When I was a girl, my mother knit hot red angora mittens and caps for my cousins for Channukah. She would sit at night, after long hours of slavish work for us and bounding upstairs, downstairs and in and out of our store, never stopping, certainly never taking a moment for herself except when overcome with exhaustion might snap at us. Perhaps it was the colour of that red- orange or maybe the soft balls of yarn that ressembled little kittens asleep that drew my lust for her knitting. I thought them the most lovely, tantalizing gifts ever and hoped I too might be given a set.
I, too, would save dimes from my allowance and puruse the shops on Eglinton during my meandering stroll to school, considering gifts for my parents. My father would always insist that Channukah was only for kids, but this tickled me as I would pull out his present, usually a beautiful ( and to my mind at $10.00) a very expensive tie, usually gray or blue. Day after day, his sole colour of shirt and pants was gray with the occasional white shirt for some family event. Never did I observe him in green, dark blue and certainly not pastels, checks or patterns. He would make a fuss over my gift and display delight at my very conservative choice which he would in deed wear. I beamed with happiness that I had pleased him. For my mother one year, I spied a small figurine in the window of a Hardware store. I became fascinated by the smiling little figure of a girl, swinging skirts and yellow hair. It was a breath- taking price of $9.99. My mother kept it forever and after her passing, I put it in my kitchen near the family photo of her 90th birthday. Except now the place where the plastic foliage grew there is a round of pebbles to replace the greenery.
Truthfully, I don’t recall what my parents gave my sister and myself, most likely ” gelt”. As I shivered at the bus stop at school, I would eavesdrop on the girls boasting of their new subscriptions to Vogue or trips to sunny places: Channukah gifts for the rich, at least at my school. One day, I reflected, I, too, will cekebrate with gifts on all eight days.
Occasionally my eccentric Auntie Marion would host a Channukah party, usually to my parents, especially to my father’s grumblings, “Do we have to go? ” Once she dressed up, overcome with her own laughter, at her Channukah candle decoration on her head. She possessed a sense of humour often hidden in her layers of affectation, but to me, she was very special. She handed out small gifts and droned on at length about some treat she had laboriously made that took days and days of planning. None, I do recall, ever tasted particularly great, but I played along. She was for me, my patron of the arts,who doted on me where all others found me lacking and rather dull. We were both cursed by being interested in the arts, especially visual art, a common predeliction for the bizarre when it was science, and music that were designated as the standard of and for excellence in our family.
I will never forget my mother’s face when our family arrived one Sunday unannounced at my Aunt’s home and my cousin Carol closed the door, checked with her mother and then barred us, sending us away. I once heard that my grandmother as well who had lived to see her daughter’s rise from bare existence in Sudbury with her abusive husband to comfort in Forest Hill was also only permitted by invitation. Yet should I alone arrive unexpectedly at my Aunt’s door, she greeted me warmly, inviting me in for tea, into our own private soiree where art shows from New York or recent literature from Europe might be discussed. She lovingly purchased my first set of oil paints from which I made nothing, complete with a posable figure. She encouraged me to submit my poor drawings of movie stars to Camp Interlochen for scholarship. Surely she would have known the quality, technique and subject matter unworthy, but she seemed- for some reason- to believe I had potential. Or maybe she identified with me as the family underdog. She was over the moon about our cousin Jon, a brillant medical student.
Today this is the norm:one doesn’t just drop by. One must be issued an invitation to appear at someone’s door. Perhaps, my Aunt was just ahead of her time. The days of the sheitel wherein cousins, parents, children, second cousins moved from house to house, invading and possessing one another is some grand amorphous body now disappeared, locks and privacy in its stead.
But Channukah especially for non-Jews is a confusing holiday. Mainly because it shares the month of December with Christmas. But for us, it is not a high holiday or truly a big deal. Yet, the concept of Judah Maccabee overturning the Seleucid ruler Antiochus was no mean feat. Since 175 BCE had Jewish religious practices been forbidden. Maccabee purified the defiled Temple of Jerusalem and on the 25th of Kislev (December 14, 164 BCE) restored the service in the Temple. The reconsecration of the Temple became a permanent Jewish holiday and is still celebrated annually. So in an important resurrection of rights and freedoms, this holiday is mighty significant.
Yet for Jews it is the others, Rosh Hashana,Yom Kippur and Passover that figure more strongly. In comparison to the wars fought on the battlegrounds and in and out of the temples, these holidays are quieter- stories from the Torah, words, prayers, meditations, not uprisings, blood and miracles: except if you consider that Jews have actually endured into the 21st Century and have always been at peril, never it seems unmolested, bombed, attacked…
And why does one wonder ” gelt”. Both Chabad and Wikapedia explain, “…widespread custom of giving Chanukah gelt enabled the poor to get the money they needed for candles without feeling shame…[ As well] the Hebrew word Chanukah shares the same root as chinuch, “education.” The occupying Greek forces were determined to force Hellenism upon the Jewish population, at the expense of the ideals and commandments of the Torah…After the Greeks were defeated, it was necessary to re-educate the Jews—to reintroduce a large part of the population to Torah values. Appropriately, during Chanukah it is customary to give gelt to children as a rewards for Torah study.6…
“The Greeks did not rob the Jewish people; they attempted to infuse their possessions with Greek ideals, so that they be used for egotistical and ungodly purposes, rather than for holy pursuits. Chanukah gelt celebrates the freedom and mandate to channel material wealth toward spiritual ends.7” http://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/103084/jewish/Why-the-Gelt.htm
Finally, to celebrate their freedom, the Hasmoneans minted national coins. It may also have begun in 18th-century Eastern Europe as a token of gratitude toward religious teachers, similar to the custom of tipping service people on Christmas. Wikipedia. Eventually it became customary to give coins to the children as well to encourage their Jewish studies.
For me, because the eight days usually resides in December, the time of my birthday and the occasion for all my children and grandchildren to gather at our home for dinner from parts far away, we celebrate Channukah on the 25 th. No matter if Channukah has not arrived or recently passed, we stand by the brightly glowing candles, chant our prayers, and I overwhelm the children with chocolate gelt and gifts. I think of myself as a Channukah Harry clone, bringing underwear, socks, necessary but also frivolous items to my family.
My mind returns too to Marc Chagall’s wife’s autobiography in which she describes the family meal where all have united for the holiday. The family warm, safe, together, fed and relaxed in one another’s company brought together to cekebrate the holiday, the day marked bynthe lighting of eight candles.