Many years ago, when my mother downsized from her roomy suburban condo to a smaller, high-rise version in downtown Denver, she had to cull the storage herd. Among the files that didn’t make the cut was a packet of my early literary oeuvre, which she sent to me.
The contents, alas, did not include the refrigerator-worthy short story I wrote in fourth grade about a plantation slave named Jerry Kowalski. But I was happy to see the tortured essay about proper second-grade classroom deportment, and this poetic offering:
Hannukah’s in December
Sometimes late November
But never in September
Here we are, in late-ish November, with the imminent appearance of Chanukah, which I welcome as if it were a guest arriving 30 minutes early for dinner. I’m late in assembling the annual gift box I will send to my mother, knowing that hers is probably en route as I type.
When I was growing up, my family recognized the Jewish holidays, kinda sorta: We had Passover, hid the matzah and read from the haggadah until the kids got bored, then we ate. We nodded toward Rosh Hashanah, and once my mom even let me stay home from school on Yom Kippur, if I promised to fast and think about its meaning. I made it until midafternoon, when she drove me to the mall, where we ate French dip sandwiches in the department store tea room and tried not to feel guilty.
Today, the members of my small, far-flung family customize holidays to comport with whatever their non-Jewish significant others are doing. But, without fail, my mother and I exchange Chanukah gifts. Without fail, I light candles, and say the blessing, aloud, to no one.
I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in organized religion. For me, there is no spiritual plane, there is only a plain plane.
Although I do not share the sense of comfort and completion many people find in accepting a higher power, in practicing a religion, I do understand the appeal of doing so communally. It’s about shared ritual.
For me, Chanukah is not about the deeper meaning of miracles, the righteousness of perseverance; it’s about the ritual I share with my mother.
I don’t know if my mom believes in God — I’ve never asked. I don’t know if she believes in ritual — she’s the least sentimental person I know, and it seems to me that ritual and sentiment are cousins, if once or twice removed.
But I am sentimental, and it’s one reason why I light Chanukah candles and say a prayer to a being I don’t believe exists. I do it because I did it as a kid, within a family in which my calm mother was the counterbalance to my sometimes-volatile father. I do it remembering how we couldn’t wait for my father to come home from work and pour two cocktails for the adults to enjoy while the kids lit the candles, Baruch atah Adonai-ed and opened a gift, hoping for the best.
I will choose for my mother eight mostly goofy gifts, remembering the night my brother’s hopes for the best were gratified when he opened a BB gun. I opened a toy sewing machine. What were they thinking? They must have fried so many brain cells justifying the purchase of a begged-for weapon they were morally opposed to that they had none left to know that I would want a sewing machine about as much as being on the receiving end of my brother’s militarism.
A few years ago, I opened one of my mother’s gifts to find, as I do every year, panties. Sometimes, they’re cute, a welcome addition to my lingerie drawer. That year, they were a mass-produced, made-in-China collection of five pairs contained in sealed plastic. Size 6. Girls size 6. They would have fit me about the time I wrote the Chanukah poem.
I will wrap and pack eight mostly goofy gifts and send them off to the person whose gifts to me this year I know will be wrapped in the same paper I wrapped mine in last year, with the corners torn, the bows crushed and wrinkled from multiple tours of duty. To mom, this is practical recycling; to me, it’s ritual.
Within the tattered covers I will find one or two items I really love (socks the color of a road hazard sign), one or two I might have given to her years ago and whose provenance she has forgotten (the fake opal bookmark from Australia), a food item — usually chocolate, sometimes just weird and on sale (paprika walnuts), some surplus notecards she has received over the course of the year as donation bait to save whooping cranes or African children, and a check. Always a check. Come on, we’re Jews.
My Chanukah ritual will die with my mother. Until then, I will look forward to the arrival of the holiday, early, late or in between, and its signature gift box from that resolute resident of the here and now I so love.
Hey, Mom! This year, would it kill you to include a few latkes?