This year, on each night of Chanukah, some of our congregants shared written reflections of the holiday. They are gathered here for all to enjoy.
Early Chanukahs at Bet Ha’am
by Toby Rosenberg
I am remembering two Chanukah anecdotes from Bet Ha’am’s early days and I realize both of them feature the same founding member, Lena Weiner Sorgman of blessed memory. I’ll share both stories, but first a bit about Lena for those who never met her.
Lena was a little dynamo who motored around on crutches, owing to a congenital condition. She had a curious mind and an infectious laugh. She gave generously from her heart and had a circle of devoted friends who loved her dearly.
In our earliest days, before Bet Ha’am–House of the People–had a house of our own, we celebrated major holidays at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland. For our first Chanukah, we held a big potluck dinner with plenty of latkes. We lit menorahs and sang with Rabbi David Sandmel on guitar. I sat with Lena, her grown sons, and a few others.
After dinner, everyone played dreidel. Most people gambled with chocolate gelt, but someone in our group suggested strip dreidel. After clarifying the rules–nobody ever remembers the rules –Lena was the first to land on the letter shin, which meant she had to put something in the pot. She took a big ring off her finger and placed it on the table. As she did, she told us a little something about the ring—and thereby about her life. After that, everyone who put something in the pot told a little something about the item. We were building a shared history. The game ended but the connections remained.
In the first year that we had our own home on Westcott Street, we gathered in our new sanctuary on the Shabbat of Chanukah. Everyone brought a menorah and set it on the bimah lectern–a well-worn drafting table adorned with a blue velvet cover embroidered with a gold Jewish star. It was a gift from Lena in memory of her mother. When we lit our menorahs, the flames grew brighter and brighter as if to show us how much light our young congregation created by coming together. The light was so much brighter than the sum of the candles. And indeed, it was! The proximity of flames was melting candles so quickly that a few had bent over and caught the velvet on fire. As soon as we realized it, we extinguished all flames. We laughed with relief, suddenly aware of our naive carelessness. The blue velvet was in ruins, with a messy burn where the star had been. Lena was devastated. But within a few weeks, the cover was replaced, embellished with embroidered words honoring the memory of Lena’s mother.
As you know, we have continued the tradition of bringing our menorahs to Bet Ha’am to light on the Shabbat of Chanukah. Experience has taught us to leave a little space between them, to set them on a nonflammable surface, and to watch out for strange fire. The flames get mirrored in the darkened windows, multiplying the light we make by coming together, and reflected into infinity as if to remind us that so long as we bring our light together am Yisrael chai –the people, Israel, lives.
by Catherine Share
I think back more than ten years ago when I was first learning the candle blessing for Chanukah night. I depended on the print out on the outside of the Chanukah candle box. I struggled with the words in this new language and it was awhile before they flowed without hesitation. But I persisted and the darkness of the season gave deeper meaning to the words l’hadlik ner–to kindle the light. I enjoyed the increasing brightness of the hanukkiah (Chanukah menorah) as the days progressed. My heart was filled with gratitude for this new light in my life.
Our Family Menorah
by Hugh Morgenbesser
I have a distinct memory of our family singing the prayers and lighting our candles, and I vividly recall the cast metal menorah that we used every year. It consisted of figures that represented the Maccabees and it was on display year round on a high shelf; but when Hanukkah rolled around, it resided on our dining table on a sheet of aluminum foil. The menorah felt very heavy to me, at least when I was a child, and as the week went on I remember the figures getting covered with melted wax. The weight of the menorah made it seem even more important. My brother, sister, and I would take turns to see who would get to select and place candles in the menorah, and who would get to light the candles—and it felt important and special to me when it was my turn.
Now that my family doesn’t live close to each other, we haven’t been able to light the menorah together for a while. But I take comfort in knowing that my mom, in her home in Florida, still has the same menorah, and still uses it every Chanukah.
Here is a picture of the same menorah that we had!
Reminiscences of Chanukah
by Jane Sloven
During a cold dark season, Chanukah’s “festival of light” brings light into my home and my life, just as it has done every year since my childhood. This holiday brings warm memories of the celebrations I had with my family, and my husband and I maintain many of the tradtions that I grew up with—lighting the candles of the menorah, chanting the blessings, and of course—making potato latkes—although now they’re gluten-free.
