I know from teaching that learning anything new comes with mixed emotions. Surprise, confusion and awe, as well as discomfort and even fear. I also know understanding and even appreciation come only after being immersed in whatever one is learning, over time. Uneasy and anxious is what I mostly felt, on that late December afternoon, way back in 1984, when I was on my first trek to Tustin, California. I was as new to Robert’s family as I was to what we’d be celebrating.
From the Hebrew word “Hinuch” or “to teach”, it means “dedication”. Because there isn’t a direct translation of sounds from Hebrew to English it has various spellings. Hanukkah or Chanukah or even Hannuka, all are acceptable.
Not knowing anyone in his family enough to even guess at appropriate presents, the only gift I brought was a bouquet of flowers for Ella, our hostess, Robert’s mom.
Entering the kitchen from the garage, we were welcomed by a medley of aromas. Among them, roasting meat, onions, and fried potatoes. The first to say hello was Ella who was there busy tending to the feast. The rest of the family, Robert’s dad, Ralph, Robert’s older brother, Barry and his wife, Paula were talking in the living room.
At that first Hanukkah, Ralph explained that The Festival of Lights commemorates the victory of the Jewish people known as the Maccabees, over the ruling Greeks who had banned their religion. In 200 B.C. when the Maccabees reclaimed their temple, the holy light within was required to burn at all times. But all the vials of oil except for one had been destroyed in the war. And although there was only enough oil to light their lamps for one night, incredibly the light stayed lit for eight, symbolizing the triumph of light over darkness. Eight nights of light, eight nights of celebration.
And it is no coincidence that some foods served during this holiday are fried, I learned. Potato pancakes or latkes and apple fritters are cooked and browned to crispy perfection in hot oil. Again, oil representing the miracle of light. While these side dishes were worthy of a spot on Ella’s table, the tender-fork brisket took center stage, then and always. Cooked low and slow, this braised beef had a robust flavor mixed with the savory tastes of onions, carrots and garlic basted in the salty pan juices.
Years later, Ella let me in on a few secrets of these family recipes. I found out her brisket got its distinct onion flavor not only from fresh onions, but the Lipton’s Onion Soup mix rubbed into the roast. And the latkes, fried the day before were actually made from a box of Manischewitz Potato Pancake mix! And our dessert of rugelach and hamantaschen were bought from Benjie’s Deli around the corner!
From my journal, written on December 4, 1988, Redondo Beach, California:
“Going to Robert’s folks for Hanukkah today. Paula, Barry, Lily and Ben and the Fogels will be there, too. Looking forward to seeing everyone…and enjoying the latkes!…”
After the lavish meal, the lighting of the menorahs followed. These candelabras each held nine candles, four on each side and one in the center which was placed higher, the helper candle called the shamash.
On the first night, a candle was placed in the holder on the far right and lit with the shamash. On the second night, the candle second from the right was lit first, then the one to the far right was lit again. The reason? Hebrew is written and reads right to left so the candles are lit in that order.
Once the candles were lit, the first of three prayers was said:
Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu Melech ha’olam asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’lik near shel Chanukah.
Blessed are you, Lord God, ruler of the Universe, who sanctifies us with commandments and commands us to kindle the lights of Hanukkah.
Since my first, I knew that every Hanukkah ended where it began, in the living room. The place where many rousing conversations and debates took place, where gifts were opened and displayed for all to see, where dreidels were spun and gelt handed out to the kids. It’s where songs were sung and where music always filled the air. Ralph on the piano, Barry on guitar and Robert on the sax. And when other family members and friends attended, they readily joined in with whatever instrument they brought along or simply lent their voices to the symphony.
Hanukkah, nearly thirty-five years ago, was new to me, but after spending decades gathered at the family dining room table sharing time, stories and food together, I better understand this holiday and the meaning behind it. I also have a greater appreciation of Robert’s family and their traditions, that in time, became mine, too.