Hanukkah. The Festival of Lights. The holiday commemorates the rededication of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem around 165 BCE. The Romans had sacked and looted the temple, and a band of Jewish guerrillas lead by Judah Maccabee prevailed over the Roman troops and recaptured the temple. They built a new altar, the Romans sacrificed pigs on the old one, and cleaned and rededicated the temple. They needed pure olive oil to kindle the Menorah (a special candelabra), and only found one small sealed vial of oil, enough to last one day. As the story goes, this little bit of oil burned for the eight days it took to prepare more kosher oil. Although it is not mentioned in the Torah, the holiday has been around since the Maccabees’ victory. The first mention of the miracle of the 8-day oil appears in the Mishna around 500 AD. The primary ritual identified with Hanukkah is the lighting of a special menorah that has 8 candles and one ‘helper’ candle called the Shamash. Because it is about the oil, and most of the Jewish holidays have special foods associated with them, on Hanukkah we eat potato latkes (pancakes) fried in oil and sufganiyot, basically filled jelly doughnuts. The whole thing with gift giving and Hanukkah as a Jewish “Christmas” really became prevalent in the 1970’s; originally the holiday just involved lighting the candles to publicize the miracle. There are other customs, playing dreidel (a gambling game originally used to disguise Torah study) and giving gelt (money) but the heart of the holiday is the light. We add one additional candle for each of the eight nights, so by the last night, the menorah is ablaze.
Hanukkah was one of Jake’s favorites. Eight days of doughnuts? Chocolate gelt? Presents? Lighting candles? What’s not to like. In years past we would light three menorahs, one for each of us, we would cook latkes, play dreidel, and munch See’s chocolate coins; we even made up our own special Hanukkah song with eight verses, one to be sung on each night. It was a favorite of all of us. We would always have a big dinner with friends and family. We’d serve plates full of different kinds of latkes, homemade applesauce, and sour cream. Artery clogging sure, but once a year? Can’t hurt. My Mom also has an annual Hanukkah party that became a tradition for us. The holiday was so festive, the general holiday spirit abounded, we always looked ahead to a new year filled with blessings.
Jake was really into candles, no wonder it was his favorite holiday. He started sand-casting them on an elementary school field trip and fell in love with the process. He continued to make them throughout the years, branching out into fancy molds and effects. We were out to dinner one night and he spied the little votive candle on our table. Always the entrepreneur, he decided to create a candle business selling votives to local restaurants. As he got older, he would lead candle-making at our shul during the annual Hanukkah parties. Kids loved dipping the twisted cotton wicks in the pot of melted wax and watching the candle slowly form and grow with each dipping. In some ways, it was Jake’s holiday. It is a holiday about bringing more light into the world, increasing with each day. That’s what Jake did. He brought a tremendous light into this world, and into each person’s life that he touched.
This year, the whole world is a little darker. We only lit the menorah on the first night. My mom had an impromptu dinner, on Tuesday night. Terry’s sister and brother-in-law and my cousin and her son and brother were in town for the unveiling, and as T. and I couldn’t bear to join Mom for her big party, we had a little family gathering. Jake used to help my mom get ready for her party, would help make the latke batter and cook the scores of pancakes we would eat. This year, I went over to her house Tuesday afternoon to help grind the potatoes and onions. This year I stood in for Jake. We all met at Mom’s house as the evening descended. We almost couldn’t stay. Waves of sadness washed over the both of us as it came time to light the menorah and we had to go outside to collect ourselves. Somehow, we pulled it together and went inside. We brought the menorah that Jake made when he was 11 out of a piece of wood and 9 metal hex nuts. One year, I was traveling on business during Hanukkah and I took the little menorah with me. I lit it in a hotel in Florida. I lit it in Jamaica and in a motel room in New Mexico the last night. It has a lot of history, that little 12-inch piece of 1 x 2.
Somehow we managed to get to the table, and whisper the three blessings for the first night, tears running down our cheeks. Jake’s absence was so powerful, the missing light so apparent to all. We lit the little wooden menorah again on Friday night, Shabbat, just the two of us. We may light it again on the last night, but it is so difficult to do. I know, some might say, “Jake would have wanted you to light the candles every night,” and so on. Odd how everyone seems to know what Jake wants. Maybe he would have. But what we think he may want or would have wanted us to do, and what we can actually do are two very different things.
T. hit on it the other night. It is as if we are trying to make every day like every other day. No Shabbat, no holidays, no special occasions. It is those special occasions that throw Jake’s absence into such sharp focus. Hard-edged wanting and sadness fill our hearts; the pool of sorrow overflows. Maybe by not acknowledging these special days, we can keep the hurt at bay a little, can pretend it’s just another day. Maybe we do a disservice to his memory by not celebrating his favorite holiday fully as we did in the past. Time flows like a river, carrying us farther and farther away from that terrible December day, nearly a year ago. Perhaps that river will bring us to a place where we can once again light up the nights with the glow of candles. Perhaps we will find a way to reclaim our holidays, but whatever does happen, there will always be a little patch of darkness hidden inside the light. At least that is what I can see from this bend in the river.
This year the Festival of Light is dimmed for us, even thought Jake’s spirit shines just as brightly, candles or no.