light the @#!%ing candle – a chanukah story

Snow-Covered

{Image is a photo of a row of snow-dusted Christmas trees for sale on the sidewalk in Manhattan}

2006

“But aren’t you Jewish?” he asked, as we headed out into the city night to find the perfect sidewalk Christmas tree to bring back to my apartment.

“Yup,” I said, smiling.

“So, um, is one of your parents Christian?” he asked.

“Nope,” I said, “We just like holidays.”

It’s never been easy to explain my upbringing. In 2009, I wrote a post that told the story of a particular Yom Kippur that I believe pretty well summed up my family’s relationship with religion.

I grew up without religion, I wrote. I was raised by Jewish parents, both third generation Russian emigrants, but Judaism for us was far more like an ethnicity than a religion.

In lieu of attending synagogue we watched Fiddler on the Roof. Rather than studying the Torah we took trips to the Lower East Side of Manhattan for corned beef on rye and potato knishes at Katz’s delicatessen followed by marshmallow twists and rum balls from Russ’s and Daughters. There may not have been a Bat Mitzvah, but there were bialys from the Bronx, matzoh brie (rhymes with rye .. not to be confused with the french cheese) for breakfast, pickled tomatoes and homemade borscht in the fridge.

There may not have been Sunday School, but nearly every Sunday morning I woke to the tantalizing smell of fresh-baked braided challa and the sound of my dad’s smooth, cantor-like tenor belting out “I am I said” along with his version of a rabbi – Neil Diamond.

Throughout the year, we celebrated whichever holidays promised the most fun and the best gifts. Christmas in my home was an ode to consumerism. Our house was decorated, the tree drowning in tinsel and boasting a glistening star on top. The gifts from Santa spilled into the next room. Easter brought a chocolate trail delivered overnight by the Easter Bunny, a delightfully mythical creature who apparently pooped candy. The trail started at my door and wound its way around the house. It was heaven. I had some vague recognition that the holiday had something to do with a guy named Jesus, but for us Easter was about sugar Peeps and Cadbury eggs.

We always joined cousins for a Seder on Passover and listened to the story of our history, but it always felt more to me like Thanksgiving than a religious observance. And really, it is largely a reminder to give thanks for freedom. It’s not so far off.

Some fifteen or so years ago, my then-boyfriend and I went to spend Yom Kippur with my dad and his wife along with his mother, his sister and her family. {Editor’s note: That fifteen years is now twenty. Oy.} My aunt, uncle and cousins are observant Jews and as such, they were keeping the fast that is such an integral part of the Holy Day of Atonement. We all sat around for a while, but without food there wasn’t a whole lot to do. You might have noticed in the first paragraph that our version of religion, of comfort, of love, of entertainment, well .. it all comes back to food. Without it, a family gathering just doesn’t seem to make sense.

After a couple of hours, my dad looked at his wife and said, “Oh, geez, Noelle, I just remembered! We have to take care of that thing at the hotel. Um, yeah, let’s go. We’ll be back soon.” He was long gone before anyone could ask what the heck he was talking about.

I looked at my boyfriend, hoping he’d follow along. “Oh my gosh. Thank goodness Dad mentioned that. I almost forgot. We have to do that thing too. So, um, yeah, let’s go. We’ll be back in a few.”

He followed me, completely confused as I high-tailed it outside. As we got into the car and peeled out of the driveway, he asked where we were going. “TO GET SOME FOOD!” I said far too loudly. We made our way into town and happened upon a McDonald’s. Without a lot of time, it would have to do. We ran inside and ordered like we had a tip on a famine.

And then I heard it. A deep, unmistakable bellow.

“JESSICA,” boomed the voice, “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?”

This was no epiphany and that was not the voice of God. Close, but no. It was the inimitable voice of thirty-five some-odd years as a middle school principal. The voice of a man who could make a grown woman feel like she was about to get detention for running in the hallways. My dad.

I looked down the counter, through the row of cashiers. And there he was, standing behind his own overflowing tray of food. He finished his thought, the bellow now mellowed by a jovial laugh. “You don’t pay for your own food when Daddy’s here. Get over here, kiddo.”

Twenty minutes, four double cheeseburgers, and a pact never to tell Grandma later, we were off.

At the time that I published that post, I ran a disclaimer at the end, stating that I had run the story by both my dad and my grandma and had sought but not received formal reassurance from either that I would not be grounded as a result. I pled for leniency on the grounds of being a relatively good daughter and granddaughter and loving them both to pieces. I also made the point that my Dad paid, so it was like totally his fault. 

So why do I tell you this story now? Well, because it’s Chanukah. And I have a Chanukah story that, frankly, is maybe even better than the Yom Kippur story. So settle in, my friends, and we’ll talk about the night that my dad and I celebrated the Jewish festival of light. Or not.

35015_7_branch_silver_menorah_with_temple_scene_and_detailing_view_1

{image is a photo of a large silver menorah, much like my great aunt’s.}

I was twelve. My parents had recently separated and it was to be our first Christmas in the house, just the two of us. My dad was going through hell, as anyone in the middle of a divorce, working full-time, maintaining a house single-handedly, and above all, trying to keep it together for his kid would be. Me? Well, I was twelve.

So while the Christmas tree and all the presents beneath it that he could ill-afford that year were swell, I, well, was twelve. So I said, “Um, Daddy, we’re Jewish, right?”

