Celebrating the Festival of Lights

WHEN once-upon-a-time was the opening line of my books, World War II was in progress. Though memories sometimes materialize as make-believe, let me tell you about my first personal Jewish Hanukah menorah. People always ask if Hanukah is the Jewish Christmas; how could that be possible as it started in 165 B.C.? The holiday actually has no Biblical basis, it's a celebration of religious freedom.

Seleucid Greek King Antiochus Epiphanes, who believed that anyone who did not follow his Greek religion was a threat to the state, tried to force his religion on Judea and made it a crime to teach the Bible or follow the Covenant of Abraham.

A three-year rebellion ended when Judah Maccabee recaptured, from Seleucid Greeks, the Jewish temple and then spent eight days purifying and rededicating it.

Hanukah literally means dedication. It's only an accident of timing that Christmas comes around the same calendar month.

The eight-candle slots in menorahs are in a straight row because no Hanukah day is more important than another. Only the center slot is tall; it holds the ninth candle called the shamash (guardian of lights), which is lit first. The flaming shamash, not a match, lights the rest of the menorah.

How could a candle protect other candles? I wondered as a child. I was sure my daddy knew; he knew everything! He huddled his family together at dusk, and on night one lit the shamash, then candle one.

Then we sang songs only heard at this holiday; even my mom stopped drying dinner dishes with her coarse linen towel and joined us, with the damp towel draped over her shoulder. This ritual continued every night for a week adding one more colored candle a day.

I liked to open a traditional box that bulged with multicolored skinny wax sticks, pull up each crushed wick, then decide if I should use all the reds in a row, or make the last day a mixture of colors when all eight are burning. Should I just light up blue and green colors until they're done? Should the shamash be yellow this year? Should I write, on V-Mail, and tell my uncles what I decided? Were they lighting candles in Alaska and Belgium?

I wished that each would burn for hours and hours and hours but my daddy said that Hanukah candles weren't for light but to remind us of a miracle. Judah Maccabee's vial of oil, enough to last a single day, burned for eight days. But I still wished then that wax wouldn't drip fast and clog up the slots with tiny globs of leftover wax.

My mother's big, brass, sturdy, old menorah was made so it looked the same turned around and had no front or back, but I wanted my very own sitting on the kitchen windowsill for the week-long celebration. So I filled cardboard banks to raise money for the Jewish National Fund and earned a gold-colored tin menorah with slots seen only on one side; turned backwards, it merely looked like a blank rectangle.

My grandpa, in Brooklyn, gave me a nickel for a charlotte russe to fortify myself during my collection stand on a corner by Pitkin Avenue. President Roosevelt had recently passed the same spot in his black Packard convertible with its tan canvas top pushed back.

I didn't know much about war, charity, or grown-up things, but I wanted to raise enough money so I could earn my very own menorah. In October 1944, eating fluffy whipped cream supported only by a small slice of spongy cake nestled on circular cardboard, and trying to balance a blue bank and a contributions can, seemed overwhelming enough.

People passed, smiled at my whipped-cream mustache, and actually dropped coins in the metal slot.

When I got my tin menorah, I placed it on the windowsill; it watched me cook latkes (potato pancakes). My mom first mashed potatoes, but I took out a cast-iron frying pan, put chicken fat inside. Then, after she put a match on the stove so the gas went poof!, I stood on a chair, cooked latkes, and even used the long-handled steel spatula to turn them. Chicken fat smelled awful but the latkes were good and traditional.

My mother taught me about a brave lady, named Judith, who, it's said, made latkes and fed them to Holofernes, the general of a bad Assyrian army. He got thirsty so she gave him wine, made him drunk, and she helped save the Jewish people. Rescuing people from dictators linked Judith to Hanukah.

I didn't put much salt in mine and no one got too thirsty. Flame-lit gas stoves, the aroma of chicken fat, and long-handled spatulas are linked with Hanukah childhood memories and feeling quite grown and capable.

The north shore of Long Island is hilly; I saw the Empire State Building, 12 miles away, from the bedroom over our kitchen. Maybe people in the Empire State Building saw my menorah candles, as war newscasters always said even a lit match could be seen for 100 miles during a blackout.

Would anyone understand a festival of lights in a world darkened by blackout shades and air-raids? Would anyone know that these candles prove there can be victory over power and takeovers? Would nameless faces in that Empire State Building have liked the words to the happy songs we sang as the candles were lit? ``Oh, Hanukah, oh Hanukah, a festival of joy; a holiday, a jolly day, for every girl and boy....''

My current ``adult'' menorah is greenish colored and made in a country that didn't exist when I went to elementary school. Logically, one day's supply of oil can't last eight days, but logic has little to do with miracles.

THE world powers declared a desert was unable to grow crops or bloom trees or sustain life or a self-sufficient society; in 1948 this desert was named Israel. Logically, a small group of people wouldn't have been able to recover after ghettos, quota systems, and discrimination; Jewish contributions in fields from science to music have enriched many nations.

Each Hanukah as I pull out my menorah which has spent 11 months in a closed cabinet, I remember how important it once was for me to have my own alongside the family one on the kitchen windowsill. I've sung the same song with my children, and now grandchildren, as skinny candles tilt and drip and form globs of wax in slots. And Hanukah spinning toys still are inscribed ``Nes Gadol Hayah Sham'' (``a great miracle happened there'').

Isn't freedom to choose a miracle?

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