I’m in the market for a menorah, and have been rather shocked at the dizzying array of styles available, from the traditional to the downright weird.
I haven’t observed Hanukkah for a number of years, but this year is different, and I need a menorah. I’ll try to explain.
Both my parents were raised in religious homes. It’s my understanding that my maternal grandfather had studied to become a rabbi, though he never did. They kept kosher, until a supposedly kosher butcher was discovered to have been selling treif meat in their small Pennsylvania town, which my mother told me prompted my grandfather to take the family off a kosher diet, though to my knowledge they remained otherwise observant.
As for my father, he died in 1977, making my mother my primary source of information regarding both families; I never knew any of my grandparents, all of whom had died before I was born (or very soon thereafter, in the case of my maternal grandfather).
My father’s family was very Orthodox, as demonstrated by an oft-recounted anecdote about my father when he was about 13 on a school trip. Apparently, it wasn’t possible to get kosher food on the trip, so, according to family lore, his mother packed him “a suitcase of matzo sandwiches,” which he dined on, alone, in his hotel room while his classmates enjoyed restaurant fare.
By the time my two brothers and I came along, both my parents had become considerably less observant. We were raised very Reform. The family’s synagogue attendance was infrequent at best, and my brothers and I never attended Hebrew school or had bar mitzvah ceremonies.
In the latter case, it’s quite possible, and quite reasonable, that practical concerns played a part. The three of us were all born in the same year (I am a twin —not identical, unfortunately for my brother) and our elder brother was born only 11 months prior. So, two or three bar mitzvahs in rapid succession would have been difficult, both financially and logistically.
However, despite our weak observance, one thing the family did do was to celebrate Hanukkah every year. It’s possible my parents chose this holiday because it was uncomplicated. Our observance took place fully within the home, and involved only a single, simple ritual. But regardless of the reason, we celebrated it. The Hanukkah prayer is, in fact, the only Hebrew prayer I’ve ever memorized
Still, if anything, the three of us siblings are now even less observant than we were growing up, and could all be accurately described as secular Jews. I stopped observing Hanukkah, or any other holiday, though I do light yahrzeit candles for my parents and grandparents every year on Yom Kippur, as well as trying to fast, (with varying degrees of success).
This year, however, I will light the candles and say the prayer. Why? Well, I have lived alone for many years. This was generally by choice — I enjoy solitude, although the lack of a “significant other” is rather difficult.
That said, being alone in 2020 has taken on an entirely new meaning. I was furloughed from my job early this year, and laid off sometime thereafter, due to the pandemic. I live in Las Vegas, and worked in hotel management, one of the industries hardest-hit by the economic consequences of Covid. I am 60 years old, so it is quite likely that I will not work again, at least not for someone else.
I also have multiple medical conditions which increase my vulnerability to the virus. So I have been sheltering in place for almost a year. I have had very little face-to-face contact with anyone during that period, and essentially no physical contact whatsoever.
It is my hope that lighting the Hanukkah candles this year at the same time that Jews around the world are doing the same will foster in me a sense of standing with my people, and will diminish, if only briefly, the increasingly corrosive sense of aloneness which I feel.
That may not be the purpose of the holiday, but I don’t believe it’s a bad thing.
Now, the only question is, should I get the cat-themed menorah or the extraterrestrial one?
Editor’s note: He got the cats.
Seth Balaban, reasonably well-educated autodidact and U.S. Army veteran, writes from Las Vegas, Nevada. He is preparing to make aliyah in 2021.