view from central park

My many menorahs


When I think of the different Chanukah menorahs I’ve lit over the years, it feels like they represent the places I was at in my life, be they geographic or emotional. Some people light just one or two menorahs their whole lives — one in their childhood, then one in adulthood. For better or worse, that has not been my experience.

The very first chanukiyah I remember lighting is, of course, the classic family menorah my father lit when I was little, living in Jerusalem. It was small and gold, an oil lamp, and it was encased in a glass and gold case that sealed it in and became its little home. We huddled around as my father kindled the menorah and we sang the enduring Maoz Tzur. It shined bright from within its little abode so the flames would not be extinguished.

I can still recall the heat emanating off the front glass “doors” of the little menorah container or “house.”

These little menorah houses dotted the landscape of our neighborhood’s buildings. Many neighbors lit the menorah in this way, so as to maximize publicizing the Chanukah miracle by keeping the menorah outdoors for all to see. Yet simultaneously the case protected the flames from being extinguished by winter winds.

At some point in preschool years, a handmade clay Chanukah menorah made its way into the lighting ritual. I still remember the thrill of choosing colorful Chanukah candles to use in order to gently melt the bottom end of each candle, so as to firmly steady each candle within a very uneven slope of a clay indent that was clearly the artistic work of a five- or six-year-old.

But for the most part, growing up in my parents’ home, it was the family menorah my father lit that represented Chanukah to me.

At some point my grandparents gifted my parents a beautiful proper sterling silver menorah, the timeless-looking one with the graceful streamlined rounded lines for the tall branches, a square at its base. We children would sometimes light our own menorahs, and the cluster of increasing illumination as the nights of Chanukah unfolded was beautiful.

Then in college my peers and I lit our “menorahs,” often a collection of tea lights that were added, one by one each night, in the front lounge of the dorm. There were tens if not hundreds of makeshift menorahs lit on long tables that stood at the front windows of the lounge, shining onto 34th Street in midtown Manhattan. It was beautiful. And the combined heat of so many menorahs in one place could truly be felt as soon as one entered the room.

After university years, on and off there were years I would visit my parents in Denver and be home with them for Chanukah, but there were years, such as when I was in graduate school, that I was not at home. I had not properly purchased a menorah yet and would light with random cheap chanukiyot or perhaps I was still just adding a tea light per night — I don’t recall exactly.

But then I moved to Israel and had my own apartment. It was the year 2000, when talk of giving Jerusalem away as part of brokering a “peace” deal was in the air. There was this sense of the possibility of Jerusalem slipping away.

On the way to work, I passed daily a Judaica shop whose display window had a Jerusalem themed menorah in its window. Cut from stained colored glass held and suspended in an arch by the most refined graceful barely-there silver wire was a skyline — silhouette of Old Jerusalem; crammed buildings of varying sizes, heights and widths, topped by the signature domed caps, in burnt golds, oranges, bright blues and reds. It was a truly beautiful menorah, especially when you imagined the dancing flames illuminating, reflecting and refracting the stained glass Jerusalem scene in soft amber light.

I could hardly afford the menorah at the time. But each day as I passed the shop window, and each day as the urgency of the news increased about the possibility of losing the Earthly Jerusalem, somehow that little Jerusalem scene became merged in my mind with the real Jerusalem. It’s like it was my private symbolic Heavenly Jerusalem to keep aflame into eternity should, G-d forbid, Jerusalem be lost.

Day by day I passed that menorah. Day by day the news and tensions in Jerusalem increased. This was the time of the Second Intifada, when the streets were literally empty. A haunted feeling stalked me as I walked through town. Chanukah was drawing nearer and nearer.

Each day as I passed the menorah, I would review the price of the menorah and my budget. I firmly said to myself, “no, I can’t.” Yet a part of me knew I just had to have that Jerusalem menorah, the tangible symbol of my personal Jerusalem.

At that point in my life, I had never purchased anything of significance for apartment life because up until then I had been living with roommates. There was a real sense of tenuousness to my living quarters. But this was my first time living in an apartment on my own.

Meanwhile, the tension and news in Jerusalem was mounting. At this point, even passing that shop window on foot was a risk. But as each day passed, it felt like that Jerusalem menorah was waiting for me, and was meant for me.

Erev Chanukah arrived; it was a brutally rainy day. I passed the shop’s display window. The menorah was still there. That’s it. I walked into the shop. Held my breath, and made the purchase. That year, my parents and some siblings visited for Chanukah. Soberly, we lit up our little Private Jerusalem indoors as Earthly Jerusalem stood wounded.

For the rest of my years in Jerusalem years, that was the menorah I lit. When I left Israel I left the menorah behind in storage. Somehow it remains part of my Jerusalem time. Back in New York City, I was again tea-lighting Chanukah candles before I had a chance to purchase a new, more modern, classic menorah.

I try and make it to Denver so as to light at least one night together with my parents each year, often for Shabbat. In the intervening years, little nieces and nephews have on and off been part of Denver Chanukah candlelightings, now ensuring there is a juvenile collection of baseball-themed or other whimsical children’s themed menorahs.

At the center, towering over them all is still the silver-branched oil lamp from my grandparents. Although it is a more customary chant at the conclusion of the Passover seder, “Next Year in Jerusalem” is what I would say when dusting off my Jerusalem silouhetted Menorah and rekindling it by a window in Jerusalem.

Happy Chanukah, dear readers. May this time shine bright for you and yours wherever you may be and however you are kindling your menorah.

Copyright Intermountain Jewish News