Chanukah nears, but this message is still a tad early. Why? I am going under the scalpel next week. “Nothing too serious,” they say. But they let it slip that I will be in large post-op pain for a “considerable while.” This is even before knowing that I do not do at all well with pain. So you also might not see my missives for a commensurate “considerable while.” I still want to share an annual Chanukah reminiscence with my readership, large or small,, as I have been doing for the last 30 years. With the help of HaShem, I look forward to seeing you soon.
Well into my seventh decade, I face the oxymoron of short-term memory black-out, while recollections of the age of four still ring crystal-clear. This wreaks havoc with remembering phone numbers, but it is lovingly offset by bittersweet memories of times, people, and emotions that sustain me with far more of the sweet than the bitter.
I was so young when we would celebrate Chanukah at my Aunt Leah’s on the old Northwest side of Chicago, that I ought not hold claim to memories whatsoever. As an only child, an only grandchild, I was raised in a circle bereft of contemporaries, dependent for family ties on a network of great-aunts and uncles and their children, all of whom were at least old enough to be my babysitters.
I was precocious, and spoiled, too. Aunts and uncles would poke each other to pay attention to some new wisdom that would emit from my three-year-old mouth. They would repeat it over again and again, calling me by my Yiddish birth-name: “Did you hear what Maisheleh said?” It was precisely the way one would expect immigrants to marvel at the mystery of new life, still in disbelief of having found refuge in Columbus’s bounteous land, still shaken by the Holocaust that had devastated their towns, their families, their memories.
By 1953, our families had headed their separate ways to suburbia in relative obliviousness to each other. Few and far between were the occasions that the Levin family still broke bread at a common table as they had done faithfully on Sabbaths and Holy Days while the patriarch and matriarch, my great-grandparents Maishe Yitzchok and Rochel Levinski, were still alive.
Chanukah beyond all else, became the annual catalyst for the Levins to reunite around that common table. It was as much an inter-generational roll call as it was a homecoming.
And, the cast of characters: Ellis the Gentle Giant, bouncing me to dizzying heights on his shoulders. Penny the Nearly Bohemian, whom my father ungraciously dubbed “the educated idiot.” Shirley and Martin, the idealistic communists, undaunted, uncompromised, by McCarthy witch hunts and the Rosenbergs’ executions.
Uncle Harry, who made and lost ten fortunes as the Bootleg Horseradish Czar of the Old Northwest Side. Tart-tongued Auntie Levin, who fed my unsuspecting greenhorn grandmother pork chops as a crash course in the American lifestyle. Uncle Izzy, the most endearing schlemiel, self-taught electronics wizard, whose mantra through bad times was, “Everything’ll be aaaaaall right.” And Uncle Abe, the timid gay musician who spoke little but entertained me with origami birds folded out of dollar bills with the flourish of Mandrake.
But Chanukah belonged to Aunt Leah, my grandmother’s youngest sister, mother of Penny the Nearly Bohemian and Ellis the Giant. Aunt Leah was a plodding woman of innocent demeanor, more lovable than pathetic, less an adult than a brooding child. The reason for Aunt Leah’s whimsy came from the Old Country, never spoken above an ominous whisper, divulged to me as part of my rite of passage to adulthood:
This was Leah’s story: One day, for no particular reason, local thugs had grabbed her. They tied her pigtails to a horse and dragged her around the prison courtyard in Suwalki. Traumatized and bewildered, she never fully recovered, her psyche forever stunted at the age of ten. She occupied her days cooking heaping platters of simple foods in the Old Country style and sewing delicate wardrobes for her collection of dolls, with whom she would engage in hushed conversation.
I remember little of the 1953 Chanukah menu at Aunt Leah’s. We blessed and lit the candles and sang the songs, of course. But what I do remember most vividly was her mile-long dining room table overloaded with unfathomable mounds of Old World delicacies. I remember stuffing my already rotund form with Aunt Leah’s thick, spongy potato pancakes, latkes, the quintessential Chanukah treat, my eyes glazed from gluttony. I could not comprehend my grandmother’s crabby grousing that her pancakes were “thin and lacy,” thus superior to Leah’s.
I remember shining faces of great-aunts and uncles and babysitter cousins basking in each others radiance around that abundant table, transcending for one sacred moment the compulsions that summoned each one to his or her own separate destiny. I do remember that I was enveloped by a nurturing embrace of security and all’s-wellness, the stuff of which unrequited elder-yearnings and tears are made. A taste of heaven that was, with deference to Simon and Garfunkel, “a time of innocence, a time of confidences” . . . most truly Chanukah, the Festival of Lights.
WILUDI (Marc Wilson) is a retired rabbi who writes from Greenville, SC. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.