Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah; Jewish people around the world will exchange small gifts, play endless games of dreidel, eat fried food, and– most importantly– light candles. A Hanukkiah, better known as a nine candle menorah, is a candelabra made specifically for celebrating Hanukkah. Every night for eight nights, starting on the 25th day of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar, Jewish families will light the center calendar (the shamash) and then the outside candles inward working right to left. On the first night, two candles will be lit and by the eighth, each of the nine will flicker in the windowsill, brightening some of the longest nights of the calendar year.
Across Canada and the United States, the “ugly Christmas sweater” is a staple of the season– more on that to come on December 25th! While secular versions with grinning snowmen and sparkling snow globes are also popular, in recent years there has been a growing market for a Hanukkah alternative. While cheesy, tacky, and ugly are the name of the game, Jewish textile artist Alix Kramer has created an undeniably lovely knitting pattern for a Hanukkah sweater with removable snap-on flames. We spoke with Alix about her artistic practice, her inspirations, and how she celebrates Hanukkah.
What was your inspiration when starting the Hanukkah sweater?
I learned how to knit when I was seven, but only knitted my first garment at the start of the pandemic. It was around this time that I created my Instagram account and begun actively engaging with the knitting community. I noticed that there was a large representation of Christmas patterns that started to be promoted as early as July but despite having a lot of Jewish knitter friends in the community, I had a tough time finding Hanukkah or Jewish holiday patterns. They do exist! But they are proportionally minimal in comparison, and at that time none had come up in my interaction with the community. I was inspired in 2020 to release my first Jewish holiday pattern – my “Ugly Hanukkah Sweater.” I wanted it to be a riff on the idea of the Ugly Christmas Sweater so that we Jews could have something fun and personal to wear to holiday parties. I also wanted something with a beautiful base and the option to add on the very kitch-y and wonderfully tacky detachable flames. In the years after this pattern, I released my dreidel mittens and my Afikomen cover for Passover.
What does being a Jewish fiber artist mean to you? How do you connect with your Judaism through making?
For me, knitting has always been a connection to my Jewish ancestors and primarily to my maternal grandma who was always my strongest connection to Judaism growing up and who taught me how to knit and crochet when I was seven.I love that fiber arts travel through generations and it’s something I teach to everyone who is interested so the community can continue to grow. My first Jewish pattern coincided with my move into a Jewish community home (a Moishe House, for those in the know). I am sure this had a great influence on my personal connection to Judaism and how close I felt to it at the time. Like many of us, I have gone through periods of my life where my Judaism is at the forefront and times when it takes a back seat. At that time I was able to really reconnect with my Jewish identity and reinforce that connection through the pattern design.
Do you have a favorite Hanukkah memory? My favorite (or most cursed?) Hanukkah memory was from my first independent Hanukkah party. I grew up with very routine Hanukkah traditions from childhood through my college years, which always included a family Hanukkah party. My parents also encouraged us growing up to invite friends who didn’t celebrate Hanukkah or know much about Judaism to join us in our Hanukkah celebrations. When I had my first grown up apartment in NYC, I invited all of my friends, a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish, and threw my first Hanukkah bash with latkes, dreidel, and classic early twenties mingling. I was so proud of myself, and it was such a joy to share with the people I loved. At the end of the night, my naiveté led me to clean all the dishes and cooking ware, including dumping all the latke oil down the sink, which immediately broke my pipes. I ended up cleaning the rest of the plates in the bathroom sink and calling the handyman the next day. That’s a mistake you only make once!
How do you usually celebrate Hanukkah now? Has it changed since you were a kid?
Some of this is included above, but one of my big joys has been continuing to throw a Hanukkah party every year. Now I am able to share this tradition with my wife & our closest friends, and everyone gets super excited for our unparalleled dreidel competition prizes. I also love celebrating other holidays with friends, like Rosh Hashanah and Passover. Many of my friends in Chicago aren’t Jewish, so it feels special to share these parts of my identity with them.