My sense of spirituality was nurtured by my parent’s focus on celebrating all of the Jewish holidays—though it was my mother, Natalie, who made every holiday a special event. She always gathered extended family and friends, prepared delicious meals, and chanted the blessings. Laughter and joy permeated our celebrations. During Chanukah, we also exchanged small gifts each night. Unwrapping those presents created much excitement. My mother taught me the importance of observing Jewish holidays—of gathering with friends and family, acknowledging the blessings in our lives, bringing light to the darkness, and recognizing the presence of the miraculous, in whatever way that manifests: love in our lives, family, friendships, community, and life itself. Social justice has always been integral to Judaism, and my family also focused on the actions we could take to contribute to the healing of the world. I remain so appreciative of the ways in which my mother nurtured these values in our family and passed them down to me.
A Quiet Chanukah Remembrance
by Jane Snerson
We had dinner together every night. There was no rule—we just adjusted our schedules to accommodate that routine because we placed a high value on Family Time—with capital letters. We liked each other and enjoyed sharing our lives. Hanukkah was special because we extended our dinner by gathering in the kitchen, turning out the lights, lighting the candles, singing the blessings, and placing our menorah in the window. Dinner, with the lights on, was talk time; but as we reached dessert (jelly donuts) we paused. The candles were getting low, our conversation quieted. We turned down the lights and concentrated on the flames. We felt special. This was our holiday. We talked about our heritage, our history, and how we survived. As the candles spluttered out, the acrid smoke tickled our noses. We felt warm, embraced, and together. We liked that.
Chanukah at Our House
by the Sanokklis Family
To our family, Chanukah has always meant competitive dreidel games, latke buffets, and giving tzedakah. I love sharing our Chanukah traditions with my classmates at school. For several years now, I have brought in dreidels for my advisor to play during Chanukah. We’ve collected many menorahs over the years, so we usually light five or six each night of Chanukah, including a memorial candle. One of our favorite things to do is to find creative ways to make latkes. We always have tons of latkes and food on our table for all eight days. Last year on Chanukah, we got some new family members: rescue dogs from Georgia. We were initially going to get a service dog for our Oma, but we ended up with two spastic, loveable, and fun brothers. They were the best Chanukah gift EVER. They often give us presents themselves, whether its the head from their most recent toy or a half-chewed up a glove; they are the gift that keeps on giving. One other important part of Chanukah for our family is giving tzedakah. We each pick a charity and donate to that charity.
by Melissa Montefel
As I contemplate Chanukah in this very strange year, my thoughts drift to celebrations of old. I have very fond memories of being with my then spouse, going to friends’ houses, and joining the annual Bet Ha’am extravaganza with everyone’s Chanukah menorahs lined up and shining bright, always such a beautiful sight! Children came, and we switched to having friends and their kids (and chanukiyot) over for our Chanukah party. Life changes, and I was lucky to get my teenagers home for one night together (the promise of latkes and Buffalo wings is a big draw). Lately, I have looked forward to a night with my daughters and “Ladies Night” with my friends. While I am not sure yet what this December will bring, I know that lighting candles, reciting blessings, and connecting with friends and family, whether it be by phone, Zoom, or FaceTime, will shine a bright glow on my own rededication to Jewish life, keeping in touch with loved ones, and staying safe until we can all gather again.
The Smell of Potato Latkes
by Hugh Morgenbesser
My dad was one of four kids who all lived very close to my paternal grandparents in Canarsie, Brooklyn. So when I was growing up, Jewish holidays all included big gatherings at my grandparents’ house. There was lots of food. There were a bunch of cousins, my aunts and uncles, and other neighbors and relatives who I don’t even remember, and loads and loads of food. This included Passover, the High Holy Days, and always a special gathering for Chanukah too.
I vividly remember the lighting of the candles, seeing my cousins and family, receiving some gifts from my grandparents—chocolate gelt coins—and even some spinning of the dreidel. And as an adult, in the years that I fry up some fresh potato latkes in my house, all it takes is a moment to inhale the smell of those fried potato latkes, and the images of being a child at my grandparents at Chanukah comes right back to me.
Contemplations on Chanukah 2020
by Jane Sloven
In a year with challenges beyond any that we have ever experienced or could even imagine, our holiday cycle continues with the same consistency it brought to the lives of our ancestors. Chanukah brings light into our homes during this dark and cold season. Chanukah reminds us of the miracles that led our ancestors from slavery to freedom, from oppression to liberation, and from darkness into light.
There will be an end to this particular suffering. While we would all prefer that this was not our reality, it has brought new awareness to many of us. An inevitable response to close encounters with the fragility of life is a more intimate relationship with the preciousness of life. Many of us have become more grateful for the love that sustains us, the friendships that enliven us, and the natural beauty that surrounds us.
May the lights of Chanukah illuminate the miracles in our lives. May they kindle love and compassion in our hearts. May they remind us that resilience and perseverance are our inheritance.