My sisters and I returned home from school on that first night of Chanukah the year we moved, myself only nine years old, ears and nose bright red from cold. Inside the house, hand-drawn decorations crowded the walls and a fire crackled merrily in the fireplace, suffusing the living room with leaping golden warmth. The white winter sun was already melting through the wispy clouds, and in the gathering dusk I selected two brightly colored wax candles – one for the first night, and one as the shamash, the “lighter” candle – and arranged them in a row on my small, gleaming menorah. My little sisters watched raptly as I helped them select their own candles, then we all watched in fascination as my father prepared his own menorah with oil and wicks. The rich yellow oil looked like gold as it slipped smoothly into the little glass cups, and here and there a drop escaped and rolled down one of the menorah’s branches.
Once the day faded and the night shifted into full dark, the family gathered around the big front window and tied back the curtains to bare the shadowed, frost-edged street. Inside we struck matches and sang out the blessings, and one by one we lit our candles. The oil in my father’s menorah could have been its own light source, that’s how bright it shone. Our little flames danced against the windowpane and prismed out to become shimmering rainbows on the snowy lawn. We lit the night with our fire and filled the winter quiet with joyous song, and my little heart was so full.
After lighting, my family ate dinner and played games, spinning dreidels without actually competing in the game, just for the fun of it. We told each other the story of Chanukah: how the brave Hasmonean Jews fought the Greeks in a great battle and ousted them from our sacred Temple, how the High Priests searched and searched but only found a small jug of pure olive oil with which to light the menorah and rededicate the Temple, and how in a great miracle, that tiny measure of oil burned for eight days. Pride in my People filled me. From anywhere in the living room I could hear the soft snaps of the fireplace and see the flickering lights of our menorahs, and, entranced, I watched them burn low until only my father’s oil menorah still glowed. I fell asleep watching it, and today, that night is a soft, warm, magical memory.
It’s fifteen years later, and now my husband and I set up our menorahs together. We both use oil, and I like to keep the lights off in the living room for as long as the wicks are burning and giving off that gentle golden glow. Sometimes they burn all night. We study the Chanukah story, in more depth than as kids, and we also eat fried food and give each other small gifts.
Chanukah has never lost that childlike magic for me; the magic has simply evolved. Like I did as a child, I still count to myself of all the menorahs I glimpse through windows when walking along the street. I’m still entranced by the lights. But these days Chanukah is much more than that. The menorah isn’t just a pretty fixture; it is a symbol of perseverance and hope that I feel every day in Israel, as rockets rain down and terrorists close in. Chanukah is a reminder of the strength of the Jewish People, and of our determination to do what’s right, no matter the cost. Chanukah is about unadulterated faith and commitment to God, and every custom of the holiday reflects the miracles that God performed for us.
In just under two weeks, Chanukah will begin. Until then, I will be cleaning the menorahs, buying new oil, trimming wicks, and getting our house into a festive spirit. But I will also be studying, reacquainting myself with the victory and miracle of Chanukah. I will be getting myself into the proper mindset, so that when the first night of Chanukah arrives, I won’t just be ready for the lights and the potato pancakes – I will be ready for the message.