I come from a family where everyone assumes a role in the kitchen. My brother mans the grill, you can usually find me elbow deep in sugar and butter, my father makes a mean Bolognese sauce, and my mother is one of those cooks who can whip up something delicious with whatever is in the fridge.
But there was one Hanukkah a few years ago where no matter what we did, dinner was bound for disaster.
My mother and I were busy preparing for our annual Hanukkah party, peeling potatoes for latkes, making the horseradish and crème fraiche dressing, maybe some homemade applesauce. Every year we make my great-grandmother’s brisket (her secret ingredient is cream of mushroom soup; only Campbell’s will suffice).
But when my mother took out the meat, we looked at each other and thought, can we really make a Jewish brisket out of corned beef? As it turns out, you can’t; we had bought the wrong kind of meat.
Corned beef is the same cut of meat traditionally used, but instead of melt-in-your mouth brisket, it was a mouthful of salt. There was no hope for this brined beef; no Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup could save it. With 15 people on their way over for dinner, we had potato latkes and sides but no main dish. So we did what any New York city Jewish family would do in a time of crisis: we ordered Chinese takeout.
Tradition is a funny thing; we hold tightly to it and when it suddenly goes up in smoke we feel disoriented. I missed my brisket that year, but there was always next year, I reminded myself.
Besides, we had other traditions to fall back on. At our house eight nights of Hanukkah didn’t mean eight nights of presents, but it did mean eight nights of family time; we had art supplies, cozy pajamas, music, chocolate — a bowlful of chocolate gelt close at hand.
My favorite part of Hanukkah has always been lighting the candles. For me moving the shamash from one candle to another is like lighting birthday candles; it generates the same excitement and awe in the power of light.
Freshman year at college was my first Hanukkah away from home and I had no menorah. I remember feeling nostalgic for the tree-shaped candle holder that needed to be polished and stripped of old wax every year before it could take its place on the windowsill at my mother’s apartment, and the falling apart but traditional holder I had watched candles tumble from so many times at my father’s house.
I was working at an environmental nonprofit at the time, and one of my Jewish coworkers asked me about my holiday plans. I said I had none. The next day, a menorah and box of candles were waiting for me on my desk. The menorah was nothing elaborate, just a slab of wood with holes in it, but the excitement was the same as I lit my candles that night and for the rest of the week. My cherished tradition had been restored.
Now as I begin my first winter on the Vineyard and Hanukkah begins, I have a new menorah. I’ll light my candles and create a little piece of home with them, and enjoy that brief moment when everything else in your life disappears and you are able to celebrate something as simple as the gift of light.