The Hidden Lights of Hanukkah

Europe was still in ruins when my parents, refugees from Nazi Germany, moved to a small town on Long Island Sound, a town that until then had been all but closed to Jews. They were not sufficiently schooled in the nuances of American discrimination to understand the significance or the risks of settling in such a neighborhood, choosing a red-brick Colonial on a shady street teeming with children and surrounded by churches.

With one exception, the neighbors greeted us warmly, more interested in my parents' flight from Nazism than in maintaining the prejudices of an earlier era. But the man next door, a hard-drinking, confrontational father of five with a violent temper and a taste for intolerance, welcomed us with stones and swastikas and shouts of "Dirty Kikes! You're not wanted here!"

My brother and I were too young to take the offense to heart, but my parents shuddered at the unprovoked attack, having only just come through the fire that had consumed countless relatives and friends. As they stood beside the broken window of our new home, it seemed for a moment like Hitler's Reich all over again. Would they ever escape religious hatred, ever feel truly at home anywhere? Amid still-unpacked crates, a sudden paralyzing disillusionment blossomed. Had they made a fatal mistake moving here?

Then, just as quickly, a new resolve crystallized. No! They had had enough of flight. They would stand their ground. And so we remained.

Hanukkah neared and, as so often happens, it coincided that year with Christmas. While our neighbors began decorating trees, my mother removed our silver menorah from the closet, scraped away the previous year's candle wax, and polished the eight branches until they gleamed with unsubmissive pride. As sundown approached that first night, my father placed several gifts on the living-room table, took my older brother and me on his lap, pulled the shining menorah closer, and quietly revealed its secret to us.

The menorah had been in the family for several generations, he began. As a child he remembered lighting it in Berlin as his father and grandfather had lit it in Poland before him. Then, as now, the eight branches had stood in a straight line, four candles on either side of the center shamash, the candle used to kindle all the others. But when the Nazis began their war against the Jews, the menorah, like their identity, had to be concealed.

And then he did a wonderful thing: He loosened the shamash and swiveled the eight silver arms around the center so that it no longer looked like a menorah but an ornate candelabrum. In every age, he warned, someone had risen up against the Jewish people and tried to destroy them. Like the menorah, we had to be prepared for prejudice, even here; to be ready to assume a new shape, a new life, to begin again in a new land as he had.

He set the eight branches back in a straight line, drew the curtains together, called my mother to his side, and lit the shamash. As my older brother kindled the first light of Hanukkah, the four of us chanted the blessings. That night we did not place the menorah in the window as Jews traditionally do, adding their small contribution of light to a dark and desolate season. We celebrated as did our ancestors in times of peril: secretly, silently, and alone. In the half-light of mistrust we remembered the isolation of the ghettos and of the concentration camps, quietly exchanging gifts, enveloped in the loving arms of a tender solitude.

Eventually, the curtains were left open, the menorah allowed to burn brightly in the window. The incident of the stones, if not forgotten, had been effaced by new friendships, neighborly acts of kindness, discovered trust. On Christmas Eve I joined friends in their holiday preparations, helping to hang tinsel and string cranberries; on Hanukkah they joined me, looking on with interest as we lit the candles, repeated the story of the Maccabees' triumph and the miraculous cruse of oil, and exchanged presents.

THAT was the beauty of America. In a few short years the jaundice of generations, the bigotry we ourselves had encountered, seemed to vanish, at least in that small corner of the world. Of course, pockets of prejudice remained. We never exchanged a single hello with our hate-filled neighbor, never played with his five sons. But the hurling of slurs and stones was never repeated. He and his family seemed to accept, however grudgingly, that we had as much right as they to live on that quiet, suburban street, and, more important, that they had nothing to fear from us.

My children attend public schools where the parents of all faiths are invited into the classroom to explain their holidays and provide appropriate treats. The students discover at an early age that diversity is to be savored, differences cherished. Instinctively, they want to know how others live, taste their food, play their games. The burden of difference, of alienation, or exclusion is gone. My children feel as rooted to this land as those whose ancestors date back not 30, but 300 years, and when we celebrate our holidays we do so openly.

If I had any doubts concerning their sense of belonging, my older daughter put such misgivings to rest when she announced one morning after religious school several years ago that there were basically two types of people in our community, "Hanukkah people and Christmas people."

"Do you know what Christmas people are called?" I asked her.

"Christians," she answered.

"And Hanukkah people?"

She thought a moment and then answered, "New Yorkers."

How far we've come.

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