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Time-Traveling Candles

Time-Traveling Candles

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I am seven or eight years old. I am an ordinary girl with blond hair and an unordinary last name. And I have a big secret, too.

The windows are frosted; it’s dark and snowing outside. I sit on a warm carpet in our living room, enchanted by the lights of multi-colored Chanukah candles.

Packed in a light-blue box, these candles arrived in a humanitarian aid parcel from Israel, together with a tin candleholder, a blue dreidel and aI have a big secret small bag of chocolate coins—the most delicious treat in the entire world.

My world includes our apartment and suburb, and the whole city of Moscow. And it also includes the faraway country of Israel, where people speak Hebrew—the language I don’t know yet but will definitely learn one day. The country featuring a blue star on its flag—the same star as the one I wear on my necklace. The country where multi-colored candles live in light-blue boxes and get to travel to other places to spread their light.

We are getting ready for the New Year at school. There is a huge Christmas tree in the auditorium, decorated with balls and garlands. During the day we practice for the end-of-year concert, where I play a “snowflake”—just like all the other Russian girls. But I can’t wait for the nighttime, when a different holiday will enter my life—the one I don’t talk about in school. It’s my Chanukah . . .

Time goes by, and I change schools. Now the auditorium features a big menorah. Our teachers say that another menorah is going to be lit in the Red Square in the center of Moscow. Can you believe that? Now that’s a Chanukah miracle!

During the festive week, our classes are shortened; we enjoy school concerts, doughnuts and latkes, and—guess what?—each student receives a genuine American dollar for Chanukah gelt!

Coats are abandoned in the cloak-room, and we run to the currency exchange booth near the school, laughing away. The snow is crisp, our cheeks are red . . . Ah, the joy of Chanukah.

Time travels fast, and here I am celebrating my first Chanukah in the United States. I am 16, and I’ve been here for exactly one month and ten days. Apparently, it’s quite common to erect electric menorahs on car roofs. I stop each time I see one, realizing that it’s possible to reveal my Jewishness here.

I rush into a Judaica store and buy my first menorah, which is designed to look like the Kotel, the Western Wall. I hold it tight and run back home to light it.

Time passes . . . now I am a 19-year-old seminary student in Montreal. My friends and I are in charge of Chanukah activities. It is a big responsibility to bring the holiday spirit to life, knowing how many children are looking forward to our Chanukah party. So I try really hard to make decorations and choose the right music, while my friends are practicing the play, setting up the game stations and selecting the raffle prizes. And very soon, another Chanukah miracle takes place—our young audience is mesmerized by what they see on stage.

And now, here I am, frying latkes in my tiny kitchen in Crown Heights, New York. They don’t look great—which isn’t surprising. I never cooked before I got married. I am upset that half of the latkes look overdone, while the other half is too pale . . . But it’s not the end of the world, since the “first-Chanukah smell” is coming out of every apartment in our building, where so many newlyweds start their life together.

Half of the latkes look overdone

A year later, my husband Avi is lighting the menorah while holding our newborn son on his lap. And my latkes are golden and perfect (well, not quite perfect, but good enough).

Time leaps, and I make a new discovery: In Australia, Chanukah falls during the summer! No more frost on my windows, but a wonderful concert in Caulfield Park instead—with magical fireworks, reaching higher than the palm trees and eucalyptuses. And here is my daughter, twirling around like a dreidel herself . . .

One year, I get the opportunity to celebrate Chanukah in Israel. I’m flying in the middle of the holiday, and I have a layover in Thailand. I worry that I won’t be able to light candles in the airport. I ask the one of the airport staff members to allow me to light these tiiiiiny candles in a tin candleholder. (Yes, they are in the light-blue box identical to the ones I had in my childhood. To my surprise, I found these at a local supermarket the day before my flight.)

I calmly explain to the staff member, “Chanukah is a Jewish holiday, which celebrates the miracle of oil and the victory of one’s faith over circumstances—so we light candles for eight days . . . Yes, no matter where we end up in the world . . . And this Chanukah, I am in Bangkok, so will you let me light them? . . . Please? . . . No, madam, it is not my birthday today . . . So why do these candles look like birthday-cake candles? . . . Well, haven’t I just explained to you the whole story?”

Resigned, I make my way to the El Al counter, which finally opens up for check-in. Suddenly, I realize that Chanukah isn’t a purely religious holiday in Israel, but a national one too, uniting people from all walks of life. Passengers are offered jelly doughnuts, and I get a warm feeling that I am going home.

Once in Jerusalem, I can’t stop looking at the sparkling lights on the roads. These are golden menorahs, as opposed to Christmas trees and garlands, which decorate all the cities I’ve lived in at this time of the year.

All I have is six days here. I try to see and feel as much as possible, but, most importantly, to understand what it is like to live on one’s own land and not be a minority.

Meanwhile, the country enjoys its break from work and school, and Israelis of all ages are seen in shopping centers, playgrounds and bakeries, where doughnuts of all flavors are waiting for their turn to be chosen. And let me tell you, choosing just one is next to impossible . . .

I try to see and feel as much as possible

At night, when I walk on the streets of Jerusalem, I see little children in almost every window, enchanted by the playful lights of Chanukah candles. “Happy Chanukah!” I hear at the Machaneh Yehuda market, at a bus stop, and just about everywhere else. I’m not used to hearing greetings from complete strangers and I smile back, frantically trying to recognize these people, revealing that I am a visitor from overseas.

“Happy Chanukah to you, too!” I answer back. “And may you be blessed with an abundance of miracles, no matter where you end up celebrating this wonderful holiday!”

Sarah Bendetsky is a Melbourne-based writer, journalist and blogger who writes inspirational and humorous short stories, profiles of extraordinary people and fairy tales. Her work is published on her bilingual blog, the Baggage of Thoughts , and in various magazines and websites in Australia and overseas. She’s also a not-so-serious mommy of two wise individuals, a bookworm with experience and a chocoholic with passion.
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Sarah Bendetsky Melbourne February 8, 2015

Thank you so much, Abigail! Reply

Abigael December 25, 2014

wow! This is a fascinating account, and so well written. I felt like I was experiencing it with the author. Thank you for sharing your hannukahs with us. Reply

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