It sits on my shelf, a poor relation to the stone menorah with its carvings of children holding up our candles every Hanukkah. THAT menorah is weighty with memories. THAT menorah is staying home.
I am packing for New York, where I will see actors auditioning for my play at Circle Repertory Company. I’m staying with my friends Robert and Susan on West 71st Street on the first night of Hanukkah, and though Robert is Jewish, I am not at all sure they have a menorah.
I stare at the poor relation, with eight tiny sockets made of the flimsiest tin imaginable. In the center a ninth socket is a bit taller than the rest; this will hold the Shamash candle that lights all the other ones. Before I can talk myself out of it, I slip the menorah into my suitcase.
This is my first Hanukkah as a single mom, though I won’t be parenting much this week. I will just be a playwright in a city of playwrights, some Jewish, some not. My friends are agnostics, and while I’m not completely decided on whether to celebrate the holiday, I don’t want to be menorah-less if I can help it.
By the time I’m in New York, I realize my friends might not have candles, either. I rush inside a store on 72nd Street that is just about to close. There are boxes of “conventional” Hanukkah candles, each one a different color, and above those are tall, conical orange ones. I reach toward them and stop; such grand lights for an ugly tin menorah. I reach for the conventional candles and pause again. “So?” the man behind the counter is staring at me impatiently. “I’ll take the regular size,” I say, shoving them in my bag.
It’s getting dark by the time I ring the bell at Susan and Robert’s, and as the foyer door opens the scent of roast chicken mingles with the smell of wet carpeting. There will be no latkes or songs; any Hanukkah here will be one of my own making. But what if I don’t make it? My son is with his father and stepmother and will have all the celebration he needs. And Hanukkah, with its chocolate coins and presents, seems more a children’s holiday than one for a newly single adult.
I climb the stairs, frowning. I have a full three days of auditions and casting decisions. I also have a vacation from my part-time job at home and the burden of trying to re-create a life I’m not even sure I want any more. So it’s Hanukkah. So what?
Susan hugs me and pulls off my coat while Robert nods from his place at the piano. These two have been family to me ten 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.
“Sounds great,” I reply.
As we eat I think about the menorah. Will Robert mind if I bring it out? I am never sure how he perceives me, or at least, the rituals he sees me observing these days.
When I was first getting divorced, 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 going to sleep 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, I’d have to lay odds it felt pretty 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 brought 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 asks.
I smile and nod.
“Sure,” he says, shrugging. “I had no idea.”
I pull out the travel menorah, which is so fragile—chintzy, I should say—it nearly bent in two during the trip from Minnesota. I straighten it and set it on the table, where it catches the attention of Susan’s cat who jumps up and knocks it down.
“PHOEBE!” Susan yells, pushing her cat off the table as I pull the candles out. As I squeeze them into their sockets I fantasize that lighting Hanukkah candles will bring luck to my new play. Susan hands me a book of matches; I strike one, lighting the Shammash and sparking its flame.
I say the first blessing over the candles and then the second, trying to remember the melody as I thank God for the oil that burned for eight days. Then comes the third blessing thanking God for bringing us to this moment. As I sing, I see Robert smiling, and the smile seems to spread from his lips to his eyes.
Am I imagining this? Or is he thinking of his father’s deli, of chocolate coins and dreidel games? I pick up the Shammash and lean it toward the lone candle standing on the menorah. It leaps into light and all three of us watch silently, as streetlights whiten the terraces outside.
This travel menorah is a lot like me, I think. Bent over and needing to be straightened, I am sometimes lost at sea and sometimes lucky enough to be doing work I love. But wherever I am, 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.