Saturday, December 12, 2009

Light the First Light of Chanukah - In Two Parts

I have two stories to tell about this first night Chanukah 2009.

Story #1 is a story of reaching back in order to move forward. Being able to do both at the same time through the simplicity of ritual.

Story #2 is about taking the light of Chanukah and sharing it with someone who really needs it.

Both stories are about what my father taught me about living in this world. About caring for my family and taking that care back out into the world.

Story #1: Held Together and Almost Smooth
Chanukah is a holiday I have always cherished. As a child, I never felt any yearning for Christmas, or to have a Chanukah bush, like many of my other Jewish friends. I loved all the Jewish holidays, but Chanukahwas a different kind of special because it was my dad's territory. And territory that he lovingly shared with me as his special Chanukah assistant. I don't know why Chanukah was his realm. I also don't know why my brothers weren't involved in the preparations, other than they were probably spending their time looking for where the presents were hidden. I didn't care. Chanukah was about my family, but it was really what went on between my father and I and that made it extraordinary.

The night before the first night he'd go into the attic and get the box that contained all our decorations. They were wrapped in tissue paper, most likely saved from the last year's gift wrapping. Blue and gold wall hangings with menorahs, Judas Maccabee, Stars of David and dreidels. One roll of blue crepe paper, one roll of white. Both rolled up as if they were brand new.

Dad had a specific place for each decoration which we returned to every year. And an order. First the menorahs were taken out and cleaned. Then the wall hangings were put up. Then finally my favorite part. The blue and white rolls of crepe paper. He'd get out the step ladder and some tape and have me stand at one end of the den, holding the blue paper as he slowly unrolled it until it reached diagonally across the room. He'd climb up the ladder and tape it to a pine beam. He take the other end I'd been holding and fold it, then tape it up into the next corner and the next. We'd repeat the same process with the white paper. After he'd taped the last corner, he and I would stand in the middle of the den and look up. A perfectly symmetrical Star of David stretched across the den ceiling. The decorations were simple, not ostentatious - no lights except for the ones we light on our menorahs or eight nights in a row.

And then there were his latkes. In the days before food processors, he'd first peel the potatoes, getting every scrap of peel off, then grating them finely by hand. He chopped the onions, cracked the eggs, added salt, pepper and matzoh meal. I'd stir the mixture for him until it was the consistency he liked - held together and almost smooth. The oil went into the pan and we'd wait until we heard the sizzle. He spooned them gently into the hot oil, four or five at a time and then we'd wait, always the hardest part for me then and now. Before we knew it two, three pans would be full and he'd put them in the oven to stay warm until our extended family would arrive. But not before he'd take the two most perfect ones and dollop some sour cream and applesauce on them and we'd eat them before anyone else had a chance. Just him and me.

I woke up this morning and cried as I drank my coffee. It was my first Chanukah at home without my dad. Last year we spent Chanukah in Costa Rica, lighting the menorah in the tropical breeze. It was Chanukah out of context with the Chanukah of my life and I don't remember if I felt sad. I was happy to be somewhere warm and beautiful with my family and to have left my grief back in Colorado. But this year was different and I could feel it coming even before I took my first sip.

The sadness started earlier in the week when my daughters and I went to our regular market, King Soopers, a normally decent place to get Jewish holiday supplies. But when I walked up and down the promotional aisles stuffed to the gills with Christmas candy, decorations, toys, lights and more, I couldn't find the usual small section dedicated to Chanukah. I strolled over to the "ethnic" food aisle to see what was in the Kosher section. A few boxes of candles and overpriced grape juice, but nothing else. I found a manager and asked him where the Chanukah section was. He looked uncomfortable and responded that he didn't think they had one this year. "Not even chocolate gelt - coins?," one of my girls asked. He looked down at the floor and said, "Let's take a look." We followed him back to the promotional aisle and he did in fact find a few mesh bags of Chanukah gelt. He apologized for not having more and we thanked him. I left the gelt there, feeling miffed at being disregarded by a store in our community.

The next day I went to the Super Target in Longmont, also a place I've relied on in the past for a small but well-stocked supply of Chanukah goods and a place I was sure I'd find what I needed. This time I was with just one of my daughters who was home sick from school. She sat in the cart as we headed to the holiday section. Up one aisle and down the next. Nothing. We repeated this seven, eight times. No Chanukah in sight. I could feel my anger boiling up, but I kept a lid on it so not to set a bad example for my daughter. "Let's see if we can find someone to help us," I told her as we headed up to someone in a red employee shirt. "Can you tell me where the Chanukah supplies are?" She asked if we'd looked in the holiday section. I told her yes and that there was nothing. She found a manager and asked her if she knew where the Chanukah section was. The manager got the same uncomfortable look as the one at King Soopers. "We only have one end cap (what the shelf space at the end of an aisle is called) for Hanukkah this year and it's in the food section." I expressed my disappointment and she nicely told me that she'd already spoken with the corporate office to request three sections like they had in Boulder and that I'd not been the first to complain. My daughter looked back at me and asked, "Mama, why don't they like Chanukah?" The woman looked at my daughter, then at me and apologized. She walked me over to the Chanukah end cap and I saw the same pathetic samples as King Soopers. They did have Chanukah candles on sale, so I grabbed the last two packages and headed to the check out line.

