A Haskell Hanukkah
from Haskell’s journal—December 26, 1965, 8th night of Hanukkah
Debra is the only other Jewish kid in my class at Bonvadine Academy.
During lunch, I overheard her brag to a group of her girlfriends, “Oh, we’re having the biggest Hanukkah party ever! My mom decorated this incredible nine-foot-tall tree with blue and white balls and little Maccabee ornaments, and we’re going to play competitive dreidel – and I’m putting on a little play about the whole Hanukkah experience too. Oh, and guess who might stop by and sing a few Jewish songs? Connie Francis!"
I nearly said out loud, “Well, she’s no Ella Fitzgerald!”
Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut. Debra’s dad is a record mogul. He probably has his pick of singers.
I relayed all this to my mom that night, shortly after she came home from work, quite exhausted – two martinis instead of her usual one.
“You know, honey,” she said, “it’s a minor holiday. The Shapiros celebrate it because they don’t do Christmas.”
“We don’t do Christmas.”
“Well, we don't avoid Christmas like they do. Let’s put it that way.”
After school yesterday, I jogged to the New York Public Library and researched this ‘minor holiday,’ discovering it celebrates the miraculous victory of the Jews over the Assyrian rulers and is a great parable for those seeking religious freedom and fighting oppression.
Didn’t seem so minor to me.
This morning I woke up at six so I could catch her before she went off to close more escrows.
“Mom, Maimonides says that the Jews discovered that all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned, and yet it burned for eight nights!”
“Honey, give me a kiss. I’m going to be late.”
“And to celebrate the miracle of it all, we light eight candles, nine if you count the shamash.”
“I’m always worried that the wax will get all over the floor. Hand me my purse, will you?”
“If I put the menorah next to the window on a glass table, I think it might look really very nice.”
“Why would you do that?”
“The reason for the Hanukkah lights is not for the ‘lighting of the house within,’” I quoted directly from a text on Judaism. “‘But for the illumination of the house without,’ so that people passing by would be reminded of the holiday's miracle.”
Mom squeezed my cheeks. "No one’s going to see that menorah. We live on the 14th floor on 74th street. I’ve taken all my clothes off and danced on the patio at three in the morning and not a single horn honks so I don’t think anyone is going to notice that tiny little menorah of ours. I’m going to be late. Now give me a kiss.”
I let out a deep sigh. It was the last night of Hanukkah. Nothing – not even a brisket sandwich because mom’s on a no-meat kick. “It’s just not fair!” I followed her out down the hall to the elevator. “I’d just like one night when you’d be home early, and we could sing some songs, maybe listen to holiday music.”
I slammed the door after I returned to the apartment.
At school the next day, I couldn’t concentrate during a math test, probably flunked the darn thing. First flunk ever. Then tonight, around 7:00 p.m., two hours before her usual return time, I heard the key go into the four dead locks.
“Happy Hanukkah!” My mom shouted as she set a carton of matzo ball soup on the kitchen table and a wrapped cardboard box of brisket, potatoes and glazed carrots. "And look what else I bought? I couldn’t find the Connie Francis, album but…”
She handed me another one –
“Ethel Merman Sings Favorite Chanukah Tunes—Live at Shea Stadium.”
First track? An amazing “Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah!”
“Gosh,” my mom said, “she sings so loud. I bet all of Brooklyn heard her.”
Actually, rumor had it that her voice carried as far as China.
“Wait, there’s more, Haskelah!”
My mom never called me that, except the one time we attended a Passover dinner at her boss’s house.
A few minutes later, two men from Macy’s hauled in this gigantic crate. “Mind helping us with this?” She asked them, handing them each a five-dollar bill. The two husky men cut open the carton with my mom’s gardening shears and a claw hammer, and there it was. A gigantic five-foot-wooden white and blue-painted Jewish star. The four of us strung lines of lights across the wood partitions. Mom used clips to hang the blue and white balls, and soon the star lit up —sitting beside the window and flickering in an odd, surreal pattern, as cars below honked in approval.
“And for the piece d’ resistance!”
For dessert, she had selected some hamantaschen from Cohen’s bakery, a pastry filled with poppyseed filling. Each one was cut in the shape of a hat. This is generally associated with Purim, not Hanukkah, but I was not one to complain.
Tears streamed down mom’s cheeks as she hugged me. “Is this Hanukkah enough for you, Haskell?” she asked.
I thought it was a bit ridiculous, but I hugged her back, and said, “Best Hanukkah ever, mom.”