When I was a child, Chanuka offered a wonder of light and excitement, but now, Chanuka is an old friend come to visit, come to mark my days. After fifty-odd years, my preparations are quick and matter-of-fact. I’ve already polished our menorah, purchased the candles, and stocked up on applesauce for the latkes. But when I pulled out my mother’s old potato grater, I paused. Memories of special Chanukas past washed over me. We kids grew up on a New Jersey farm without knowing a word of Hebrew. We recited the blessings over the Chanuka candles by reading the English transliteration printed on those small, blue boxes miraculously spirited from Eretz Yisroel. Then came the gifts. Four children times eight nights of Chanuka is thirty-two gifts a year, a lot of love. Though so much time has passed, one still warms my heart.
It was the year we almost lost my little brother to pneumonia. We girls received the usual books and games, but not David. His present was three in one, a set of shiny fire-engine-red fire engines. Everything worked, the doors, the hoses, even the ladders. When he played with the hook and ladder truck, which was longer than he was, he needed a second person to help steer its far end, just like in real life.
Year after year, a beloved aunt organized Chanuka parties that cast us kids as entertainers as well as guests. One look at the towering pile of gifts that awaited us and we were ready to do anything– tell jokes, perform feats of musical virtuosity, or sing for our supper, to earn our prize. Books, the tower was built of books, each lovingly chosen and wrapped, literary gems. These Chanuka gifts of poetry helped shape my life.
My grandfather, handy with a penknife, entranced us by peeling apples and oranges in continuous strips and transforming tree branches into natty diamond-patterned carved walking sticks. The Chanuka before I immigrated to Israel, he made his final journey– to a nursing home. As we parted, he pressed a homemade wooden dreydl into my hand, a final gift. Although my grandfather never got to Israel, his dreydl did.
I celebrated my first Israeli Chanuka with Spanish-Moroccan friends. In their world, latkes were garnished with onions instead of apple sauce, and yeast dough billowed into doughnuts, a surprising treat. An outsized plastic syringe stood at the ready, prepped with raspberry jelly, the filling that gilds the lily. New and strange, but for all the strangeness, when I sang the Chanuka blessings, I finally understood the words.
For months after the Yom Kippur War, though the sirens and blackouts were behind us, our soldiers had not yet returned home. With Chanuka fast approaching, I found myself, for some crazy reason, making towering piles of jelly doughnuts– far more than I actually needed. Just as I deep fried the last batch, I heard familiar voices approaching. There on my doorstep stood my mother and sisters, who had heeded their rabbi’s call to visit Israel in her time of darkness. And I had doughnuts enough for all.
My three-year-old and I hurried through the rain to her first Chanuka party, expecting to find her nursery school bathed in warmth and light. Instead, her classroom, though full of youngsters, was utterly dark. Suddenly, a lifesize dreydl-like being whirled in, and with cries of “Darkness, Begone!” distributed candles to one and all. As the candles were lit, their soft glow warmed the room: Chanuka, the Festival of Lights.
That December, our orchestra arrived in Lyons, France exactly at midnight, its blackness tempered by a gentle flurry of snowflakes. Before we left our tour bus, Yaki, the only observant member among us, rose and unfolded his hands to reveal a miniature menorah. The first night of Chanuka, how had we forgotten? As we sang the blessings, Yaki shielded the tiny flames with his hands. Though we were strangers in a strange land, at that moment, once again, we were home.