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Hanukkah at Home: Holiday Turns Into Community Builder

Photos Provided Lisa Shats of Wheeling said her family goes big for Hanukkah -- a holiday that celebrates the rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem some 2,200 years ago -- to create a sense of community in their new hometown. That might mean a photo booth or Hanukkah socks depending on the chosen theme. What remains consistent is her husband Dr. Daniel Shats’ culinary skills. He prepares traditional holiday favorites such as latkes along with Mediterranean treats such as falafel and shawarma. On a non-COVID year, he sometimes cooks for as many as 150 guests.

By NORA EDINGER

For the Sunday News-Register

WHEELING — Hanukkah isn’t a particularly big event in Jewish life. Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Passover tend to get top billing. But when Lisa Shats and her family relocated to the city nearly a decade ago in search of a better work-life balance, particularly for her physician husband, she said a holiday that pointed to what makes them different became an ironic connection to the community.

The Shatses, now a family of four, are known for blow-out Hanukkah celebrations whose treats range from matzo-ball soup and latkes for 150 guests to husband Dr. Daniel Shats whipping up Mediterranean classics such as falafel or 50-pound beef roasts.

Not a family to ever oppose a good, big party, Shats said their Hanukkah whoop de do has a deeper purpose. Maybe several purposes.

“We don’t have blood from here,” Shats said of directly addressing one of the challenges of moving comparatively solo to a city dominated by tight family networks.

Indeed they don’t. Shats is the descendent of Ellis Island immigrants who began their American life in New York City. She grew up in Miami Beach and has also lived in urban centers such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Husband Daniel Shats — a regional gastroenterologist — is from Toronto, Ontario, having emigrated there from Russia with his parents when he was a toddler.

Wheeling wasn’t even on their radar until it became clear that mixing a high-pressure, urban medical career with a family was more high-pressure than they wanted. The couple and son Gabe, a recent bar mitzvah boy who was then a preschooler, decided to try a brief placement here while contemplating a fresh life path.

Driving up Bethany Pike with a real estate agent, however, Shats was stunned at what they found. “There’s a temple? There’s a country club? There’s a resort?” she said she practically yelled as they travelled north of the city. “I said, ‘only three years,’ and then we fell in love with it.”

FOOD & FUN

Not to say that there weren’t adjustments. Never having lived outside a major population center, the couple went into a bit of ethnic-food-depravation shock, Shats joked. Sort of.

“This is why my husband has pretty much become a chef,” Shats said with another laugh, curled up on a couch in an open-concept kitchen and living area that, pre-COVID, was the hub of their parties. “It’s every day — a new cooking appliance arrives at the house.”

Not long ago, it was a shawarma set up, she noted, adding that their parties tend to have themes in addition to traditional holiday treats such as latkes – for which they now depend on Trader Joe’s frozen variety after realizing it was nearly impossible to grate enough potatoes for 150 guests.

Loaded up with lamb, the spinning grill more commonly seen in restaurants was rotating at home, Shats laughed. “He was slicing it and serving up gyros.”

Another time, when fat from a 50-pound beef roast went astray in the oven, an alert system went off in the middle of the party. When firefighters arrived, “my husband, he was, ‘Come in, have some food, have a drink.”

Shats said she can more often be found handing out Hanukkah socks, working with a caricature artist or photo booth or running around with a broomstick – her side of the culinary bargain and a necessity when parties get that big. “I clean. That’s only fair, but he uses every pot and every utensil.”

COMMUNITY PLACE

How a new network of friends has responded to the parties has addressed another difficulty the family — which grew post move to include daughter Zoe, now 8 — discovered, she added.

“It (Wheeling) has a very small Jewish community,” Shats said of comparing her children’s experience to her own in Miami Beach. There, she grew up attending school with mostly other Jewish children (ironically, at a private school operated by a Presbyterian church) and surrounded by family who celebrated the same Jewish holidays.

The Shatses realized that Wheeling is a Christmas city and that would likely leave their children feeling left out unless they decided to go similarly if differently big. “We thought, we’ve got the food thing down,” so why not?

That most of their guests are not Jewish hasn’t been an issue, Shats said of introducing foods, traditions such a dreidel spinning and gelt (often chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil) and even décor.

Her holiday stash — blue, white and silver in a nod to the Israeli flag — includes a tinsel Star of David and candles that recall the holiday-sparking oil lamp that was used in the temple rededication and restoration of Jerusalem about 2,200 years ago.

There’s also a Mensch on a Bench in lieu of an Elf on a Shelf.

Noting she is stunned at the efforts of Christmas celebrators who move such elves all over the house to entertain their children, Shats joked that the family mensch kind of lives up to his name, which is Yiddish for a good, honorable person. “He comes out, he sits on the mantle, that’s the end of it.”

Guests — now friends — are more animated, she added. The Shatses were touched, for example, when a new friend offered a book celebrating differences, “Dear, Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein,” and another learned a Hebrew prayer to better engage in festivities.

And, beyond Hanukkah, Shats said they were astounded at the ways their new community reached out after the murder of 11 Jewish worshippers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

“It made me feel safe and I think that really matters in the day right now,” Shats said. “All you want to do is protect your kids … There’s no place or community like Wheeling, W.Va. You really can’t get that anywhere else.”

In turn, Shats — who considers her family more culturally Jewish than religiously so even though they are active at Temple Shalom — said she is also trying to interpret their life path for the larger community. She visits her daughter’s elementary school to share information about holidays such as Hanukkah, whose 2021 observance begins tonight and continues through sundown Dec. 6.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility … our responsibility as Jewish people,” she said, noting that holiday foods and even something as simple as chocolate coins tend to erase cultural differences.

With that in mind, while their Hanukkah festivities are scaled way back for a second year because of COVID, Shats said she figures her husband is already plotting a way to bring even more of them onto the table in 2022. It will likely include small, jelly-filled donuts called sufganiyah that are also traditional.

Ticking off the foods they have already launched into Wheeling’s holiday party scene, Shats nodded resolutely, no doubt anticipating more cooking equipment on the way. “What else is there?”

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