Our Chanukah candles shone extra-bright last year. That's because they were the only lights in our house.
The day of Chanukah eve, the Seattle area was visited by a vicious windstorm (officially named "The Chanukah Eve Windstorm" by a National Weather Service contest). About a million homes lost power, including nearly every home on our island of 24,000. Near our home toppled trees blocked roads and beheaded telephone poles left their electric wires in tangles on the ground. Our guess was the power wouldn't be restored anytime soon.
With schools, child care and my work day all canceled and the temperature in the mid-30s, I started planning how to make our first night of Chanukah celebration -- and Shabbat dinner -- without electricity.
Fortunately we have a woodstove and can heat much of our house and cook atop it, so we weren't going to freeze or starve. Milk and other perishables went into coolers on the deck, preserved by the cold outside.
Challah I had baked the week before came out of the rapidly defrosting freezer to be warmed on top of the stove. We wrapped salmon in aluminum foil and baked it on the coals. Gelt and a chocolate orange we'd been given as a gift would be our simple dessert. With store shelves in town rapidly emptying, and warnings to stay off the roads both for safety and to conserve scarce gasoline, we would eat what we had.
I had already gathered the things I needed for Chanukah -- menorah, candles, gelt, dreidels, Chanukah storybooks. There wouldn't be any frying latkes or doughnuts (we couldn't get the oil hot enough on the woodstove), or Chanukah music CDs or Chanukah videos, but we had the basics.
Lighting that tiny Chanukah candle in our cold, darkening kitchen left my two preschoolers in hushed awe. On our wooded street, our neighbors' homes were nearly invisible in the dark. We sang our Chanukah songs without accompaniment -- "Mi Yimalael" (Who Can Retell The Things That Befell Us) was an obvious choice here -- and my three-year-old daughter Ariella even made up a few Chanukah songs of her own.
Seeing those small lights in our darkened home made me feel transported back in time. I understood for the first time, on a deeper level, the small glimmer of hope the Maccabees must have felt lighting the menorah in the restored Temple, praying that somehow their tiny pool of oil would last over a week, until more fuel could be made.
I thought of the simple Chanukahs my great-grandparents likely celebrated back in the pre-electricity days in their small town of Lvov, Poland. Those nights may well have been much like this one, cold and dark, lit only by candles and by the simple joy of celebrating our freedom to worship as Jews.
With our electronic distractions gone, the whole evening seemed to take on a magical, intimate quality.
With our electronic distractions gone*, the whole evening seemed to take on a magical, intimate quality. We told the Chanukah story from memory, huddled together for warmth in the orange glow of the woodstove. My preschoolers were even good sports when their small gifts for the night turned out to be messy modeling clay they couldn't play with until morning brought more light.
As night fell, our lights were increased by Shabbat candles. We ate some of the most delicious tangerines I've ever tasted for our first Shabbat course. Sitting by jet-black windows unlit by street lamps, all agreed this was certainly the most wonderful challah I had ever baked. Each dish tasted exquisite, its warmth an amazing gift.
With our bedrooms closed off and cold, we and our three children talked, cuddled, and played into the night, then curled up on couches and in sleeping bags around the still-warm stove together to spend the night. Our second night of Chanukah passed in much the same way.
A week later, some of our friends still didn't have their power back on, including our rabbi. Some areas of Seattle went two full weeks before power was restored.
We were more fortunate. Though we were braced for an entire Chanukah week without power, our lights came back on just over two days after they'd flickered out.
Moving around my house switching on lights, listening to the comforting sound of my heater warming up, I realized I was living my own miracle of Chanukah -- the miracle of light where I thought there would be none. The miracle of ending up with one of the most memorable Chanukahs my family ever had, despite the hardships.
This year, I'm thinking maybe we'll turn off all the lights and do it all again. I think Chanukah just won't be as inspiring without those tiny candle flames standing brave and alone against the dark.
*Luckily we had the additional light of our woodburning stove as Jewish law prohibits making ordinary use of the light given off by the Chanukah candles.