Newly graduated from college, I was hired as an art therapist in the recreation department of a Jewish nursing home. Despite its Jewish name, my nine female colleagues were all non-Jewish, as were half of the residents of the facility. It was not unusual to hear grumblings emerging from various cubicles, but as the weekend approached, I was surprised to hear the groans increase.
“What’s the big deal about Friday?” I asked the group. “Aren’t you guys excited to have the weekend off?”
Friday means candle-lighting. It’s such a pain . . .Diane, positioned in the corner cubicle, answered delicately. “We don’t want to offend you, Miriam, because we know you’re Jewish. But Friday means candle-lighting. It’s such a pain . . .”
Courtney, another coworker, rattled off the blessing on the candles, “Baruch atah . . . asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu lehadlik ner shel Shabbat!” Surprised and confused, I had to laugh at her perfect pronunciation of the Hebrew words, usually difficult for those unfamiliar with the language.
“But, what’s the big deal?” I wondered aloud. I had seen the beautiful candelabra room, lined on three sides with pairs of silver candlesticks and decorated with elaborate stained-glass windows. Every Friday at three PM, residents were given the opportunity to light candles for Shabbat.
My coworkers explained that basically, it was a drag. Each staff member was assigned a different unit, and then assisted residents one by one to the candelabra room. Every resident had the opportunity to enter privately, and with Marla’s assistance, made the Shabbat blessing. Marla, the director of resident life, was our boss. She was also the only other Jewish member of our department. Apparently she let the residents take their time, which dragged out the proceedings even more, and the staff always had to rush to leave at the end of the shift.
I didn’t quite get it. But since Shabbat came early in winter, close to 4 PM, I had arranged to leave work early on Fridays and work extra hours on Sundays. As a result, I did not experience candle-lighting in person until a few months later. For a while, each time the subject of candle-lighting came up in the department, I would cringe inside and remain silent. It upset me that the residents were assisted by resentful staff when they performed this mitzvah.
It was a pleasant morning in February when Marla called me to her office. She explained that she was going away for two weeks, and asked if I would agree to “do” candle-lighting for the two Fridays she’d be gone. “I know the other girls think they can do it, but I would never agree,” she said flatly, and our eyes met. I agreed silently with her unspoken statement. How can someone who has never experienced the holiness of this mitzvah help another experience it?
I agreed to help out. I believed that I was doing Marla a favor. I had no idea at the time that I would become the recipient of her favor.
Slightly nervous that first Friday, I opened the intricately carved gate guarding the quiet candelabra room. I greeted the first resident who approached, and offered assistance as she lit the candles.
My apprehension disappeared as the atmosphere in the room shifted. I felt physically enveloped in the holiness as I watched each resident enter the room and step into a private place where soul meets Creator. I was witnessing the effect of prayer on plain people, watching their faces change in response to the whispers of the soul.
How humbled I felt, and uplifted, to feel each woman’s spiritual essence. Selma, a ninety-seven-year-old woman, crying as she lit a pair of candles for herself and another for her best friend Fran, who was very ill. Helen, an elegant lady, one of the few women who walked in unassisted, whose eyes begged me to overlook her inability to remember the words of the blessing. Gertrude, a Holocaust survivor, who studied my face as I recited the blessing, but didn’t utter a word throughout the encounter. Anne, who had eloped as a young bride with her non-Jewish husband, tears running down her face as she whispered a prayer.
It was the stark realization that age is a continuation of youth
It was the stark realization that age is a continuation of youth; that generations of women have grown old lighting candles week after week, passing on a legacy of prayer and faith to their daughters. In awe, I recognized that their faces, shadowed with hope, yearning, love and pain, were a reflection of my own as I lit candles each week. Suddenly, I grasped the strength of our mesorah, the tradition that connects generations.
The irony was beautiful. I had been lighting Shabbat candles every Friday night since I was a bride, yet never had I been so inspired by this mitzvah than in the nursing home, surrounded by elders and electric candelabras.
I was drawn back to the world when Diane motioned me out of the candelabra room. “It’s taking too long,” she whispered pointedly. “We need to be done by four!” I assured her quietly that I would speed things up. Perhaps I tried, in some sense, to hurry up, concurrently treasuring each moment until the last woman had left the room.
I was humbled and awed. I had experienced something extraordinary, and I no longer minded the Friday afternoon grumbles of my coworkers.