How can our homemade menorahs compete with all the dazzling lights of Christmas?
The fourth night of Chanukah, my husband is late for the candle lighting. My children's unlit clay menorahs are positioned precariously on the radiator. My second daughter, Elana, stares across the street at the neighbor's lawn. The Healys have draped their cedar tree with electric blue lights.
Next door, a deer stands poised with one hoof lifted prettily, as if about to break into a prance. Nearby, a bloated, inflated snowman sways drunkenly in the night air. My six-year-old daughter chews on the end of her plastic dreidel. A wistful look crosses her face. "Why can't we have decorations like that?" she asks.
"Why can't we have decorations like that?"
I remind her how we go all out on Sukkot. We have fancy lights, murals painted on the walls, and assorted fruit and tchotchkes hanging from the rafters of our Sukkah. But on Chanukah, I tell her, the menorah is all we've got.
"Can't we have something big?" she begs. "Something pretty, maybe a lamb or a sheep?"
Oh great, I think: a paschal lamb on our porch. But that's the wrong holiday. I gaze down at our rickety display of homemade menorahs. I know they can't compete with Mrs. Healy's Christmas tree, the dazzling strings of light and the candy canes and wreaths dangling from telephone poles, not to mention jolly Ole Santa and all the treats in his mysterious fat bag. I guess my daughter wants a swankier holiday.
Across the street, I see a family at the window putting a match to their oil menorah. I look at my watch. Its time to light, but my husband won't be home for a good half hour.
"Come on, kids," I suddenly decide. "Let's go on a menorah hunt."
The kids are game. We pack into our minivan. "Fifty menorahs," I say. "After we find 50 lit menorahs, we go home to light our own." There. That'll pass the time.
They press their faces to the window. "There's one," my daughter Elana points. My son easily spots another two. "I see it, I see it," my youngest one crows, waving her fist. The numbers quickly add up. No surprise there. We live in a Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey. My son hits the jackpot with five menorah houses, back to back, belly to belly.
"This is too easy," he scoffs. I think he's right, and I make a left and a right, and go on a long stretch that turns into a different, more ritzy -- dare I say WASPy -- neighborhood. Here, electric lights blaze forth from every house. Multicolored reindeers poke their hooves into well-tended zoysia grass. There are elves or maybe fawns lurking near Holly bushes, and Santas and sleighs clumped around rhododendrons. There are unusual shadow and light displays; some are actually artistic. My kids grow silent at all the holiday splendor.
"Where are all the menorahs?" my son wonders out loud.
"So many Santas," Elana observes. I wonder when it was she stopped calling Santa the big red Zeide.
"Keep looking," I say tersely. I turn left, then right.
Aren't I setting up the kids for disappointment? Christmas is everywhere. They're at the age when they're starting to realize how few of us we are. And in fact, my older daughter says, "How come there's so little of us?"
"Yes, we're little," I agree. "So what? Chanukah celebrates the victory of the few over the many. The few are also strong."
But my daughter, steeped in a Jewish education, counters, "God said we'd be many. 'You shall be as numerous as the stars of the heaven,'" she quotes.
Suddenly Elana shouts, "I see a menorah!" Our heads turn. "Where, where?" and she points proudly. There indeed it is, sitting in the window of what looks to be someone's kitchen. On either side of the house is a fantastic network of lights and sleighs and an illuminated nativity scene. And in between sits a dignified little menorah on a Jewish window sill. Feeling like the Maccabees who found that one last vial of oil to light the menorah, we all whoop and cheer.
As we make our way back home, we spot another two menorahs, each one a victory. In our own neighborhood, we easily pick up six houses here, seven houses there, surpassing the number of 50 by the time we arrive home.
When we come inside, my husband is pouring olive oil into glass cups. The breakable colored candles have been twisted into the kids' clay menorahs. We make the blessings, sing a little, dance a little and then the kids disperse. I linger in front of our homemade display and then I remember a custom. The old Hasidic masters used to sit and gaze at the lit candles for a full half hour, even more. They say that staring at the candles expands a person's vision; how the eyes see the world, what they regard as beautiful.
I sit now on the couch and try to keep my gaze on the lights. It's amazing to me how dreidels and sufganiot and potato latkes can keep my kids happily occupied. It feels restful here, watching. While the candles burn, women aren't supposed to be working anyway, to honor the extra role women had in the miracle of Chanukah. I let my eyes take their fill while my husband fries more latkes.
Elana wanders over to the radiator and looks across the street at the neighbor's fancy holiday decorations.
I say to her in a quiet voice, "Look at our candles, look closely and tell me what you see."
The world tries to grab you with its fancy big lights. But the light of the menorah is subtle and gradually envelops you.
She stares for a long time, her big brown eyes grave and finally tells me. "The flames are shaped like arrows, they point upward, there's a dark blue in the center, the flames keep moving here and there but are held in place by the wick, they're tiny and they're beautiful to look at." Then she adds, "The flames are arrows pointing to heaven."
The image delights me, and she seems pleased, too, but then I see her eyes return to the window, to the pretty lights across the street.
I want to tell my daughter how the world tries to grab you with its fancy big lights. They are powerful, and they'll dazzle you for sure. But the light of the menorah is subtle, it gradually envelops you, and the more you look at it, its inner loveliness will sneak up and take your soul by surprise. That's what I want to say, but why say anything? She's only six.
She'll find out. "The fact is, Christmas lights are pretty," I say out loud.
She nods, taking in my words, relieved, it seems, that I agree with her.
My husband likes to say about fireworks that no matter how spectacular, you can't look at the show for more than an hour. At a certain point the fireworks seem gaudy, a little much for the eyes. But you never get tired of gazing at the stars.
My daughter yawns and I pat the space on the couch beside me. I realize I have let my eyes drift away from the candles. "Come back, let's look at the menorah," I say. She curves in next to me, her eyes tired and a little dreamy, while my own eyes blink and strain to see what she saw, little arrows of light pointing to the sky.
This article originally appeared in World Jewish Digest 2007.