Today I am a Torah-observant Jew, married to an Orthodox rabbi and living in Israel. But that wasn’t always the case.
My youngest brother was born on the 21st of Kislev, just a few days before Chanukah. Back then, women routinely stayed in the hospital for three or four days after giving birth. His bris was during Chanukah. That year, my parents, American-born children of Eastern European immigrants who had, by and large, thrown off most Jewish observances, tied our family’s Chanukah celebration to December 25, giving them time to settle in with their newest child.
As an adult, I understand how overwhelming that time must have been for them, but part of me still finds their decision to postpone Chanukah until Christmas an odd one. Happily, it only happened that one time.
Most years, I recall my mother lighting the orange bulbs of an electric menorah in our front window, reciting the blessing in old-fashioned Biblical English, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe Who hath sanctified us by Thy commandments and commanded us to kindle the lights of Chanukah.”
I knew very little about Chanukah as a child and much of what I knew centered around the traditional eight nights of presents. When I began my own exploration of Judaism as a young adult, Chanukah was one of the first things I returned to.
Many years later, I had become an observant Jew. As my father lay dying from pancreatic cancer, I flew from my home in Baltimore to see him in Florida one last time. I had given birth to my youngest child just 10 weeks earlier. It was Chanukah time, and there was an electric menorah illuminated beside his bed. He died in his home, next to the menorah, on the last day of Chanukah.
Fast forward two years. I had divorced and was now getting remarried, this time to an Orthodox rabbi. On Chanukah.
At the time, my new husband was on the rabbinic staff of a synagogue with an associated day school. It was his dream to invite the entire day school population – 1,000 children as well as faculty and administrators. The school used our upcoming wedding as an opportunity to teach about what happens at a chuppah. For many of the K-12 students, this would be the first wedding they had ever attended.
We picked a date in the middle of the week and an afternoon time slot, in order to accommodate the school’s schedule. During Chanukah, when it gets dark so early, it meant that the seudah fell on a different Hebrew date than the wedding itself.
There was a huge menorah set up for us in the social hall where the seudah was held. I, my new husband and our then six year-old daughter, made the berachot together, along with the approximately 300 adult guests who were invited to stay for the meal.
We knew our Hebrew wedding date was also my husband’s parents’ anniversary. What we didn’t realize at the time we set the date was that my father’s second yahrzeit fell during the wedding seudah.
My father passed away in 1994. At the exact moment his second yahrzeit came in, my siblings and I were all together. We each lit a yahrzeit candle for our father and they burned in his memory, while my husband and I and the rest of our guests celebrated a new Jewish marriage.
This Chanukah will be 24 years that my father, Gad Asher ben Yehoshua Mordechai haLevi v’Raizel, has been gone. In more than 2 decades, Chanukah of 5757 was the only time all my siblings were ever together to mark his yahrzeit.
May his memory be blessed.