My father was in the hospital, and Chanukah was coming. Lighting candles in the ICU was not an option, but my mother was undeterred: she bought an electric menorah for the room. I was surprised she knew such an item existed, let alone purchased one. Although the blessings could not be said over the little light bulbs, my mother felt it was important for my dad to be able to mark the holiday. She was not about to let the circumstance of the ICU get in the way.

And so on Chanukah eve, she surreptitiously tucked the holiday surprise into her tote bag, along with the snacks and magazines she brought every day. We didn’t know if we would be allowed to actually turn it on; my mom didn’t ask. She just set it up on a shelf opposite my dad’s bed, so he could easily see it. The floor-to-ceiling ICU windows meant that all the nurses could see it, too.

To anyone whose eyes happened to wander from the machines surrounding my Dad’s bed over to the shelf, my mother offered just a hint of a smile. “It’s Chanukah,” she explained, in the same tone that an usher gives directions: “Your seat is right this way.” This was in itself remarkable, for despite her well-earned reputation for boldness, my mother was humble and compliant with the medical staff. Perhaps she felt that they held my father’s life in their hands, and she didn’t want to do anything that might antagonize them. As it was, our family had been engaged in a months-long battle with the hospital, which tried by every possible means to get us to give up. My father wanted to live, and we, of course, wanted to do everything to keep him alive. The tension was constant, exhausting and overwhelming.

Reading this account, one might imagine that my parents were observant. They were not. They called themselves “traditional,” which in practice meant they kept very few traditions and almost none of the Jewish laws. My mother actually spent more than one Yom Kippur at the mall, not for lack of awareness but in defiance of that awareness. So nobody expected her to treat a Jewish holiday as something sacred. This open embrace of faith was absolutely a Chanukah miracle. And as it turned out, it was just the beginning.

The battle with the hospital was at its core a clash of worldviews. So, too, was the conflict between the Jews and the Greeks, which culminated in the events commemorated on Chanukah. The hospital, like the Greeks, believed that the value of a person is measured by productivity and physical health. The Jewish view—our family’s view—is that people are valuable because of their heart and their spirit and by the simple fact that they are alive. Up until this experience, my mother had never registered the callousness of the secular orientation. Her relationship to secularism was centered on education, glamour, elegance and a sense of pragmatism; she considered herself very much a part of that culture. It turned out, though, that somewhere within was a different sensibility.

The spiritual glow from the electric hospital menorah followed my mother home. When my father passed away, she told the cemetery without flinching that the funeral must strictly follow Jewish law; in the past she was vehement in her support for cremation. A little over a year later, when visiting Amsterdam with her childhood friend, she not only went to the old Esnoga synagogue, she brought home a bag full of souvenirs and a heart full of pride in Jewish history.

This newfound excitement didn’t wane; a few years later when her cruise stopped in Venice, she did a tour of the Ghetto rather than the Doge’s Palace. She told me how good it felt to spend the day learning the stories of our people instead of someone else’s. She came over for Friday night dinners, and we would stay talking at the table for hours, undistracted by TV or phones. In time, she became connected with the Chabad that I belong to, joyfully going to challah bakes, Purim parties, and eventually even Yom Kippur services. She also joined a Jewish book club, where she discovered many new writers and even more new friends. For the mother I knew growing up, any one of these things would have been unimaginable. Now they each felt like the most natural thing in the world.

And every Chanukah, that electric menorah stood shining in her window, letting the world know about miracles past and present.