The first Chanukah after my divorce, I looked at my two sons, four and five years old at the time, and said, “It’s just you and me, guys.”
“Okay, Mommy,” they chorused. They were too young to understand what I meant. Too young to remember Chanukahs past, Chanukahs from when our family circle included a mommy, a tatty, and two boys, instead of just the three of us.
Having been raised in a family where lighting the menorah on each of the eight nights of Chanukah was a family affair replete with singing, dancing, and latkes, my memories of Chanukahs past are filled with light. Even in my married years, saturated with stress and strife though they were, Chanukah was a timeout, when we lit the menorah together and sang Haneiros Halalu and Maoz Tzur. I’d invite my family over afterwards, and I’d make latkes and give out presents. Just the way we’d done it when I was growing up.
When the kids came along, they joined me in watching Tatty light the menorah. One day, I figured, they’d be lighting their own menorahs, and our family circle would expand even more.
Only instead of expanding, our circle had contracted. It was no longer me in the supporting role, watching my husband light, it was me doing the lighting. And I didn’t have to just light the menorah, I also had to prepare it — times three — every single night of Chanukah. Not only that, but I also had to make that magical hour of candle lighting into something exciting and happy. I had to make it into something that would last in my kids’ memories forever, even though my enthusiasm for the task at that hour of the evening was conspicuously absent.
Surveying my options, I almost copped out entirely. My ground-floor apartment has a back entrance on street level, where theoretically, if I were a man, I would light my menorah. But the thought of announcing my presence to anyone passing by was so awful that I knew I needed a different option. That’s when I realized that my living room window, due to the complexity of apartment building construction, is actually two flights up from street level. Only someone who was really looking could see my menorah from there.
I gulped a few times and arranged my newly purchased silver-plated menorah on the window ledge, grouping the clay menorahs that my children had created in preschool behind it. A deep breath, a lit match, three blessings, and my menorah was ablaze.
Haneiros Hallalu and Maoz Tzur duly dispatched, we sat down on the floor to play dreidel. Here I was on more familiar turf; here I could relax and be myself again. I felt myself shaking off the discomfort like a too-heavy quilt.
Gradually, as the days — and now the years — passed, I got used to filling my little menorah with slippery oil and getting those wicks to stand up straight inside their cups. Every year, inevitably, the wicks don’t light and I wonder what I’m doing wrong. And then I help my kids light their colorful wax candles, and I remember what I’m doing this for. And I start to sing, thinking of my father’s cheerful tenor from my childhood and wondering if I can mimic his performance adequately.
And then I remember that I don’t need to mimic his performance. I’m not a man. My job is not to be out in public, on display; it’s to be inside the home, creating a happy atmosphere. Although the mitzvah to publicize the miracle is mine, the publicity that comes along with it goes against my grain. And that’s fine. Because I don’t need to be my father, or even my kids’ father. All I need to do is be myself, the mother. I need to light the menorah, sing Maoz Tzur, and teach my kids why we’re here tonight.
Our candle-lighting ceremony may not be as joyous as the Chanukahs of my childhood. And that’s okay. Because I don’t need to compete with anyone else. I just need to make tonight a night that will live forever in my children’s memories – if only because the three of us are here together, lighting the menorah, in our own home.