Hands of Light: A Traveler’s Hanukkah

It sat mutely on my shelf, a poor relation to the stone menorah, with its carvings of children holding up our candles every Hanukkah. THAT menorah was weighty with memories. THAT menorah stayed home.

I was packing for New York to see actors auditioning for my play at Circle Repertory Company. I was getting ready to stay with my friends Robert and Susan on West 71st Street on the first night of Hanukkah, and though Robert was nominally Jewish, I was not at all sure they had a menorah.

I stared at the poor relation, with eight tiny sockets made of the flimsiest tin imaginable. In the center, a ninth socket was a bit taller than the rest; this would hold the shamash (servant) candle that lights all the other ones. Before I could talk myself out of it, I slipped the menorah into my suitcase.

It was my first Hanukkah as a single mom, though I wasn’t parenting much that week. I was mainly a playwright in a city of playwrights, some Jewish, some not. My friends Susan and Robert were both agnostic, and while I hadn’t decided on whether to celebrate the holiday, I didn’t want to be menorah-less if I could help it.

By the time I reached New York, I realized my friends might not have candles either. I rushed inside a store on 72nd Street that was just about to close. There were boxes of “conventional” Hanukkah candles, each one a different color, and above those were tall, conical orange ones. I reached toward them and stopped; such grand lights for an ugly tin menorah. I reached for the conventional candles and paused again. “So?” the man behind the counter stared at me impatiently. “I’ll take the regular size,” I said, shoving them in my bag.

It was nearly dark by the time I rang the bell at Susan and Robert’s, and as the foyer door opened, the scent of roast chicken mingled with the smell of other foods. There would be no potato latkes (pancakes) or songs; any Hanukkah here would have to be one of my own making. But what if I didn’t make it? My son was with his father and stepmother and would have all the celebration he needed. And Hanukkah, with its chocolate coins and presents, seemed more a children’s holiday than one for a newly single adult.

I climbed the stairs, frowning. I had a full three days of auditions and casting decisions ahead. I also had a vacation from my part-time job at home, and the burden of trying to recreate a Jewish life I wasn’t even sure I wanted. So, it was Hanukkah. So what?

Susan hugged me and pulled off my coat while Robert nodded from his place at the piano. These two had been family to me for 10 years and better; Robert a musician and Susan an actor and dramaturge. Yet Robert and I had never talked about Jewish rituals, or anything else even remotely related to being a Jew. I knew his father had owned a delicatessen in Atlantic City because he’d shown me how to slice a bagel once. I’d also heard Susan talking about the bar mitzvahs of Robert’s cousins, and of course, Robert knew my former spouse, since we’d all written a musical together before he became a cantor.

“We’ve got roast chicken and rhubarb pie,” Susan said.

“You’re the best,” I replied, and she laughed.

As we ate, I thought about the menorah. Would Robert mind if I brought it out? I was never sure how he perceived me, or at least, the rituals he saw me observing these days.

When I was first getting separated, I spent a lot of wakeful nights, sometimes tossing and turning so much I thought I’d sail out of bed into the yard outside. While it was hard to fathom a future as a single mother economically and socially, the hardest thing was sleeping alone. Trying to imagine someone with me made it worse; but one night I hit on the idea of hands, with light streaming through their open fingers, blanketing me while I slept.

I called them the Hands of Light and became adept at using them to comfort myself when I lay down. The hands brought peace in ways few other things could; and if it wasn’t faith, exactly, it felt close. But how do you explain that to someone who doesn’t believe?

Of course, Robert wasn’t looking for an explanation. And I didn’t have one for him, really, only a vague feeling about light and luck and a poor man’s menorah I’d carried for thousands of miles. A menorah that was waiting in my bag.

“Is it okay with you guys if we light Hanukkah candles?”

“Is it Hanukkah?” Robert asked.

I smiled and nodded.

“Sure,” he said, shrugging. “I had no idea.”

I pulled out the travel menorah, which was so fragile chintzy, I should say – it nearly bent in two during the trip from Minnesota. I straightened it and set it on the table, where it caught the attention of Susan’s cat, who jumped up and knocked it down.

“PHOEBE!” Susan yelled, pushing her cat off the table while I pulled the candles out. As I squeezed them into their sockets, I fantasized that lighting Hanukkah candles would bring luck to my new play. Susan handed me a book of matches; I stuck one, lighting the shamash and sparking its flame.

I said the first blessing over the candles and then the second, trying to remember the melody as I thanked God for the oil that burned for eight days. Then came the third blessing thanking God for bringing us to this moment. As I sang, I saw Robert smiling, and the smile seemed to spread from his lips to his eyes.

Was I imagining this? Or was he thinking of his father’s deli, of chocolate coins and dreidel games, played with a specially designed spinning top? I picked up the shamash and leaned it toward the lone candle standing on the menorah. It leapt into light and all three of us watched silently, as streetlights whitened the terraces outside.

The travel menorah was a lot like me, I thought. Bent over and needing to be straightened, I was sometimes lost at sea and sometimes lucky enough to be doing work I loved.

But wherever I go, there will always be part of me that needs this light, streaming out of candles and hands to say I’m stronger than I believe myself to be. What I do with it doesn’t matter; it is enough to know I can find it, in a place too sacred to be shut or burned away.

Excerpted from Crooked Lines: A Single Mom’s Jewish Journey by Jenna Zark. Copyright © 2022 by Jenna Zark and reprinted courtesy of Koehler Books.