Warming Up by the Fire of Sweet Remembrance


It's our first childless Chanukah in 22 years.

Our older daughter has settled in Boston, living in an apartment with three other roommates who will light menorahs of their own. Our younger daughter, a college freshman, will no doubt have many candle-igniting options between Hillel, Chabad and dorm-room gatherings.

It seems a bit odd to contemplate Chanukah with just adults. Aren't those flickering flames meant to mesmerize young eyes? Gift-giving, dreidel-spinning, holiday songs: They all seem geared to a younger crowd. Our children were our ticket to many freilach/ joyful Chanukah celebrations.

Now, in the thick of empty nesthood, we're forced to look at this time through different eyes.

While I was never a great fan of winter, I mostly bundled up and shrugged it off. But these days, as December approaches, I grow ravenous for daylight. I'm ready to crawl into bed at 8 p.m., which feels more like midnight, and stay buried there until the morning sun — and the radiators — are at full strength.

I have, at midlife, less psychic padding against the onslaught of dark and cold.

So Chanukah becomes very timely through those eight nights of fire that warm the desolate hours. And not just any fire, but flames commemorating courage and pluck.

In the Chanukah story, King Antiochus sends in his soldiers to back up his decree that Jews must bow down to Greek gods. Judah and his brothers rebel. They gather together a small band of farmers to fight to preserve the Jewish faith. Through cunning and determination, they defeat the mighty army, restore the temple in Jerusalem, and light the oil that miraculously lasted for eight days.

How fortunate for us in the here and now that the struggle to remain Jewish is usually an inner, and not a public, one.

But can we take any meaning from Judah's bravery for other inner struggles as well? When children and careers no longer dominate our attention, we come up more strongly against our core selves.

Heroes From Our Past
Upon confronting our weaknesses, it's pretty clear that if we don't do something about them now, our window of opportunity is likely to close as we age even more and our energy falters. Time takes on a greater urgency. Regret beckons from the corner. Like the dark and cold of winter, the sense of time narrowing — and chances missed — can dampen our spirits.

The poet Charles Reznikoff wrote this about the redemptive power of Chanukah:

"The miracle, of course, was not that the oil for the sacred light — in a little cruse — lasted as long as they say; but that the courage of the Maccabees lasted to this day: Let that nourish my flickering spirit."

We all need stories about the righteous winning out over the bullies. Heroes from our past are good talismans to hold as we wander through a world peppered with injustice and grief.

So on the first night, my husband and I will once again pull out the old clay menorah that a friend made for us many long years ago. I will cry while grating onions and potatoes. Since some of our friends still have young children, our dreidel-laden wrapping paper will not go to waste.

Both childless and childful couples will gather around the window with us as we add our flames to the fire of the night. And though our thoughts drift to our own kids celebrating in other homes and other places, we're glad to be here, turning the darkness into an unmistakably joyful time.

Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I. E-mail her with any comments at: [email protected].


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