A Very Indy Chanukah, Simon/Bernstein-Style

“The J Has Always Been There”

Ellen Simon and Ellen Bernstein have both been JCC members as long as they can remember – Ellen B. was one of the Hoover Road location’s very first lifeguards (there are still people in their later decades who come up to her because they remember her teaching them to swim when she was in her twenties), and as Ellen S. put it, “I was born at the J!” (her parents belonged to the Kirshbaum Center at the JCC’s previous location at 23rd and Meridian, then they all moved north along with the facility). They both have participated in various exercise programs over the years, and Ellen S. even served on the board and taught calligraphy classes at the J. So it stands to reason that their kids and shared grandkids (Ellen S.’s daughter Sara married Ellen B.’s son Mark, and they have two sons, Eli and Sammy) consider the JCC a huge part of their lives as well: Mark and Sara actually met in the JCC gym where Mark still works out, and Eli worked in the fitness center this past summer, while Sammy participated in the JCC’s delegation to the Maccabi Games (an Olympic-style competition for Jewish teens) in Israel.

“It’s just been a consistent figure in my life,” Mark said, vividly recalling riding his bike down Hoover Road as a kid, exploring the woods behind the campus, watching Rod Hofts in his knee-high socks jumping rope, skirting the old footbath leading up to the pool and munching on French fries from the snack bar. “To live so close and to know that there’s always some place to go with my kids, even as they’ve gotten older. The J has always been there.”

“It’s An Important Part of the Community”

Ellen S. and husband Jerry feel it’s important to support the J not just with their time but with their treasure as well. “We both feel we need to support the Jewish community and its activities. We feel [the J] is an important part of the community here for what it offers the Jewish community and everyone else in the neighborhoods around here. The community has given us a lot, and we want to give back,” they said. Rooted in the Jewish tradition of Tzedakah (charitable giving), the Simons’ philanthropic journey is motivated by a genuine commitment to the J. Their particular fondness for the J’s Arts & Education program, driven by Jerry’s friendship with director Lev Rothenberg, underscores their dedication to enhancing the lives of those the JCC serves. Through their generosity, the Simons not only support a cherished cultural tradition but also ensure that the JCC continues to thrive and make a positive impact on the community.

“That’s What Makes [Chanukah] Special”

Just as the JCC has been a constant comfort in the Simons’ and Bernsteins’ lives, so too have their Chanukah celebrations. Both sides of the family have their familiar traditions that they faithfully repeat year after year, enjoying time spent with loved ones.

The Simons host a family dinner “whenever we can get all ten of us together, somewhere in the eight days.” Everyone chips in – so as to not stink up the house, out on the screened-in porch (whatever the temperature), Jerry and son Reuben fry latkes (potato pancakes) from batter made by Sara and Reuben’s wife Maria, while Ellen S. makes vegetable soup and homemade applesauce (though yes, there is sour cream out on the table, too) and Mark entertains the kids, who either play dreidel or roughhouse in the living room before dinner. Everyone brings over their menorahs, and all of them are lit. Then after dinner, they open presents, starting with the youngest person and going up by age. “When [Reuben and Sara] were little, for seven nights they’d get a little tiny gift – a matchbox car, a Barbie dress, something inconsequential. The last night we would give them a bigger, more meaningful gift,” Ellen S. said.

Ellen Bernstein grew up in Brooklyn, where it seemed like everyone was Jewish so celebrating Chanukah wasn’t as big a deal. But upon her move to Indianapolis, Ellen B.’s celebrations became more intentional. She lights the menorah (or multiple) every night, whether she’s by herself, has family or students she tutors in high school math over, or if she’s on vacation (she’s gotten a few confused searches by airport security). She even still sets up the gifts in the same spot they were placed when Mark was a kid. “For me, I associate Chanukah with my mom’s joy,” Mark said. “Being home, feeling that warmth. The little things, like coming home from school and feeling like it was going to take forever before the sun set so we could light the candles, and having candle races – picking which candle we thought would burn out first or last the longest. [Mom] looks forward to it every year, so that’s what makes it special to me.”

Chag Chanukah Sameach (Happy Chanukah)!

Chanukah (sometimes spelled Hanukkah) is the “Festival of Lights,” commemorating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after a successful revolt against the Greeks. As part of the rededication, the victorious Jews needed to light the Temple’s menorah (candelabrum), but they had only enough oil to last one day, and it would take eight days to prepare more oil. Miraculously, the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days. The miracle of the oil is commemorated with this eight-day candle-lighting holiday.

Chanukah begins between Thanksgiving and Christmas. About half of the time, it overlaps with Christmas, but there are many years when Chanukah ends long before Christmas.

Almost all Jews light candles with their families for at least some nights of the holiday, so people like to be at home during this holiday.

The most important thing to remember about Chanukah is that it is not Jewish Christmas. Chanukah is a very minor holiday. It’s about lighting candles and playing games for chocolate coins (gelt) and eating potato pancakes. Chanukah gift-giving rarely extends much beyond one’s own children.

Words to Know:

Menorah: Eight-branch candleholder; each night of Chanukah we light an additional candle until the final night, when all eight candles are lit.

Dreidel: Spinning top with four Hebrew letters (nun, gimmel, hey, shin) which stand for “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham” (“A Great Miracle Happened There”).

Latkes: Potato pancakes, a traditional Chanukah food.

Try Ellen S’s Latke Recipe, straight from the 1970s Congregation Beth-El Zedeck cookbook!

6 medium potatoes           dash ginger or nutmeg (optional)
½ tsp baking soda              ½ cup flour
2 ½ onions, chopped (chopper blade)      salt and pepper to taste
2 eggs         vegetable oil for deep frying

For 10 people only make two batches

Peel the potatoes and grate very fine. Sprinkle with the soda and squeeze out the excess liquid. Mix with all other ingredients. Drop the batter by spoonfuls into hot fat and fry until the pancakes are crisp on the outside. Drain on absorbent paper and serve hot with applesauce. Serves 6-8.

Hint for Potato Latkes: Grate onion first, then potatoes. Add a pinch of baking soda to mixture to keep potatoes white. Turn latkes only once as they get soggy and heavy if turned over and over.

Ellen S’s Vegetable Soup

1-2 lbs stew beef chuck roast (cut up)       
1 soup bone (if not available use beef bouillon cubes) beef short rib
1 large can cut up tomatoes (or fresh)        1 cup cut up celery         1 cup cut up carrots        Celery leaves
1 green pepper, cut up and cubed          1 onion, diced       1 cup cut up green beans (frozen or fresh)
1 cup peas (frozen)      2 cubed potatoes     ¼ cup parsley       1-2 bay leaves      Salt and pepper to taste
8 cups water        Tube of Manischewitz Veg. Soup (optional)

Place meat and soup bone in pot. Brown lightly. (Add a little oil if necessary). Add rest of ingredients. Simmer 3-4 hours. Even better next day. Freezes well.

Learn more about Chanukah and other Jewish holidays at JCCindy.org/jewish-holidays.