Last year I lit Chanukah candles in a shiva house. My father-in-law had just passed away, and my husband, his mother, and his four siblings were sitting shiva in their New Jersey home. Each afternoon at about 5pm, the family would get up from their low chairs, take leave of any visitors, and make their way to the foyer to try to introduce a few moments of light into one of the darkest weeks of their lives. Several of my husband’s siblings commented that lighting Chanukah candles and saying Hallel and Shehechiyanu seemed so incongruous during a period of mourning; and it was especially hard to say the final line of the psalm for Chanukah, “You have converted my mourning into dance.” I remember standing alone by the burning candles after everyone had returned to their shiva chairs, watching the flames flicker like trembling tears and wondering whether my husband would ever be able to celebrate Chanukah with a full heart again.
Now, a year later, my associations with Chanukah could not be more different. Our son Matan, now 18 months, has been learning about Chanukah in Gan since Rosh Chodesh. He has come home with painted Styrofoam candles, homemade dreidls, and several new additions to his vocabulary: “Yvonne” (which we eventually realized is “Sevivon”), “Kad katan,” and “Poe” (not the author, but the emphatic completion of the sentence that begins Nes Gadol Haya). He refuses to eat dinner without an Yvonne in each hand, and he responds with glee each time it spins and lands on the floor. If you sing Matan the Sevivon song, he will put his hands on his head and spin around like a whirling dervish until he collapses from dizziness or exhaustion. I have been looking for an electrical Chanukiya for him, since he is obsessed with electricity and enamored of anything he can turn “on” and “off,” but I was told by several storeowners that they are not sold in Israel because the Israeli rabbinate won’t grant a Hekhsher for them lest someone “light” on Shabbat. I was told I could order one from the “Reformim” in America, though I’m still too bemused by this response to pursue the matter any further.
Thanks to Matan, this is the first year I have given Chanukah any thought before the 25thof Kislev, when I usually remember at the last minute to buy a turquoise box of standard-issue candles and dust off my ratty metal Chanukiyah. I have never been able to connect to this holiday; my relationship to most festivals is through texts, but Chanukah lacks a megillah, at least not one that is part of our canon. Although I learned not long ago the chapter of the Talmud that deals with Chanukah, perek Bameh Madlikin of Shabbat, I cannot say that I found the halakhot of candlelighting particularly meaningful or illuminating. Chanukah candles are supposed to be lit only until the last person returns home from the marketplace, but in Jerusalem it is customary to light at nightfall, usually before 5pm. When in the past was I ever home before 5pm to light candles? I identified with the Talmud’s description of Rabbi Zeyra, who would spend the days of Chanukah in an inn and simply add a few coins to a communal pot so that he could be included when the innkeeper lit. This year, though, everything has changed. I pick up Matan at Gan at 4pm every day, and so we are almost always home before 5pm. This seems like the perfect time to light candles, and I can already anticipate how much Matan the pyromaniac (who begs us to do Havdalah every night of the week) will enjoy this mitzvah.
In a sense, my new associations with Chanukah have perhaps re-dedicated this holiday for me, and I hope for my husband as well. Last year Chanukah was a time of darkness and grief, in which we spent more time thinking about a flame—a Nishmat Adam—that had been snuffed out before its time than about the miracle of a small jug of oil that lasted longer than anyone expected. Chanukah, I am reminded, is about how things can last longer than one ever dreamed possible – not just burning oil, but also the memories of those we love who are no longer with us. As we stand watching the candles by the window in the winter chill, I hope that God will indeed convert mourning into rejoicing, and that the flames that once seemed to be flickering will be dancing instead.