Each year I have the best Hanukkah intentions. I buy the candles–generally at the last minute and often with some difficulty–and light them. Most nights.
Okay, so some nights. I typically get some great momentum through about night 3, forget nights 4 through 6, come back strong with night 7, and then night 8 escapes me completely. And the one good thing about this is that the pack of candles, which is supposed to last for 8 nights, ends up lasting two years.
A Hanukkah miracle!
(Jews will get that one.)
But this year something different happened. As I was busy describing the joys of Christmas and tree-decorating and ornaments and caroling to Thalia (my dad always called us “Christmas Tree Jews” – I think it’s a NYC thing) something latent and buried in my secular Jewish soul rose up within me and implored me to do this thing right for a change.
The first night of Hanukkah I ran out and procured some matzoh ball soup, a few latkes (potato pancakes for the uninitiated) and a little bag of chocolate coins which I set out on the table with the dreidels. I read Thalia a little book about Hanukkah which described it all better than I could. Who even knew that you’re supposed to eat jelly donuts because they’re fried in oil? I wonder what the Torah has to say about trans-fats.
While Sage simply squealed at the candles the way Thalia did in the two Decembers past, this year my almost 2 1/2 year-old was old enough to repeat after me, in the most heartbreakingly adorable, tentative, sweet way, the blessing over the candles, made only more endearing in that she can’t quite say Hannukah and instead says Monika, her sitter’s name.
This blessing business, this was the point in the evening that Nate the angry atheist folded his arms and looked away. And I had to explain to him that no, it wasn’t particularly religious for me, even while the prayer mentions God, but it was tradition. Hard for him to understand, I pointed him here which helped me explain that this prayer, this series of rituals, make up the collective mythology and folklore that define who I am and where I come from and who our daughters are too. And I want them to know this. It’s not about whether God is or isn’t. It’s about me. It’s about family. It’s about participating in something greater than ourselves.
We have to start here. We have to start with the traditional stuff and see where it evolves and how it becomes our own. Because to me, that’s where holidays develop real meaning.
Maybe it becomes about a new dreidel game that we invent. (This year the rules were along the lines of: Spin the dreidel and…Thalia Wins! Thalia gets all the candy!) Or maybe it becomes about saying the prayer with Monika instead of Hannukah. Maybe it becomes about yelling at daddy to come back to the table for the blessing each night. I don’t know. I won’t know. Not yet. We’re only just beginning. But I want Hanukkah to be a real part of our holiday traditions from now on if only in a small way.
And so we continued to light those candles, for maybe the first time in my adult life, every single night.
Except last night. Last night we forgot.
Last night we were too busy decorating the Christmas tree.
First thing this morning, it was Thalia who reminded me.”Well what the heck,” I said, scraping the congealed wax out of the Menorah as I sat Thalia down at the table next to her sister with a bowl of cereal and milk. “We can light them now and we’ll eat breakfast by candlelight.”
I emptied out the remaining candles purchased last year, and finding us just one short, I dug out the new pack that I never assumed I’d need this year. I retrieved one shorter, mismatched yellow candle and used it to light the others, before placing it right in the center of the Menorah, against all protocol.
The last candle flickered out about 8:40 this morning.
Funny enough, if we keep it up next year, remembering every single night, we’ll be one candle short on the last night all over again.
I sense the beginning of a tradition.