Growing up in America, Chanukah was always overshadowed by the other holiday that occurs in the same season. There may have been a lot of Jews in New York, but in my elementary school, there were hardly any, and I happened to be one of that tiny minority.
This was most noticeable on Wednesday afternoons, when the majority of my class vacated to some mysterious thing called "catechism," leaving behind a few Protestants and the four token Jewish kids. There wasn't much our teacher, Mrs. Schwartz, could do with so few students during those remaining afternoon hours, so usually we would draw or do our homework. But one time she had the useful idea of assigning me the job of writing a short essay about the upcoming festival of Chanukah.
I was then supposed to stand in front of my classmates and publicly announce, by reading my little report, that I was different, I was Jewish, and this is what Jews celebrated while the rest of the class was busy with what seemed like the important event of trees and reindeer and glorious amounts of presents. (The other three Jewish kids in my class all had decorated trees, which their parents regarded as a culturally American custom.)
And I definitely pleaded for the opportunity to decorate my own symbolic tree (symbolic of fun and gifts, I suppose). I didn't like being the only one to miss out. But my parents refused to accommodate my need to fit in and absolutely would not capitulate on this point. When I claimed that we could call it a “Chanukah bush,” Mom distinctly told me that I could call it whatever I wanted, but it was still an Xmas tree in disguise. My parents were not great believers in conformity; and told me that Jews throughout the ages marched to the beat of a different drum.
Maybe my teacher knew about my dilemma, my feelings of discomfort being different. Mrs. Schwartz was probably Jewish herself, and giving me that assignment to write about Chanukah may have been her way of being supportive, designating me as the ambassador to explain our religion to the uninitiated.
But when the moment of truth came, I couldn't muster the courage to stand in front of my classmates to read what I'd written, so I passed this privilege on to Evelyn Silver instead. She didn't mind reading it. After all, she had a tree in her living room. She wasn't that different!
The theme seemed to repeat throughout my childhood: Outwardly I looked like any other little girl with ponytails and freckles, but inside I had the uncomfortable feeling of not quite fitting in with my surrounding society.
I remember as a small tot, standing in our front yard wondering why I was Jewish, why I was a girl, and why I was born in America, and not in some distant war-torn country where children were suffering from poverty and starvation. Why, why, why?? Another thing I noticed during that same season, was when the neighbors started sporting round wreaths on their front doors. Every week, when we would drive to visit my grandma and cousins in Queens, I would be on the lookout to find even one lone domicile that was devoid of this decoration.
If a plain door was spotted, I would enthusiastically shout, "Jewish!" My father thought this annual outburst of mine was great. He would swing his head around from the driver seat, give me an enormous grin and repeat, "Jewish!"
I sensed from his reaction that being Jewish was obviously something special and important to him, too.
When I was 12, I went with my family on a trip to Israel to visit relatives. I was at an impressionable age and one of our most pronounced goals seemed to be our search for a menorah. It had to be just right: strong, solid, nearly unbreakable. No thin silver or glass for our rambunctious bunch!
We visited a lot of gift shops, and finally, in the umpteenth store, we selected a large menorah of various pastel shades of green, pink, white, blue and beige. It was composed of thick, solid stones, and in my mind, the heavy weight symbolized the durability and eternity of the Jewish people.
Returning to America, our new menorah was placed in the living room, in the middle of the mantel above the fireplace. It stood majestically, its eight arms curving boldly upward. When I would gaze at this menorah, it reminded me of that land far away, a place that had seemed so warm and familiar when I was there, a land where I had experienced the uncanny sensation of resonating with my environment, of being in sync with my surroundings., And I tucked away that precious feeling in my unconsciousness for safe keeping.
Ninety Dancing Lights
Over the next decade, many more life events came and went, before I was eventually able to set sail back to the Holy Land that had captured my childhood heart. My return was filled with awe as I walked the streets of Jerusalem, knowing that I had arrived at the chance to unravel all of my unsolved mysteries.
It was the eighth night of Chanukah and I stopped by a neighbor. She had 10 children and all of their menorahs -- made as school projects -- were arranged on top of folded, crinkly foil that covered the table. Ninety flickering lights -- dancing with the red, blue, yellow, orange, pink, green and white candles -- illuminated the faces of the excited children. The living room, with its ancient domed ceiling, shimmered with shadows, as if to speak and tell a story.
The dazzling sight stirred the child within me, the part of me that had always known there was something bigger and better about being Jewish. How had I merited to be here? I smiled at the thought of my childhood Chanukahs -- a diminutive light that proved powerful enough to keep me connected.
Now, having been privileged to live in Israel for many years, on Chanukah I always try to make a point of walking after candle-lighting to marvel anew at the sight of so many menorahs burning brightly. Every individual's radiance contributes to all the collective glow of the Jewish people. "We are here! We are here! We are here," those flames proclaim to all who see.
And I am here, too. A great miracle happened.