I’ll never forget my first Hanukkah in Los Angeles. It was beautiful. All the colorful lights, the festive atmosphere, people rushing to buy last-minute gifts, the backed-up, gridlock traffic – it all reminded me of Hanukkah in Israel.
True, instead of eating Jelly-filled doughnuts, people were stocking up on fruit cake, and the eight lights of the Menorah took a back-seat to the dozens of brightly lit globes that were strewn all over the Christmas trees, not to mention the metamorphosis of brave Judah and his mighty Maccabees into an elderly, deep-voiced, white-bearded guy in a red suit and his funny looking elves. But still, there was no denying this was a season of miracles, a time to rejoice and celebrate.
And though I knew that the Holiday being celebrated was not my own, I was caught up in the electric, festive atmosphere. I even remember buying Hershey Kisses with wrappers specially decorated for Christmas and getting a feeling I was living out an old childhood fantasy.
Like many Anglo-Israelis, growing up in Israel I always had the sense I was missing out on something. After all, there were all these great Christmas cartoons we always heard of, but never saw. And although I always loved my 8 nights of dreidle fun, chocolate gelt, and special Hanukkah presents, I couldn’t help but feel that waking up at 5:00 AM to HUNDREDS of presents piled high under a decorated tree was really the way to go. What wouldn’t I give to have my very own giant stocking stuffed with Candy.
America knows how to PR a Holiday. Most Israeli TV stations give a passing nod to the Hanukkah Spirit. But American TV shows inundate their audiences with “Holiday Specials”. The episode will normally begin with people scrambling for the last gift on the shelf, and then something exciting happens, and it’s a whole adventure. And finally, the episode ends with a peaceful image of a family snuggling together around the fireplace, eating “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” (which I thought was very brave considering the fire regulations in most countries), and watching the snowflakes fall.
So I don’t know how to explain what happened when, during my first Hanukkah in LA, after my chestnuts had burnt in the toaster setting off my fire alarm, and after I finished wrapping gifts in the traditional green and red gift wrapper, I found I wasn’t as ecstatic as I thought I’d be. Something was missing. Lighting an 8-branch Menorah without my siblings—the horde of eight— and my parents noisily celebrating with me, didn’t have the holiday feel to it.
Christmas or Hanukkah, all around me the world was shouting “Family!” and mine was MIA.
So you can imagine my excitement to be in Israel this year and join the familiar, ecstatic and chaotic setting awaiting me at the traditional family HANUKKAH PARTY.
“I want to use the blue colored oil! Give it to me!”
“No, I’m saving it. I want to light blue oil every night!”
“Fine, if you don’t give me the blue oil, I’m gonna’ blow your candles out as soon as you light them!”
“Rainbow! I want rainbow oil!”
”I WANT RED CANDLES AND YELLOW OIL!”
I’m doing my best to suppress my urge to start a bonfire on the living room floor and throw all the candles and oils in it, as what seemed like hundreds of siblings and their thousands of kids try to get their act together. It’s not enough that the boxes of multi-colored candles the youngest kids are using cause constant friction, some bright guy got the idea to create different colored oil so that the older kids can fight too. And, of course, if it’s new, Mom buys it.
Someone shouts: “Kids! Don’t run around the table you’re gonna’ knock down the Hanukkah Menorahs!” I often think that the fact there are rarely any Hanukkah fires in Israel is just another one of those unspoken miracles of the Holiday.
I sneak off to the corner to hide. The table that holds all the Hannukiyot is placed in front of our double-glass doors, facing the bustling street, and I don’t want any passersby to recognize me. We deliberately place the table there so we could do “Pirsumay Denisah”, publicize the miracle of one drop of oil lasting eight days. But right now, I feel the only thing we’re publicizing are logical reasons for “safe sex” or THIS is what you get…
“Tiferet!” My 3 year old niece shouts out to me from somewhere in the house. “Can you come wipe me?”
Three flushes later, I’m trying to make my way back to the living room, but the path is lined with Rug-Rat obstacles.
I stub my toe on a toy, manage to remove a thorn from my nephews tongue (don’t ask how it got there), and scoop up a straying baby, only to find myself face to face to face with two nieces who are busily picking each other’s nose.
“Do I have to remind you of what Saba always says?” I say sternly, yanking on both their fingers while the baby is trying to pull them into his mouth. “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friends’ nose!”
“But we’re cousins!” the older one retorts, now trying to place an available finger in the baby’s nose.
“Fine, do what you want. I just don’t want you to end up like the kid I babysit for, who only has four fingers on one hand.”
My nieces look at me, a bit perplexed.
“It’s true,” I say solemnly. “The last time we saw his index finger it was up his sister’s nose. She warned him she was going to sneeze…. And, remember, you really need that finger to spin a dreidle with.”
