The Hazards of Chanukah

The psychiatric hospital where I work as an interfaith chaplain has a strict holiday policy: no flammable objects and no decorations with cords on the locked wards. That means no lights on Christmas trees, battery-operated Menorahs, and tea lights

for Sabbath candles.

Last week, a group Jewish high-school students came to spread Chanukah cheer—among patients diagnosed with psychosis, schizophrenia, addictions, anorexia, depression, and a host of other psychiatric disorders on the DSM IV. I accompanied the student group to “the Horizon,” a unit that provides Kosher meals, prayer shawls, and Tefillin for observant Jewish patients. My fellow chaplains and I were not to let the plastic wrappers the dreidels come in out of our sight: Patients may try to swallow them and choke.

The activities room on the Horizon warmed up, after a few rounds of Oy Chanukah. “Say ‘Al Hanissim,’ praise God for the miracles. And we will all dance together in a circle!” The high-school kids and a handful of patients started the horah. We chaplains joined in, drawing the circle wide for the non-Jewish patients who were making construction-paper snowflakes with a volunteer art therapist.

Then it was time to play spin-the-dreidel. On the periphery of the game circle there was a girthy man whose hospital gown was coming out of the back of his black pants, held up by suspenders. “Do you want to play, J.?” a mental-health worker asked. He nodded, like a shy child, his kippah askew. On the next round, he won five chocolate coins and decided to quit while he was ahead. But he couldn’t take the gelt into his room: Gold-foil candy wrappers are safety hazards on psych wards.

After the game wound down, a Hasidic patient started chanting solo, a Yiddish song he says is available on CD in Crown Heights and Boro Park. “Rebbe, do you have a minyan in the hospital?” one of the high-school kids asked.

“No, the closest minyan’s in White Plains,” the cantor told him.

Meanwhile, the rest of us started cleaning up. “You see those plastic wrappers the dreidels came in?” the cantor said. “Just make sure you throw them away.” The rebbe knows the rules: No loose plastic on the Horizon.


Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.