Exactly 20 Hanukkahs ago, I took a deep breath and descended a winding staircase to the synagogue basement. Awaiting me, as a lion waits for its prey, was the wicked monster, my name for my New England shul’s Hanukkah menorah.
Not to put too fine a point on it — I hated the thing. Not that it wasn’t beautiful; it was, in fact, extraordinarily beautiful.
Leonard Baskin, the world famous Jewish artist who lived a few miles away, sculpted it from brass pipes and then donated it to our Jewish community.
The problem was the backbreaking difficulty in lugging it to the synagogue’s front lawn and then reassembling it every year.
This task was hard enough, but it wasn’t the worst part.
The menorah required kerosene, which inevitably spilled all over my ungloved hands, and had specially designed wicks.
Even if I managed to put the ungainly thing together, pour the kerosene correctly without spilling, and place the precisely manufactured wicks in the exact right place, more often than not the New England winters brought wind and snow that either prevented me from lighting the kerosene or blew out the wicks a half-second after I’d lit them.
Over the years, the wicked monster had frightened off all volunteers, so now it was just me and the monster — and my aching back, smelly hands and frozen fingers.
But the Hanukkiah was beautiful when it was lit.
In my cynical, frustrated moments, I sometimes compared the wicked monster to my job as a rabbi. It was painful, difficult, tricky and sometimes perilous getting through to these American, New England Jews, inspiring these talented social workers, doctors, lawyers and professors with wisdom that transcends both emotions and the intellect.
But when it was lit — when I connected — when they connected with an authentic Jewish spirit — it was breathtakingly beautiful.
That year, I particularly dreaded the trip back up the basement stairs, the chilly, achy task of publicizing to passersby that ancient miracle.
My mother had passed away the year before on erev Hanukkah — the day we lit the first candle. She died of a glioblastoma, the same brain disease that later killed Ted Kennedy and John McCain.
The tumor spread quickly, conquering her brain tissue so that by the late fall, all that was left of her mind was a tiny spot — a single glow, similar to that one pot of oil that managed to stay lit for eight nights.
Of course, we prayed for a Hanukkah miracle, for that one remaining spark to extend its light and life for just enough time for new treatments to be developed, miracle cures to be invented.
But like Shammai’s rule for lighting the Menorah — start with eight, and then diminish one candle each night — her brain gradually lost its light; the day before Hanukkah, the last glimmer faded away.
The day my mother died, my sister and I headed to the mall to buy Hanukkah presents for the family. We’d been stuck by my mother’s bedside, not thinking of gifts or of anything, really, other than the dying of the light.
But I had two little kids who’d joined our family vigil a few days before, and it was, after all, still Hanukkah, everyone’s favorite holiday.
So we shopped, ending up at a huge Kansas City Barnes and Noble. It wasn’t easy. In fact, shopping for my children — and for my aunts and uncles who had been so supportive, and for my siblings, with whom I’d grown especially close throughout the ordeal — was somehow more painful than all the excruciating acts that would follow — tearing the ribbon, throwing dirt on the grave, standing for kaddish for the first time.
But when we lit the candles as a family that night — the day we lost the light of our lives — and distributed the presents, the beauty struck me with the force of a hammer. Gifts, generosity, bereavement, resilience, crying, laughing, compassion, love, loss. Light. So painful. So beautiful.
Back in Northampton a year later, I dragged the wicked monster up the stairs, threw the parts on the snow-covered lawn and took a step back, surveying the bronze wreckage, trying to find the inner light.
“I can’t do it,” I thought.
But then, suddenly, a miracle. A guy walked by, saw me, and ran over. He offered to help. It turned out he was Jewish. He wasn’t a member of the synagogue, but he did make it a point to walk by the shul every Hanukkah to bask in the beauty of the famous Baskin menorah.
He was a chatty, inquisitive fellow, peppering me with questions. So, naturally, I told him about my mother.
He clucked his sympathy and then shared a story with me about his father’s death.
And together, we got the menorah built, defeating the wicked monster — at least for one more year.
Afterward, wiping his hands on his jeans, the man asked me for one favor.
He wanted me to sing one Jewish song with him, one he’d always loved, but could never remember the words to. It was Lechi Lach by Debbie Friedman.
So together, we sang Debbie’s beautiful song about saying goodbye.
It sounded awful. Neither of us could sing. But in my memory today, 20 years later, maybe it wasn’t so bad.
Maybe it was like my current job, all my jobs, my family, life, my culture, American Judaism, America. It’s so hard to put it all together — but so beautiful when it’s lit.