Chanukah Eyes
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Chanukah Eyes

Chanukah Eyes

How can our homemade menorahs compete with all the dazzling lights of Christmas?

by

The fourth night of Chanukah, my husband is late for the candle lighting. My children's unlit clay menorahs are positioned precariously on the radiator. My second daughter, Elana, stares across the street at the neighbor's lawn. The Healys have draped their cedar tree with electric blue lights.

Next door, a deer stands poised with one hoof lifted prettily, as if about to break into a prance. Nearby, a bloated, inflated snowman sways drunkenly in the night air. My six-year-old daughter chews on the end of her plastic dreidel. A wistful look crosses her face. "Why can't we have decorations like that?" she asks.

"Why can't we have decorations like that?"

I remind her how we go all out on Sukkot. We have fancy lights, murals painted on the walls, and assorted fruit and tchotchkes hanging from the rafters of our Sukkah. But on Chanukah, I tell her, the menorah is all we've got.

"Can't we have something big?" she begs. "Something pretty, maybe a lamb or a sheep?"

Oh great, I think: a paschal lamb on our porch. But that's the wrong holiday. I gaze down at our rickety display of homemade menorahs. I know they can't compete with Mrs. Healy's Christmas tree, the dazzling strings of light and the candy canes and wreaths dangling from telephone poles, not to mention jolly Ole Santa and all the treats in his mysterious fat bag. I guess my daughter wants a swankier holiday.

Across the street, I see a family at the window putting a match to their oil menorah. I look at my watch. Its time to light, but my husband won't be home for a good half hour.

"Come on, kids," I suddenly decide. "Let's go on a menorah hunt."

The kids are game. We pack into our minivan. "Fifty menorahs," I say. "After we find 50 lit menorahs, we go home to light our own." There. That'll pass the time.

They press their faces to the window. "There's one," my daughter Elana points. My son easily spots another two. "I see it, I see it," my youngest one crows, waving her fist. The numbers quickly add up. No surprise there. We live in a Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey. My son hits the jackpot with five menorah houses, back to back, belly to belly.

"This is too easy," he scoffs. I think he's right, and I make a left and a right, and go on a long stretch that turns into a different, more ritzy -- dare I say WASPy -- neighborhood. Here, electric lights blaze forth from every house. Multicolored reindeers poke their hooves into well-tended zoysia grass. There are elves or maybe fawns lurking near Holly bushes, and Santas and sleighs clumped around rhododendrons. There are unusual shadow and light displays; some are actually artistic. My kids grow silent at all the holiday splendor.

"Where are all the menorahs?" my son wonders out loud.

"So many Santas," Elana observes. I wonder when it was she stopped calling Santa the big red Zeide.

"Keep looking," I say tersely. I turn left, then right.

Aren't I setting up the kids for disappointment? Christmas is everywhere. They're at the age when they're starting to realize how few of us we are. And in fact, my older daughter says, "How come there's so little of us?"

"Yes, we're little," I agree. "So what? Chanukah celebrates the victory of the few over the many. The few are also strong."

But my daughter, steeped in a Jewish education, counters, "God said we'd be many. 'You shall be as numerous as the stars of the heaven,'" she quotes.

Suddenly Elana shouts, "I see a menorah!" Our heads turn. "Where, where?" and she points proudly. There indeed it is, sitting in the window of what looks to be someone's kitchen. On either side of the house is a fantastic network of lights and sleighs and an illuminated nativity scene. And in between sits a dignified little menorah on a Jewish window sill. Feeling like the Maccabees who found that one last vial of oil to light the menorah, we all whoop and cheer.

As we make our way back home, we spot another two menorahs, each one a victory. In our own neighborhood, we easily pick up six houses here, seven houses there, surpassing the number of 50 by the time we arrive home.

When we come inside, my husband is pouring olive oil into glass cups. The breakable colored candles have been twisted into the kids' clay menorahs. We make the blessings, sing a little, dance a little and then the kids disperse. I linger in front of our homemade display and then I remember a custom. The old Hasidic masters used to sit and gaze at the lit candles for a full half hour, even more. They say that staring at the candles expands a person's vision; how the eyes see the world, what they regard as beautiful.

I sit now on the couch and try to keep my gaze on the lights. It's amazing to me how dreidels and sufganiot and potato latkes can keep my kids happily occupied. It feels restful here, watching. While the candles burn, women aren't supposed to be working anyway, to honor the extra role women had in the miracle of Chanukah. I let my eyes take their fill while my husband fries more latkes.

Elana wanders over to the radiator and looks across the street at the neighbor's fancy holiday decorations.

I say to her in a quiet voice, "Look at our candles, look closely and tell me what you see."

The world tries to grab you with its fancy big lights. But the light of the menorah is subtle and gradually envelops you.