“Of course,” my dad said. “Why?”

“Well, I mean, Christmas is awesome and all, but shouldn’t we celebrate Chanukah too?”

My dad, exhausted from a long day in an endless string of long days forced a smile. “Sure, baby,” he said. “We can celebrate Chanukah. Give me a minute; I know we’ve got Aunt B’s menorah somewhere.”

He dragged himself up to the attic. I look back on it now and desperately wish I’d told him we’d do it another time, or that I’d gotten creative and made a damn menorah out of play-doh … anything. But I was twelve. So I let him go.

He clearly thought I couldn’t hear him in the attic. He had no idea that I was beneath the ceiling listening to him kicking things and tossing heaven knows what out of his way as he bellowed, “Where the F##K is this F##KING thing? The kid wants F##King Chanukah, the kid will get MOTHER F##King Chanukah.”

He came down from the attic, drenched in sweat, the forced smile plastered back into place. He walked in a tenuously controlled rage to the dining room and slammed the huge antique menorah down onto the sideboard. The entire room shook and I swear the sideboard cowered in response. He wiped his brow and pulled his sweat-soaked shirt away from his body, then looked lovingly at his little girl. “Okay, kiddo, there ya go. Got a candle?”

16578211

{image is a box of birthday candles. Amazing how little they’ve changed over the years.}

I had searched the house and come up with the best candle I could find – from a box of birthday candles. It was about two inches high. It sunk into the huge silver candle holder until its wick was barely visible above the lip. I knew better than to say anything.

My dad grabbed a match and leaned in to light it.

“Wait!” I said. “Aren’t we supposed to say something before we light it?”

This poor man. Seriously.

“Happy Chanukah?” he said.

“Seriously,” I said, “isn’t there a prayer or something?”

Wasn’t I awesome? (<– That’s sarcasm.)

He looked at me with his jaw clenched. The veneer was wearing thin.

He said the only words in Hebrew that I can recite to this day. The only ones he knew.

Barukh attah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, borei peri ha’gafen. 

“Um, Dad?” I said.

“Yes, Jessie,” he answered, the angry vein in his forehead now beginning to throb.

“Isn’t that the prayer we say over the wine?”

He was at the end of his rope.

“Yes. It’s all I’ve got, kid. Now light the F##KING candle.”

We lit the pathetic little birthday candle in the huge candelabra and there its burnt little carcass lived for the next eight nights until Aunt B’s menorah quietly made its journey back to the attic.

Years later, my mother’s parents would give Luau and me a menorah as a wedding gift. Clearly they had high hopes. When Katie was just shy of two, Luau suggested that we light it. “I mean, you’re both Jewish after all,” he said.

I dug it out of its case and set it in the window, then began to light a candle.

“Wait!” he said. “Aren’t you supposed to say a prayer or sing or something?”

I chuckled and began to sing softly. “We’re li-i-ghting the candle because it’s Ha-Noo-Kah.”

He smirked at me. “You’re making that up,” he said.

I was indeed. Because, as much as I love honoring my family traditions, I thought it better than telling my two year-old to light the F##KING candle, kid.

A very Happy Chanukah to my family and all of our friends who celebrate. May your latkes be crispy and your hearts full.

And sorry for all the shpilkes, Dad. I really should have just made a damn menorah of Play-Doh. 🙂

11 thoughts on “light the @#!%ing candle – a chanukah story

  1. Remember the year when the kids were quite little and Christmas & Chanukah fell on the same day. We celebrated Christmas in the morning & then Luau I made Latkes & we lit the Menorah & I remembered (somehow) to say the prayer. Yes, it’s all about holidays, family & food!

    Love you,
    Mom

  2. Jess,

    Thank you for sharing! Just light the menorah, and be together as a family. That is what a holiday is about – being with family.

  3. Pingback: » light the @#!%ing candle – a chanukah story

  4. I love you even if you made life a happy challenge. You always motivated me to do more. With all we went through, we did have fun, and you turned out is the proof of the pudding..
    Love you soooo much,
    Dad

  5. My guy taught the kids the prayer over the bread, which they dutifully repeated until they celebrated hanukah with a better trained (but also currently secular) Jew, who looked at them oddly when they said the bread prayer. They then looked up the hanukah prayer, and now the family says that one (not hard to do now, you can get a hanukah app, with prayers and candle lighting instructions).

    We do not celebrate Christmas, but do light Hanukah candles. The kids say they are glad to have something for the holidays that everyone else is celebrating, so its worth it, even when it takes time that’s hard to find (which, I think, is part of the point).

  6. LOVE THIS… Similar to our family. We never celebrate holidays on their actual days as we can never get all together!

    I wanted a Christmas tree so bad as they were selling them on the street in front of mt Orthodox grandmas apt. She explained to me that we don’t celebtate Christmas but went down and broke off a huge piece of a tree and made me a Hanukkah bush. 53 years later I married my husband Paul who was Catholic. YAY,I had my Christmas tree.

  7. I love your blog! And although I have no children and cannot relate to most of your posts I am a “cultural Jew” as well. I totally relate to this story as my Jewish family has always had a Christmas tree and too many decorations for Christmas and sadly I too can only recite the god forsaken wine prayer!!
    Happy hannukah

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