Do you ever plan something and then its execution turns into fiasco, leaving you to wonder if you’re trying too hard or whether the fates are intent on foiling you?
This is how it’s been this week as my family tries out a new tradition. (I kind of view traditions like shoes: If they feel good, keep ‘em. If not, kick ‘em off and move on.) Anyway, I anticipated moments of awkwardness as we ate latkes and lit our first menorah, but never did I think Hanukkah would involve a run-in with police nor a table fire that set off the smoke alarm.
Religion is a complicated, and in my family it’s no different. I’m a lukewarm Catholic, my husband is a baptized atheist, and — with the last name of Levy — we’re often mistaken for Jews, which is why we’re tangled up in these eight special nights.
I don’t want someone else to define the part of my children which is Jewish. Rather, I’d like my kids to understand and experience first-hand what it means to (kinda) live a Jewish life so they’re able to counter stereotypes like the one that occurred at their school, where most kids receive free lunch, have brown skin and don’t know any Jews.
“But I’m Jewish,” my daughter countered.
“You are? But you look normal,” one classmate replied.
When Hanukkah was first discussed around the dinner table, the kids’ eyes lit up with the prospect of more presents in December. My husband and I laughed. Nope, I replied, not a present more unless you want to give up those under the tree on Christmas morning. Gifts don’t have to be wrapped, I said, they can be intangible: help freely given, a note tucked into a pocket, an offer of a back rub after a hard day. And so we all agreed to give Hanukkah a spin.
When we pulled into the synagogue’s parking lot, my 2-year-old was protesting his time in the car and my nose was protesting his fragrant diaper. Belts were loosened, air cleared, and then we went to see if the gift shop was selling menorahs. I opened the door and inside all was dark and quiet.
“Hello?” I poked my head in.
No response except for a beeping, so I closed the door and it locked. A second alarm rang, louder than the first. I was thinking, fast, while I steered my toddler back to the car. Should I leave? What if a camera took a picture of me in the doorway? I dialed 9-1-1.
“Do you need fire, ambulance or police?”
“What’s your address?”
“I don’t know. I’m at the corner of Manzanita and Lakeside at the synagogue. I wanted to buy a menorah and accidentally set off the alarm.”
“Okay. We’ll send a police car.”
My son climbed into the front seat where he flipped switches and played with the steering wheel. I looked at the backseat and — just in case the cop wanted to search me and the car — I did a quick and dirty clean-up. The police car pulled up, the window rolled down, a few questions and I was free to go.
Without a menorah. And it was too late to order one online.
So my daughter and I rigged up one using whiskey glasses and tea lights. Each night, the lighting has been a painful process of wait and watch — waiting as a child wears out three or four matches before successfully striking one — watching as candles are lit and quickly dropped back into the glasses. But the menorah looks pretty on our table and the conversations have been good.
Then the fourth night arrived and another five minutes of waiting and watching. Just as we began to eat one of the tea lights flared up.
“Blow it out,” my husband said from his end of the table.
Four children leaned forward and blew. Flames flickered. The inferno in the whiskey glass was four inches high and growing. My husband stood and blew.
At the same moment:
A ball of flame billowed out of the glass.
Hot wax splattered across the table.
Chairs were shoved back.
And the menorah was extinguished, as our laughter drowned the beep of the smoke alarm.
It’s mishap that creates memory and lays the foundation for traditions, don’t you think?
For a second time, my toddler and I set out on a mission to obtain a menorah. We went to Cost Plus World Market where we bought rainbow candles at half-off (since Hanukkah is half over). Then to Ben Franklin’s for clay. That night the menorah was safely lit, I let go of the idea of the ritual and embraced the reality, and my smallest son sang the only candle song he knew — Happy Birthday.
A tradition was born.