She stares for a long time, her big brown eyes grave and finally tells me. "The flames are shaped like arrows, they point upward, there's a dark blue in the center, the flames keep moving here and there but are held in place by the wick, they're tiny and they're beautiful to look at." Then she adds, "The flames are arrows pointing to heaven."

The image delights me, and she seems pleased, too, but then I see her eyes return to the window, to the pretty lights across the street.

I want to tell my daughter how the world tries to grab you with its fancy big lights. They are powerful, and they'll dazzle you for sure. But the light of the menorah is subtle, it gradually envelops you, and the more you look at it, its inner loveliness will sneak up and take your soul by surprise. That's what I want to say, but why say anything? She's only six.

She'll find out. "The fact is, Christmas lights are pretty," I say out loud.

She nods, taking in my words, relieved, it seems, that I agree with her.

My husband likes to say about fireworks that no matter how spectacular, you can't look at the show for more than an hour. At a certain point the fireworks seem gaudy, a little much for the eyes. But you never get tired of gazing at the stars.

My daughter yawns and I pat the space on the couch beside me. I realize I have let my eyes drift away from the candles. "Come back, let's look at the menorah," I say. She curves in next to me, her eyes tired and a little dreamy, while my own eyes blink and strain to see what she saw, little arrows of light pointing to the sky.

This article originally appeared in World Jewish Digest 2007.

Published: December 20, 2008


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Visitor Comments: 22

(22) Anonymous, June 21, 2011 7:24 AM

Lights

Driving home tonight and seeing stringed lights and lighted trees in the windows, yes they are pretty and it was only right to admit they are. The thought crossed my mind, since they have lit them already which will be during our festival of lights, they are sharing in their own way with us our festival of lights. India had theirs, now us, and following that the christians have theirs. By the first of Nov, when the days are shorter, the trees are barren of leaves the look of Blah of winter. Using my imagination the use of pine trees being brought into houses thousands of years ago could of been started by the Jews to scent the homes during winter months of it being closed up. Then the non Jews as is recorded were the ones to decorate them with real gold and silver as an adoration of trees. Jews gradually stopped bringing in pine trees so not to be associated with a pagan practice. Winter with less sunlight, light is the answer to brighten up our spirits. Fire is a natural light that brings warmth, contemplation and unity. It's a natural beauty from a flame that after it's time to blow it out, it remains with you. The strings of electric lights are awe, when they are unplugged it's over, the beauty is gone. After the 8 days there isn't an empty feeling, or during the 8 days there isn't the thoughts "can't wait till this is over with" Those with young children, parents have a challenge to make Hanukkah special for their children age appropriate. Using my imagination, Jews probable did things first thousands of years ago, during these winter months to make winter more lively and good physiologically and others competed with us to try to out do us and we moved on to better things.

(21) Debra, June 21, 2011 7:24 AM

What a beautiful story, beautiful photo and such a beautiful title.

(20) Gedalyah, June 21, 2011 7:23 AM

move to Israel

The author starts with the question: How can our homemade menorahs compete with all the dazzling lights of Christmas? No need to answer or even ASK the question when you live in Israel. Remember Israel? - the place where Hashem intended us to be and now have the opportunity to live. The only things my kids think of December 25 is thats its the day after December 24. Thank G-d!

(19) Alan D. Busch, June 21, 2011 7:23 AM

Find thyself a teacher ...

If there were ever a need to refute the old canard that "those who can, do and those who can't, teach, the refutation would reside in the example of Ruchama King Feuerman who not only can write and does so prolifically and well but is a master teacher and mentor too. I make this confident assertion easily because I am one of Ruchama's students who has studied her gift for storytelling. A keen observer of life’s fine details with a focus on familial and social dynamics, Ruchama exudes a profound derech eretz for our ‘bubbes and zaydes” whose oral histories she faithfully records for the benefit of those who’ll come after. Ruchama draws upon our common experiences in such a way that the reader comes away thinking “Hey, that sounds like my family. That has happened to us too.” I read Ruchama’s story “Chanukah Eyes” with special interest because it reminded me of what my mom used to do fifty years ago when our Chanukah consisted of plugging in an electric menorah and buying gifts for my brother and me. As little as she knew about Judaism, it was enough to teach me who I was. So I thank her for doing what she could, and I thank Ruchama whose wonderful story awakened long slumbering memories. Alan D. Busch

(18) Anonymous, December 29, 2008 9:55 AM

I don't have to compete with Xmas here in Monsey

Nor would I have to in Brooklyn, or any other real Jewish town. Surround your children with Jewishness, that is the real answer. I actually overheard one of my younger kids telling his brother, "You know, we THINK there are many more Jews than gentiles, but really there are many more gentiles than Jews!" Sure, they see Xmas decorations, but they're so immersed in their Jewishness and so proud of it, no one even thinks of competing.

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