My fondest childhood memories
always involved rituals.
The end of August meant riding a
New York city bus with Mom in order
to buy a new plaid book bag, 10 black
& white speckled notebooks and a utilitarian
pair of Buster Brown shoes. A
routine visit to the pediatrician meant
clean underwear, coloring books and,
if there was an injection involved, a
compensatory milk shake at the corner
malt shop. Passover meant spring-cleaning,
jellied fruit slices and sleepover
guests. But what made these
rituals even more poignant reflecting
today from the podium of middle
age is the role my mother played.
Mom always stood center stage and
orchestrated the rituals of our lives,
reveling in her role as the generic, indomitable
Despite the generous airtime given
to Judah Maccabee and his band of
fighting yeshiva buddies, Hanukah has
always been a woman's holiday in my
home. I always felt a natural affinity for
righteous radicals including Judith,
the beautiful daughter of Yochanan
the High Priest.
Surprisingly rebellious for the era,
she took issue with a royal decree
which awarded 'first night rights' to the
local ruler, allowing him to sleep with
a Jewish bride before releasing her
into the custody of her new husband.
On the eve of her own wedding,
Judith made the required appearance
before the supervising magistrate and
seductively fed him dairy foods until
he became thirsty. Plying him with wine until he got drunk
and fell asleep, this very determined young woman severed
his head and carried it to Jerusalem. Needless to say, the
Syrian soldiers ran for the hills.
Threatening death to transgressors, the Greeks prohibited
many important rituals. With nowhere else to turn, Jewish
women had their babies circumcised even when it meant
doing it themselves. In order to pressure husbands and
brothers to wage war against the Greeks, many women
threw themselves and their babies from the walls of Jerusalem,
making a creative point: You will have neither children
nor wives if you do not give us the right to publicly observe
what is holy to us.
Inspired by these brave women, Matisyahu and his five
sons eventually rose up, paving the way for Hanukah miracles.
Talk about the feminine power of persuasion.
While I wouldn't necessarily volunteer to perform a
bris, Hanukah is one holiday when I intrepidly enter the
kitchen and, using an old but serviceable blueprint, locate
the stove. Wielding a dusty heirloom cast-iron skillet, I gather
my young'uns around me and impart all aspects of the
holiday including the special fat-laden cuisine.
Affectionately referring to this holiday of lights as the
'peptic ulcer season', I introduce such epicurean delights
as Croquettes du Pomme Frites (the Eastern European shtetl
latke) and Gala Puff-Pastry Surprise (in Brooklyn, the Dunkin
Every year, come holiday time, I search every shelf until
I find a carton filled with ceremonial objects specific to the
holiday at hand. With Hanukah's approach, I urgently begin
pulling bathing suits and multi-colored Purim baskets
out of storage trunks until I find the precious box, which
typically heralds winter in Israel.
This year's bonus find was a set of misplaced hand weights
and a grainy, 1987 Jane Fonda exercise video. Blinking back
tears, I peer inside and find myself staring into yesteryear. I
behold nursery school art pieces made of painted plywood
some of the metal-bolt candleholders still firmly attached.
Another creation, composed of gray clay and embedded
walnut shell halves, is heavier than I remember. A
patina of burnt olive oil remains shiny, black and fragrant.
And a round cookie tin that had served as a swimming
pool menorah causes me to wince at the memory of
I am grateful, suddenly, for the gift of foresight in not
holding onto the infamous Raw Potato Candelabrum. To this
day I can't decide whether it was a theme piece in keeping
with the latke tradition, or a subtle tribute to Irish Jewry.
The smell of doughnuts traumatizes me. This may have
something to do with the time I volunteered to purchase
them for our local nursery school. Carrying a covered tray
of 50 jelly-filled sufganiot, I attempted to leap over a dirty
puddle wearing an already too-tight skirt. Suddenly I found
myself lying face up in the service road of a major Jerusalem thoroughfare. My stockings and coat were torn but it
was my already-fragile ego that sustained the greatest injury.
I rallied, however, upon hearing the gathered crowd
applaud as one onlooker gently lifted the loosened plastic
wrap and announced, in several languages, that all 50 pastries
Hanukah also allows me to display, once a year, a glaringly
under-appreciated musical acumen. Perched in front
of an out-of-tune Baby Grand piano, I merrily plunk out several
lively tunes from a book called "Harvest of Jewish
Music". My children listen in a near-catatonic state and
some of them actually sing along with me between the
fits of laughter.
Laughter aside, I'm continually amazed at the important
role ritual has played in my own life. There is comfort to be
found in the smallest of acts. By reenacting the traditions of
my mother and those of my foremothers, I can practice
self-expression while simultaneously remaining connected
to the larger tapestry of Jewish culture and history.