I felt so angry, but below that anger was so much sadness. I thought of my dad, a Holocaust survivor, and his quiet pride and happiness at being able to stretch a blue and white Star of David across his own den ceiling, of being able to openly celebrate Chanukah with his family.

I looked at the faces of my three girls and felt so sad that they should still have to carry the pain and the burden of living in a society that insists on one way above all the rest. But I also realized that they had learned a hugely important lesson in being who they are with the same quiet pride and happiness that my father reflected back to me.

So when I woke up this morning of the first night of Chanukah, I woke with the heaviness of the burden and I missed my dad. I looked toward the day with hesitation and not so successfully fought of wave after wave of tears. The biggest hesitation I had was following through on my offer to make apple latkes for the first night gathering at my sister-in-laws. I didn't want to do it. I was afraid to do it. I felt the weight of my entire people, or at least the weight of the Longmont Jewish community, on my shoulders to do it.

When I got home from work, Jack had performed the blessing of peeling and coring the apples and also surprised me with doing the same with some potatoes. I didn't remember saying I was planning on making regular latkes, but when you're faced with a colander of peeled potatoes...

I made the apple latkes first.

But the potatoes were waiting.

I looked for some wine to drink, but could only find a tiny bottle of vodka. I took a couple of swigs and then mixed a small drink of ginger ale and vodka.

I opened the Jewish Cooking Cookbook by Arthur Schwartz and turned to the potato latkes. I put the potatoes in the food process and sliced them thin. Added two eggs, dash of salt, pepper, one diced onion and because I was making these for me, they had to be gluten free. I substituted the matzoh meal for potato starch and mixed. Put it back into the food processor and pulsed until the mixture was the right consistency - held together and almost smooth. I added oil to electric griddle and waited for the sizzle. I ladled small ovals of the mixture onto the griddle. And waited. Every time I was tempted to prematurely turn over a latke, I took a sip from my drink. My dad probably would have been sipping a screwdriver, which was my first choice, but we were out of OJ. The waiting paid off. Latke after latke turned out perfect. Brown, but not charred. Light and like a pancake. At almost 51 years old, I'd finally accomplished recreating my dad's latkes. And even more importantly, I was happy and felt deeply connected to my tradition. The simple ritual of cooking latkes had taken me back in order to move forward.

The front door flew open and the kids ran in. "Can we have a latke?" I put four on a plate and we ate them. I looked at the photo of my dad from a few years ago, taken on a summer Shabbat in Los Angeles and smiled.

But the story doesn't end there. They never do.

Story #2: Lighting the Light for a Stranger 

It's still the first night of Chanukah. We'd stopped at the liquor store to buy a bottle of wine as a present for my sister and brother-in-law. I waited in the car with the girls, staying warm and giggling at how delicious the latkes smelled. And then I saw her. She looked to be about 75 years old and she stood on the corner in a light blue parka holding a neatly written sign: Disabled. Homeless. Gas. Food. Money. I looked next to her and saw a walker and an oxygen tank. I signed deeply, deeply enough to get the girls' attention. "What, Mama?" Then they all looked out the window and saw the lady. "What does her sign say?" One of them read it and we sat there. I unlocked the door and got out. "Mama, what are you doing?" "I'm giving the lady some latkes." I wrapped up two potato and two apple latkes in some foil. And then I remembered I had a little bit of money in my wallet. I reached back into the car and took out a $5 bill.

"Hi," I said as I tried to approach with respect. She looked up at me as I offered her the foil wrapped package. "It's just some potato pancakes, and here's five dollars."

She smiled. "Thanks, I love potato pancakes."

"Please tell me you have somewhere warm to sleep tonight," I asked her. The temperatures in Colorado have been below zero for the past two weeks. She assured me she'd called her sister. We had no room in the car and family was waiting. She thanked me and I wished her well.

As we drove away, I broke down. All the tears I'd been holding back just came forward. I told Jack we had to do something, that I couldn't bare the idea of that lady being on the street in the cold. I got on my phone and called the local shelter, but their warming center wouldn't be open for another hour. I called the Boulder Homeless Shelter and cried on the phone as a sweet woman tried to figure out how to get this woman to some warm shelter. She finally suggested I call the police and they'd come and get her without making her feel like a criminal. I called the police and told them about this lady. The dispatcher told me it could be someone who makes her living doing this, but when I told her the woman's location and that she had a walker and an oxygen tank, she promised to send a car and see if they could help.

We got to our family gathering and had a beautiful, embracing evening. Presents, lighting the candles, five varieties of latkes, soup and homemade sufganiyot. Playing dreidel and lots of laughter. Everything I remember my first night's of Chanukah always being. And everything I want my children's first nights of Chanukah to be.

As we were driving back home and approached Longmont, we came to a red light. I turned to Jack and asked, "Can we see if she's still there?" Without blinking an eye, he moved into the left lane and started driving in that direction. The girls woke from their car-drive-home sleeping and asked, "Are we going to see if the lady is still there?"

We crossed Main Street, then Hover, turning right. Turned left into the King Soopers parking center and toward the liquor store. None of us said a word.

She was gone.

I took Jack's hand and he turned the car toward home.

"The lady is somewhere warm?"

Yes, my darlings. The lady is somewhere warm.

Chag Sameach, Dad.