We stood shivering in a hotel parking lot waiting for the lighting of a giant outdoor menorah. It was my first public menorah lighting and I was in full “mom mode,” pulling up hoods, chasing dropped dreidels, handing out gelt, and sort of pretending to be excited–but we were really there for the children.
Since we live on a farm outside of Jewish community, they need to see that Hanukkah doesn’t just happen at our house and at their grandparents’ house.
There were a few brief speakers and I was feeling pretty distracted, thinking of the Thai restaurant right across the street, wishing my children would stop swinging their light sticks at each other, and feeling cold. The rabbi was talking about our inner olive oil which burns longer than we expect, about our essential Jewishness, but my mind wandered.
As he finished his speech, he climbed a step latter to reach up to the menorah lights. After he lit the third candle, his ladder wobbled and the crowd leaned closer; a few gasped. The giant menorah wobbled a bit too and the group was suddenly locked into a shared experience. The menorah was grand, but it looked vulnerable outside in the wind and cold, and so did the rabbi. And then as the crowd recited the blessings, I was suddenly moved in that way that catches you off guard. It was so fast and strong.
Tears were in my eyes because we were together–my family and all the rest of the people in the parking lot. We sang a few songs, some feeling a bit cliché like “Oh Hanukkah” in English, which always reminds me of a friend who pointed out the awkward reach for English words that have the same number of syllables as the Yiddish original.
Then we sang in Hebrew, which was better. But it was the Yiddish version, most of us leaning closer to our song sheets to get through those unfamiliar letter combinations, which felt the best. At that moment, I was not being a role model for my kids anymore. I was singing and thinking of those who came before us, especially my great grandfather, Max, who spoke to me only in Yiddish, and my grandparents, and always, always, the six million.
It is ironic, but my parenting was probably at its best right then when I forgot to teach my children what it feels like to be a Jew and just felt it. I have learned that parenting lesson before, but I sometimes forget that even when I am not trying, in fact especially when I am not trying, they are learning.
I am grateful to Chabad, the organization that runs these kinds of events all around the world, for bringing us to this moment, for reminding us how different it feels to light a menorah with 100 people and for remembering that we sometimes need at least three languages before the songs feel just right.