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Susannah Dainow

Coming Back to the Source: Hanukkah, Then and Now

A memory: it is Hanukkah, and I am too young to know my age. I am cocooned in my mother’s arms, watching the candles of the menorah light up the darkness in our dining room, glint off the polished wood table, reflect in the windows. The brightness dances on my eyelids when I blink, a golden orange color that signifies warmth, security, home. I reach out toward the menorah – this is fact, this was captured in a photograph – and feel the light flood through me, as though it is a part of me and I of it, boundaries melted. My whole body of the light; I am at one, and I am wrapped up with my mother, the safety of her arms holding me up, making connection with the light possible.

Was it here, the genesis of my Jewishness? Was it when I was born, or even when I was gestating, cell by cell, in my mother’s womb? Does one have to feel profound connection, or is coming from the lineage enough? For a long time it wasn’t enough for me, but I returned. Alongside adult learning and connection-making, I have these deep memories of early meaning, even of divine experience, to come back to. A spiritual returning, what Jews call teshuva. Coming back to the source. My source is here, and my parents are part of it, the roots of the flowering tree: they gave me, in a limited but profound way, some of the building blocks with which to form a Jewish identity and life as an adult, according to my own design. My first knowings of Judaism and Jewishness are intertwined with them like the braided strands of a Havdalah candle.

In my childhood, Hanukkah was joyous and celebratory. The presents, a modern Jewish reaction to Christmas, definitely helped, but the deeper joy was in the atmosphere, in the candle-lighting, the latke-making, singing songs, playing dreidel and eating chocolate coins in the candle light.. I loved to help grate the potatoes following my father’s special family latke recipe (to this day, it is a challenge for me to eat anyone else’s). Sitting at the dining room table watching the dreidel spin, time seemed suspended, extended, its often harsh edges blunted; I was so completely absorbed by the celebrations of the holiday that I would forget life except for that moment, and it felt somehow holy to be so deeply engaged in this timelessness with my family and our ancient traditions. As if I were reaching back in time along the links of the chain of the tradition, while simultaneously being completely present. My mother would tell the story of the holiday, or ask me to tell it with her. I always heard the rabbinic tale that is the child’s version, the story of the miraculous oil that lasted for eight nights instead of one. I loved the story so much that I resolved to keep believing it even when, as an adult, I learned that it is a Talmudic fable, not historically true like the Jewish victory over the Seleucid Greeks and the rededication of the Temple, which can be verified as archeological fact. I have learned that belief can coexist with fact, that this can be a rational position, a way to be a rational believer. On some days I achieve this balancing act.

Tonight at the Shabbat-Hanukkah dinner table with my husband, not even six months a convert, I gazed at the rows of candles blazing into the night that started at 4:30 p.m. Wonder struck me at the tradition, 2,000 years strong, at the light, at the life I have with my husband that shines in the surrounding darkness. It wasn’t the same miraculous oneness with the light as I experienced as a child, but I felt an echo going back 40 years along my own lifeline, skipping like a stone on a calm lake.

I felt, too, an echo resounding along the lifeline of my people that goes back millennia (no one is sure how many). There was a satisfaction, in that moment, in taking part in a tradition that would both celebrate me and not even have me; a satisfaction in being a feminist, egalitarian, intentional Jew. I was reminded of Miriam, unmarried and child-free prophetess, my great-grandmother’s namesake, who led the Israelites in song after the parting of the Red Sea and their voyage to freedom. We remember her every week at Shabbat services, singing the Song of the Sea, the celebration of the victory over slavery. She would not have known the ritual of lighting the menorah; that was all in the future. But I like to imagine her singing along with us, prayers of gratitude for the light and our existence. Gratitude that I can remember what it was like to unite with the divine light in my mother’s arms.

When I was in elementary school in Toronto, the winter holidays were referred to in Christian terms. Students sang Christmas carols in class, made Christmas cards, decorated the classroom with Christmas colors, gathered around an advent calendar in the month leading up to the big event. I regularly had arguments in the schoolyard over whether Hanukkah was better than Christmas. (My chief argument: Hanukkah gets you eight days of presents, Christmas only one.)

Unwilling for their children to be erased, my parents took time off work and organized learning sessions for my and my sister’s classes to explain Hanukkah (and Passover too, in spring). I resonated with pride when my mother or my father came to class, sitting up at the front of the room in the teacher’s chair, reading the Hanukkah storybook my mother had illustrated special for the occasion, serving latkes out of Tupperware. I knew they were doing it for me, and, unlike many of the things they did for me, they didn’t seem to resent it. They wanted to spend this time with me and my classmates. They wanted to give in this way.

As an adult, Hanukkah doesn’t hold a candle to what it was in my youth. I try every year – I am trying this year – to recapture the joyous abandon, the stoppage of time, that I often felt surrounding the holiday as a child. It is frustrating not to be able to fully re-experience these things, to hold them only in the haloed glow of memory, which is to recognize that I have lost them. The disappointment of not being able to go back can feel monumental. Now, at the table lighting candles with my husband, something in me whispers louder and louder, until I can no longer ignore this still small voice, that I am missing something, something perhaps fundamental.

Part of what is fundamental has had to change because I have grown up. The lost province of childhood is the terrain of much grief, the loss of one’s particular closeness with parents part and parcel of that grief. Although my relationship with my parents has always been complex –  even in early childhood there was deep fear alongside need and attachment – my young self knew a love for them whose purity and strength rivals any I have felt since. Dependence breeds adoration – a child’s love is not an adult’s, cannot be, should not be. And yet I look back on how I loved my parents then with some sense of loss.

At the same time, the connection I felt to my parents in my childhood has become the bedrock of something else. In that sense, I am not entirely missing the connection with my parents that made those moments of wonder possible when I was small. Although the connection has necessarily changed as I have grown, and although I at one point severed the connection for two long years, it has grown back, regenerated, in the light of my adulthood and their continued development. I visit their home on Hanukkah every year; my father makes latkes from the family recipe, and we play dreidel and sing in the magic glow of the menorah. All our fights, misgivings, and disappointments in each other now form part of the connective tissue between us, helping to build rather than to destroy. Not water under the bridge, but an acknowledgement of our failures to always treat each other with the respect and care we would wish for each other, and for our own behavior. We are not always our best selves, but watching the dreidel spin together, its sharp edges becoming a blur, we can for a moment suspend our disbelief. We can allow our mistakes, reactions, and connection to coexist within and between us, and can even allow that this, too, might be love.

About the Author
Susannah Dainow is a writer and recovering lawyer based in Toronto, Canada. She writes fiction, essays, and poetry, often with a Jewish lens. Currently, she is at work on Aliyah, an intergenerational Jewish family story that explores Israel-Diaspora relations.
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