No cookies cooled on racks. No colorful frosting dripped from the counter. Nor were any dorky decorations being pasted. With grandkids away at school and an early Hanukkah date, gone were the aromas that once infused everything before winter’s highlight, Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. How sad! Where did the years go?
The phone rang. A friend called; we made dinner plans. Three of us sat at a nearby restaurant and commiserated about how our Hanukkah had changed. We lamented missing the lighthearted celebration, the family fun, food and games that kids of all ages loved during this week of lights, stories, gifts and songs. We all felt a deep sadness while this Grandma especially missed the enjoyment of baking cookies and making applesauce with grandchildren.
A few days later, thumbing through my crammed Hanukkah file, I glanced again at the familiar story of the heroic, winsome, widow Judith. Then I came across several tattered magazine pages with a nearly forgotten story. It related that on the sixth night of Hanukkah, Tunisian women are especially honored.
For centuries, on Rosh Hodesh Tevet, the sixth night of Hanukkah, Tunisian women embraced a custom called Chag HaBanot, Holiday of the Daughters. Mothers bake cakes and give presents to their daughters; men give gifts to their fiancés, families prepare a festive meal to remember Judith — rumor says, perhaps, to dispel her gory heroic act, by honoring single women.
Current generations of Tunisian Jews hardly know of Judith or Chag HaBanot, a remote cultural custom. Yet Tunisian women continue to bake extraordinary cakes and celebrate with special gifts on the sixth night of Hanukkah. What a beautiful tribute to women.
Hmmm. Like Judith, widowhood had nearly dominated me the last few years. I’m no Judith, yet I was inspired to do battle. Food and gift giving, I could do. A Hanukkah menu is easy; we’d light candles, eat lots of latkes, exchange small gifts and catch up with each other. I phoned my recent dinner friends. Woefully, I thought of other aging single women and called them, too. “I’m having a Hanukkah party! Will you come?”
They said, “Sure!”
Where did I get the courage? Or was it chutzpah? I was a bit scared; good food can only go so far. My years as food writer for the Cleveland Jewish News might not be enough to sustain an entire evening. Did the women know each other? Would they be friendly? Should we play Hanukkah games?
Seven women sat at the table well into the night. After we lit the Hanukkah candles, one friend sang “Rock of Ages” in Yiddish! I knew then that the evening was a success. We ate lots of latkes, applesauce and cheesecake. We exchanged small gifts, chattered, laughed and hugged as we said goodbye.
“Let’s do this again” was the resounding farewell.
Hanukkah partygoers Ruth, Lois, Barbara and Violet.
Fast forward to 2015. This year, on the sixth night of Hanukkah, we will gather for the 7th Annual Women’s Hanukkah Party! We are now twenty solo women friends. I knew each woman from my many part-time jobs and volunteer tasks. Over time, some women recently single; others alone for years, met or reconnected at my Hanukkah.
An easy camaraderie quickly developed because we’re all in the same place — reinventing ourselves; rethinking and changing our lives; learning to recall the good times and to cope with things we never imagined we’d do. We prefer to consider ourselves “uncoupled” — widow is such a downer word. No pity, no longer sorrowful; we easily became comfortable with each other.
No one discussed the heartbreaks of becoming “uncoupled.” We’ve been there. We’d had good marriages; we have children and grandchildren within reach and in touch. A few have companions but no one is seriously seeking another marriage. We are very senior (80 to 94 years old!) coping with bad knees, hips and poor vision. No, we don’t have the energy we once had, but everyone is “with it.” We are intent to put a smile on each other’s faces, to find meaning in whatever time is in our future.
Nearly every woman had a career; some still work part-time. Many of us were and remain devoted to our Jewish community and Israel and continue to be involved in various ways. Several women have become active Lifelong Learners, or mentors, and some cook on my Mitzvah Meal committee, when we prepare frozen meals for synagogue congregants who were recently hospitalized or in treatment. Yet there remain too many lonely hours. We have book clubs, do adult learning programs, various forms of volunteering, mentoring; we’re tired of being busy just to be busy!
We all need a bit more laughter! Our Hanukkah gathering inspires humorous stories, clever anecdotes, poems and song. Serious conversations take place, too, like inquiries about legal assistance or a fix-it guy. A few of us now venture out for an evening at the theater or symphony and special lectures. We join at Sukkah visits and milestone birthdays. My daughter urged us to take a rare trip downtown; she drove four of us to visit the new supermarket now in a renovated art-deco building. What fun to watch the twenty-somethings bicycle in to pick up lunch. Making someone smile is the best feeling.
Last year, we met on the winter solstice. Everyone was asked to write or bring stories of the Winter Solstice. They were outrageous, hilarious and so clever. We love the leisurely, light-hearted evening of food, frolic and laughter. On this night, we are all alight — girls again!
We struggle with Cleveland’s wintry weather; night driving can be a problem, so the women find drivers or my three daughters, who enthusiastically encourage this special night, graciously make sure everyone gets here.
Since I’m a longtime foodie, the women started a conversation about the difficult tasks of shopping, storing and cooking for one. Good eating is a really important part of staying well; I gladly devised some plans. We shared some ideas and came up with more efficient ways to shop, freeze and prepare easy meals in our more limited kitchens. Inviting a friend is the best ingredient!
Last winter was brutal; many women couldn’t get out, literally for weeks. I fired up my big soup pot and made some soup deliveries. Following are some winter (and Hanukkah) favorites.
Soups to Share and Give to Friends
Joan Kekst was food writer for the Cleveland Jewish News for 35 years. She writes recipes for women who are “singe again,” and chairs a mitzvah-meal committee that cooks for Park Synagogue members who return from the hospital. She is hosting her 7th-annual Women’s Hanukkah party this year.