(A version of this essay first appeared in the MV Times in 2015.)
We were Jewish, one of a handful of Jewish families in Ridgefield, Conn., in the 1950s. The nearest synagogue was in Danbury, so that was where we went for services and religious school. My parents kept a kosher home and considered themselves observant. They had both been raised in Orthodox households in cities where Jews lived close enough to walk to the synagogue for Shabbat and the holidays.
But we lived out in the country, in a community of Catholics and Protestants. They were our friends, neighbors, the customers of my parents’ drug store, members of the organizations they belonged to. Their children were the children we played with. Their homes were where we visited. So we learned other ways, certainly other holidays, as well. The lure of a Christmas tree and Santa were too strong to resist. Every December, the store was decorated for Christmas and gift items were displayed and gift-wrapped in the windows. Sitting on Santa’s knee was part of my childhood, too, and as I became an adult on my own, Midnight Mass at St. Mary’s Church with stars on the blue ceiling and the fragrance of incense, the elegantly sonorous ritual and music.
My parents loved holidays, and I think they embraced them all so we kids would share experiences with our classmates, and also learn about other traditions. My mother went into our school, Veterans Park Elementary School, and taught children about Chanukah, about the Maccabees victory over King Antiochus, the single cruet of oil that lasted eight days, the refusal of Jews to convert to Hellenism, the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. She lit a menorah, taught songs, brought in dreidels and foil-covered chocolate coins, gave non-Jewish kids a lesson in our tradition. We learned Christmas carols in music class in those days, a useful skill I am grateful for every year at holiday time.
I can remember the anticipation before the holidays. I can remember my classmates who wished they were Jewish so they could get presents for eight nights instead of only on one. But presents were not the biggest part of our holiday. The best part was both my parents being home, lighting the menorah, all of us singing the blessing together, then having potato latkes for dinner. Being pharmacists, my parents were almost never home for dinner at the same time (a registered pharmacist always had to be at the store, which was open from 8 am to 10 pm) so that felt like a present itself, to all be around the table together.
I loved watching the colored candles, one on the first night and so on for all eight nights. I still use the same swirly, waxy, multi-colored candles that come from Israel in blue boxes. I still deliberately choose the prettiest combinations of colors, different every night, as my artist’s sensibility decides. It’s a challenge, as the colors are not very good, not strong, clear colors like out of a paint tube, but thin and bled together where they touched in the box. Still, the blessing is the same and flames sparkle as the candles drip along their sides down to the flat base of the menorah, my mother’s menorah, now mine.
My grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins would all come over the course of that holiday week. There would be presents. Nothing lavish. We each got one big gift from our parents on the first night of Chanukah, then candy or a book or a box of crayons. It was the same at Christmas. We got practical presents like pajamas or new ice skates. Always books. Always oranges, candy canes, a new toothbrush in our stockings. It was all a lot simpler.
Still, it was magical. The darkened dining room with Chanukah candles. The darkened living room with just the colored lights on the Christmas tree. Those are still my favorite parts of both holidays. The lights are what make the holidays for me, and Chanukah is the Festival of Lights. Even lighting Shabbat candles on Friday nights brings me back to our house on East Ridge, hearing my mother’s voice singing the blessing.
Both parents are long dead. Now my brother, Mark, is dead, too. But every year I bring out my menorah and polish it to be ready for the first night of Chanukah. I sing the blessing and remember my mother teaching it to me, feel her arms across my shoulders, and the heat of the match and candle flames on my face.
There won’t be Chanukah presents or Christmas stockings. I no longer feel a child’s excitement for something, anything, wrapped in colored paper with my name on the front. My husband is not a holiday guy, so my holidays are mostly my own, with as much or as little effort as I choose to expend. I will love driving around the Island enjoying all the lights and decorations strung outside houses, the candlelights in the windows. I will love the quiet time sitting in my living room watching my Chanukah candles slowly burn down.
In another couple of weeks Mike and I will get our tree and the Christmas decorations will come out of their boxes, and those lights and decorations will cheer the dark winter evenings. There are traditions there, as well. Shiny Brite ornaments from our drugstore, ornaments Mike and I made when we were kids, ones we have collected together, the ice lights he strung from the rafters in our house our first Christmas together. We have no mantel, so I decorate our window sills with little houses and different things, greenery, the creche we were given as a wedding present, Uncle Dick’s hand-painted wooden village.
Chanukah begins at nightfall on Thursday evening, Dec. 10, and continues through Friday, Dec. 18. A Kabbalat Shabbat service, one of my favorites at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, begins at 5:30 pm on Friday, this year on Zoom. Usually everyone brings their menorahs from home and we light them together in the sanctuary. Electric lights are turned down, of course, so just the flickering candlelight makes the evening glow.