Op-Ed: This Chanukah, A Broken Menorah, And A Memory That May Not Exist
My Hanukkah menorah is broken. My wife tells me that there is a piece missing, a branch that is supposed to go from the Star of David in the center of the candelabra to a slit in the back to hold the chamus – the candle that lit all the others. It’s been broken for about 50 years, by my estimate, because I can’t remember it ever being any different than it is now. Still, we don’t want to burn the house down, so we put it on a shelf where I can still see it and swapped it out for a sleek new menorah that looks like a modern piece of art: brushed chrome, smooth lines. . It is important to create new traditions.
What’s funny because the truth is, I’m not really a Jew; my faith is more in the metaphor than God. I believe in witnessing history, many teachings of the Talmud, the practice of asking questions, the sacred being open to discussion and interpretation. But the love and the trauma made me believe in an afterlife that no holy book makes room for, and that what is close to my heart, in the end, is for me. So when I light my menorah it’s not to remember the consecration of the Temple of Jerusalemis to light the way to my own past.
At this time of year, I often find myself plagued by a memory that I’m not sure is real. This is a book I keep on my desk: “A Book of Jewish Thoughts” edited by Joseph Herman Hertz. The hard cover is moiré blue, the back in gilded navy letters, the title stamped in an austere Romanesque font. He has been in my family for 80 years.
In my memory, I’m 7 and my grandfather, Poppa Dave, is in his basement in Walla Walla, Washington, smoking a cigar and reading the book. It was one of three books that were still stacked on the side table next to his chair – one blue, one burnt orange, one black – in descending order of size. I sat down on his lap. It was late December, too cold to be outside. I asked him what his book was about, and he said, “Do you know what it means to be Jewish?
He leafed through the book and told me how, when he was my age, he escaped the pogroms – massacres of Jews in the Russian Empire – in Bar, Ukraine, his family stuffed with sacks of potatoes, his little brother dying in his arms. How they came to live in Walla Walla. How her last name – Barer – which is my middle name – forever marked them as being from this place, no matter where they went. And then he closed the book. “Can you imagine leaving your house tomorrow, forever?” ” I could not. I can not.
Although, now I worry about confusing the experiences. Didn’t we usually go to Walla Walla in the summer? Maybe he was reading one of the other books, maybe it was the Burnt Orange Book – “Holy Mountain: Two Paths to One God” – that’s next to me now. Yes. It was late July, not December, it was too hot to smoke outside. Then he showed me the family tree framed on the wall, the cigar smoke lingering in the room, the faces of long-dead Jews with my hair, my eyes, my thick eyebrows staring at me, including some have never left Bar, are still there. He was my cousin, he said.
Or maybe it wasn’t at Walla Walla at all and we were in Palm Springs, where I often spent Hanukkah with my grandparents, and the book was really the sports page, but the question and the story were the same. Over fifty years in my own life, closer in age to my grandfather than I’ve ever been, and I’m still trying to find the answer, returning time and time again to the thoughts in that little blue book, which I inherited along with the broken menorah over a decade ago when my mother passed away.
I started reading it then, first to feel a connection with a family tree that no longer had high branches, later to understand its roots and, still later, when an idea for a book began to emerge. take shape in my mind: a hit man forced to hide as a rabbi, despite not being Jewish – a metaphor for my own metaphysical struggle.
Now I have read the Torah, the Talmud, much of the Midrash (ancient Jewish commentary or interpretation of biblical texts), my shelves filled with theology and eschatology, and am no closer to answering questions from my grandfather. What is the essence of any spiritual journey: knowing that there are things you will never know.
Tomorrow, when Hanukkah begins, I will light this new menorah, I will stand in its flickering shadow, reciting a prayer that I might not believe, but content with ignorance and remembering a memory that does not ‘may not exist; free, in any case, to believe.
Tod Goldberg is the author of over a dozen books, most recently “The Lower Desert: Gangster Stories. “He directs the Low Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at UC Riverside. @todgoldberg