I lit candles tonight for the first night of Hanukkah — with my Irish Catholic husband standing nearby. He proudly mentioned the “shamash”, the guardian candle that lights all the others. “I’ve been doing research,” he said; and I took that as a gift.
My aunt, J., in California, who is a Rabbi, lit candles of her own, and we joined her via Zoom; seeing her lovely face in the candlelight, I was happy to notice the resemblance with, and to remember, my formidable, departed grandma, Dr Fay Goleman.
My grandmother had been tiny; and yet she had been a force of nature: a professor of sociology, far before her time; a defender of civil rights; an advocate for the rights of immigrant women, of farm workers, in her community. Her fierce belief in civil liberties and her disdain for bullies are always with me; her spirit is present in me — yes, I feel it; it keeps me from ever letting the flag of her principles — our principles — droop in the dust.
Grandma Fay is watching.
My grandmother’s face is traceable now in the faces of the women on that side of my family: the lovely hooded eyes, the high cheekbones, the sensitive bow mouths, like the mouths of starlets of the 1920s; the beautiful teeth.
There have been at least five generations of these beauties: from the winding streets of Odessa, to America: Chicago to San Francisco, San Francisco to Sebastopol. My cousin R. is the latest iteration of the beauty that descends from my great-grandmother: the cupid-like lips, the merry brown eyes, the high cheekbones — unmistakeable; how our lineage lives from the past into the present.
But it was not just the lovely women of part of my family — the part of my family that is still is communication with me – that celebrated the first night of Hanukkah with us. My Greek Orthodox stepson had celebrated with us, earlier, too.
Our celebration was unorthodox: we’d had a non-kosher feast of blue crabs, easy-peel shrimp, and garlic- and lemon-soaked mussels, all dumped out on paper sheets on tabletops in a little family-owned hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Somerville, Mass.
The restaurant was called The Happy Crab.
“Not happy any more,” remarked my husband, as he broke one open, with the nutcrackers that were provided for just that purpose.
I came home after this feast, to light the first candle, and to sing “Rock of Ages”.
True love, I think, leads you to open your arms to every important memory of your beloved’s, and to say, I don’t really get it, perhaps, but I will cherish this with you.
My husband’s mom, a nurse, made Cornish game hens for their Christmas every year; coated in bacon, basted in white wine. My husband makes these as well, to remember her; to remember his own now-deceased father, who worked 364 days a year — but not on Christmas day — managing his own donut shop.
I, a Jewish lady who does not understand Christmas or Cornish game hens, open my arms to these memories of my husband’s, because — because love.
Cornish game hens! Christmas! They are, it is, delicious.
When I have prepared Christmases for my husband, he really enjoys them, because I have no idea what to do. On Christmas Day, half-jokingly, I call myself: “Mindy, Santa’s Jewish Helper.” I decorate a brightly-lit little tree, and adorn our home with candy canes, and ply Brian with butter cookies, and encourage his naps — formerly with our elderly dog, now sadly departed, and now with our new puppy, because —what do I know?
My image of Christmas is from movies and from Hallmark cards. I don’t understand what is supposed to happen after the presents are all opened. I don’t get the rhythms or cadences of it, at all.
For my own part, before Christmas arrives, I set up the Menorah, I dig out my deceased father’s recipe for latkes — a recipe that descended in turn from my father’s mother; Rose, “Raisa”, now also deceased; a woman who was born in a humble wooden house in Sighet, Romania, in the early Twentieth century, in a world that no longer exists. The whole world she knew before she came to this country, was an orthodox Jewish one. She kept a holy Sabbath every Friday night and Saturday of her life.
Latkes! Says my husband — whose surname is one of the oldest in Ireland. He opens his arms to the prospect of oily potato pancakes. Because — because love.
Isn’t this all we can do? Witness — and embrace one another?
Isn’t that all it really means, to have a Season of Lights?
Maybe no one alone is right. Maybe no one alone has the whole story. Maybe the whole story is too big for any one narrator to grasp it.
The Maccabees, witnessing their miracle, do not have the only miracle in the world. In our Hanukkah story, the beleaguered Jewish rebels who took up arms against a tyrannical Seleucid world power, entered the devastated Holy of Holies; and found oil remaining for the sacred lamp. The oil that was only enough for one night, burned, implausibly, for eight days.
God showed up for us, and helped us in our direst need; says our foundational myth.
A star appeared over Bethlehem.
A baby was born in a manger.
That baby would be a Light of Lights, Wonderful Counselor, King of Kings.
A virgin would hold and nurse him.
Three kings journeyed to honor to him: bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh. The animals bowed their heads in homage.