It was the first night of Hanukkah.
I had taken out my Menorah the day before. It’s a simple brass menorah, given to me as a gift from a friend who brought it back from Israel 52 years ago. The brass is worn in places, candle wax has left its mark, and one of the inset stones is missing. But I never thought of getting a new one. It’s patina reflects my life – the celebration of the holiday in good times and bad – and I treasure it.
The day began with the last Tea and Torah class of the semester. As always, stimulating, and leaving us with more questions than answers. Before and after class, many of us shared stories of Hanukkahs past and plans for this year. Several were having family dinners. Children and grandchildren were arriving soon, and last minute preparations were generating a flurry of activity. One woman, who loves to cook and bake, had made 100 potato latkes, beginning at 4AM that morning! Another was rushing to the bakery to pick up her order for 5 dozen jelly donuts! For many of us, the year had been difficult; our country in turmoil, anti Semitism on the rise, behavior and language that was beyond anything we could have imagined. The holiday offered a respite. We welcomed it.
I stopped to run a few errands, arriving home just as it was turning dark. I hung up my coat, placed my shopping bags on the floor, not wanting to do anything before I lit the candles. Their soft glow as I said the prayers was soothing. The house was quiet. I did not want to disturb the calm. I did not turn on the news. I did not want to hear about the Alabama election. I just wanted peace.
I had designed my own Happy Hanukkah cards, using paintings from different centuries of people lighting their menorahs. They were ready to go on my laptop, and I hit the send button, imagining my friends enjoying them. Next, I posted the simple Happy Hanukkah image I found ( Google Search is a wonder) on my Facebook blog. I had selected it with great care, knowing it would be viewed by people of various religions, and wanting it to impart a message that was somehow universal yet honoring my faith. It had a simple blue background with a small silver menorah in the center, candles burning brightly. Above, it said Happy Hanukkah. Below, the words, “May The Lights Of Hanukkah Usher In A Better World For All Humankind”.
All my holiday tasks were now completed. But there was a nagging feeling that I had not really done all I wanted to do.
I joined an online group a few weeks earlier. It is specifically for people over the age of 50 who live alone and have no family support. There are thousands of members in the US, Canada and the UK. A vibrant group who readily share ideas and concerns about meeting the challenges of their lives. I had posted a few of my articles from Jewish Sacred Aging, as well as some of my photographs, and was amazed and pleased with the response – in some cases, hundreds of comments and replies that enabled real dialogue. Political discussion is not allowed. Courtesy and appropriate language is required. The rules are strictly enforced. It creates a safe space for people to be vulnerable.
I wanted to post my Happy Hanukkah image. Members were already sharing Christmas wishes, pictures and stories. I enjoy them. I love the season, and the hope. Knowing that being Jewish put me in the minority, I found myself surprisingly uncomfortable about sharing my holiday with strangers. Desecration of synagogues and cemeteries, Charlottesville, and the defense of Roy Moore by his wife just the night before…We love Jews! Our lawyer is a Jew!!… had made me far more sensitive to intolerance in the last year.
What would people think? Would they resent me? Find my image somehow inappropriate? Was there anti Semitism lurking in the shadows? Did I want to know? And did I want this cowardice to stop me from being me?
I wrote a heading…”For Those Celebrating The Holiday and For Those Of Other Faiths – May This Wish Be Fulfilled For All Of Us”. I took a deep breath and hit Send.
It only took 5 minutes for the first responses to come in. And then, a flood! Some people wishing me a Happy Hanukkah and attaching a photo of their menorah. But most, simply thanking me for the optimistic words and for sharing my holiday with them. Reading their names, it was apparent that they were not Jewish. And that I was safe and accepted.
And then came the message that changed the night entirely. “I am not Jewish”, the woman began. “ But every Hanukkah I light my little candle and place it in my window in a town with no remaining Jewish presence”. She then went on to explain that she lived in a small Southern town, typical, she said, of so many others, where the descendants of mainly Jewish merchants had moved on. There is now a vacant lot where our synagogue had been located, she wrote, and the stained glass windows are in the Senior Center Chapel. The woman had attached a picture of her candle holder – a beautiful little glass with a painted image of a Menorah. I replied immediately, “What a kindness you do! Thank you”! And she responded “It’s a memory of what our towns used to be. What they can become is a new story”.
I sat in my chair, still, tears falling, for several minutes. I can’t remember a time I was so moved by a simple message, especially from a stranger.
Finally, reluctantly, I turned on the News. Roy Moore had been defeated in the Alabama Special Election!
The candles on my Menorah had burned down. And on this first night of Hanukkah, I celebrated two miracles. The oil lasted for 8 days. And the kindness and decency of people, no matter where they lived, or what their faith, was alive and well.