities at that table is playing dreidel. The family has a large bag of dreidels, along with their menorahs and candles, that is kept in an antique cabinet that belonged to Adina’s great-grandmother.
“When we’re spinning the dreidels, and everyone’s trying to get them going upside down or [doing] two at once, that’s definitely something the kids take pride in but also remember and look forward to each year,” Adina says. “The kids always try to re-form the gelt coins and pretend there’s chocolate still in there and trick one another into thinking that they’re going to give it to one another.”
Everyone tries to find the best spinners from the collection, which changes annually and is so large that they can’t recall where all of the dreidels are from.
“They dribble in around Hanukkah every year,” Mencken says. “Maybe we’ll be at a friend’s house visiting, and they’ll have extra dreidels, and they’ll end up in our big bag of dreidels. The bag stays roughly the same size from year to year, but there’s some dryer sock magic working in there.”
Other traditions include a latke production line in the kitchen and a family game night – Adina and Mencken always gift a game on one of the eight nights so that they gather and play together. Hanukkah also means gathering at Kehillah for events, most notably a community candle lighting that the family eagerly anticipates each year. The ceremony was held online in 2020 due to the pandemic. Adina still found it to be powerful, but she’s excited to be in the room with other Kehillah members to share in that special presence this year.
“There’s just a heightened sense of spirituality,” she says. “The candles are lit, and everyone is near one another, and all the menorahs are on this very long table. It’s just very powerful to see everyone standing together on either side of the tables. It’s dark, and you hear everyone singing and feel their voices.”
“It feels incredibly communal,” Mencken adds. “You get a distinct sense of connectedness with everyone there in the room – something that’s lacking in our day-to-day interactions.”
For the first few years that the family was at Kehillah, Mencken felt like a bit of an observer, having not been raised Jewish. But when Adina fell ill several years ago, the Kehillah community responded with whatever the family needed.
“They opened up their arms and encircled our entire family,” Mencken says. “That was a turning point for me – that this was a community that I wanted to be an active part of.”
That community feeling echoes through all of the Davidsons’ Hanukkah observances – and it has deepened Adina’s faith. “I never thought I’d be a member of a temple again, but there’s something about Kehillah, their social justice focus and that community,” she says. “I feel very strongly that the values there are reflective of our whole family.”