After what seems like hours the entire family gathers in front of a formidable display of hand-made and machine-made Hanukiyot. The smell of Latkes and Sufganiyot envelop us, the nostalgic song of Maoz Tzur melodically strums my ear, and I’m basking in the warm glow of 16 Hanukkah menorahs burning bright.
Now this feels right, I say to myself.
I should really stop talking to myself. I think I give myself an “ayin harah” (the Evil Eye).
Suddenly, Moishie yells, “Hey! Look at that,” pointing. “The blue oil is almost reaching the ceiling!”
“My red one is up there too! It’s a Hanukkah miracle!” chimes in Chana.
Sure enough, the traditional bobbing point of light on the wicks of most of the Chanukiyot has somehow mushroomed into torches spreading their white hot fingers high up in the air. Two Chanukiyot are ablaze as fire flares from their wicks.
“What do we do?” I ask, alarmed. “The house will catch on fire!”
“But can you blow out the Hanukkah candles within a half hour of lighting them?” ponders Yitzi, our resident twelve year old scholar. He knows all the important laws of Hanukkah and even some that no one’s ever heard of.
My parents aren’t interested in a scholarly discussion. They’re frantically blowing on the two menorahs until they’re faces match the blue of the oil. They no sooner blow out one candle when it immediately explodes in a ball of light again, relit by the fireball of its neighbor.
“What’s going on here?” my father asks, amazed.
“It’s like those trick candles we had for my birthday!” shouts Tali.
“It’s the special colorful oil Bubby bought!!” exclaims Sauly.
My father picks up a bottle and reads Caution: Paraffin- Highly Flammable. Not to be used indoors. “Paraffin! Who bought paraffin for our menorahs?!”
“NOT ME!” fifty voices shout. Actually, only forty-nine. My mother is mum.
As all eyes shift to her.
“But everyone was buying it for Hanukkah,” Mom says sheepishly.
“Yes, but it can only be lit with special glass containers,” my father notes, a sudden realization dawning on him.
“Right,” my mother says. “That’s why I bought that small round glass menorah that no one’s using. So, where did YOU pour the oil into?” she asks accusingly.
Like the oil of the other menorah, my father turns a bright red.
“Step aside,” my brother, #7, declares. “I’ve been in the army, I’m trained for such situations.”
But he doesn’t succeed in blowing them out either. In fact, the flames are just growing bigger, and the room is filling up with smoke. Me and some other siblings join him, certain that our younger, stronger lungs can do the trick. But to no avail, and we aren’t even smokers.
In the background my nephew is crying, insisting we don’t blow out his Menorah, and that next time he promises he WILL share the oil.
“Let’s just pour water over it!” Shirley suggests.
“No, that’ the last thing we should do!” brother #3 argues. “Don’t you remember the French-Fry-Fire of 99?”
We all nod knowingly. Who could forget? We were frying French fries when somehow, for some reason, the pan went up in flames. We quickly poured water on the oil fire and BAROOM! the flames shot up into the air. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that my father was holding the deep-frying pan. Terrified, he let go and miraculously when the pan hit the ground the fire went out. He still has scars on his hand to remind him of that fateful day.
“Let’s just call the fire-department!” shouts #8, as the flames start to consume the menorah itself.
“By the time they come we’ll all be French fries,” someone shouts, causing some of the younger children to start crying.
Suddenly my Father picks up a burning Chanukiya and my older brother (the other one) picks up the second menorah and they race to the patio.
Our very own Maccabees.
Once outside, the immediate danger subsides, but the question still remains as to how to blow out these Hanukkah torches. The same brother tries stepping on the flames, and loses a shoe to the cause, although he manages to shatter most of the glass holders. My sister tries throwing sand on them, but that plan literally backfires as the Jerusalem winds cause the sand to fly in the opposite direction, and she spends the next ten minutes washing her eyes out.
It’s a group effort, but thanks to the resourcefulness of 12 yiddishe kops, and a series of wet towels, we finally manage to put out the fire.
Looking around, illuminated by the remaining 14 Menorahs burning, I’m grateful the story has ended so well, and every one’s safe and sound. I realize our Hanukkah is nowhere near ruined. After all, this was terrific entertainment for those who weren’t terrified, and I finally found my Holiday adventure, not to mention working up an appetite.
“Hey, don’t finish the sour-cream!”
“So don’t finish the Apple-sauce!”
“I need it for my art-project. Look! I melted a whole pack of Hanukkah candles onto a plate! Isn’t that creative?”
Christmas? Who needs Christmas? I’ve got lots of family, a Holiday filled with miracles, and—
“And you,” I turn to my boisterous niece, “Get your finger out of my nose!”
Yep. It’s good to be home. Safe and Secure.
Although I still have to wonder—Did anyone burn down a Christmas tree this year?