Happy Chanuka!

 

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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 NY 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.

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