“Do you celebrate X-mas or Chanukah?” Elisheva Marmor asked me. Every year except the last, when Dad was already on trial for fraud, he had brought home a Christmas tree that we strung with fairy lights and shiny balls.

“Christmas,” I said.

“Then you’re not Jewish,” she said. “So you don’t eat latkes or light candles.”

She was right. Ever since a friend ofAt home, we didn’t use candles, not even on birthdays mine lit a firework on Guy Fawke’s night that went off in his hand and left him blind in one eye, I had been scared of matches. At home, we didn’t use candles, not even on birthdays which we didn’t celebrate—not with cakes, not at all. As for latkes, I had no idea what they were.

“Let’s show Susan how we light the candles,” said Esther Marmor, as though she were letting me into a family secret. We joined Mr. Marmor and the seven Marmor children—four girls and three boys—in the lounge. On the windowsill stood a silver candelabra large enough to hold nine candles and a box of tall candles. I understood I was being initiated into a rite I hadn’t known existed until that moment. I was amazed that people did things in a special way, ritually, while I lived in a home where everything felt random.

Holding Shimon, the youngest child, in the crook of his arm, Mr. Marmor beckoned me into the family circle and told me that even though I didn’t know it, I was Jewish and had a Jewish soul and was part of the Jewish people. It seemed to me that this was a good thing—that I was somehow connected to all the life in this house and the theater unfolding in front of me. I wondered if Mum knew that we were Jewish and if it meant our life could be different, more joyful somehow, although I doubted it because our father had been put away for years.

“As our guest of honor,” Mr. Marmor said, nodding in my direction, “I’d like you to say the blessing with me before we light the candles.” I felt all eyes upon me, expectantly, generously. “I don’t know how to pray,” I said, suddenly self-conscious. Esther waved away my excuses. “Just repeat what Isaac says. We’ll all say it together.”

And that’s what we did. In a language I’d never heard, I repeated words that meant nothing to me but a lot to the tribe gathered there. They told me they were celebrating the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days, which still meant nothing to me. I thought of our deep fryer sitting permanently on the stove and how the oil inside lasted not just 8 days but the entire winter because no-one ever changed it.

Mr. Marmor told me that each day, they would light one more candle until all eight were lit. And that there’s one candle that is the helper candle that lights all the others and which goes in a separate place because it doesn’t belong with the rest. He pointed to a hole in the middle of the candlestick out of line with the others. And he explained that they put the candlestick, which he called a menorah, on the windowsill so that everyone walking past in the dark can enjoy the light and celebrate the miracle. It seemed very different from my home whose front room, still called the piano room even though the piano had been taken away by the bailiffs, was shielded from the street by heavy curtains and used only for special occasions, of which there were none.

“And now you’re going to light the candles,” said Mr. Marmor. “We light from left to right with the helper candle. When all four candles are lit, you put the helper, the shamash, here.” I forgot my fear of matches and did as I was asked. Light flickered on his children’s faces and played on the window panes. I felt a rush of heat in my cheeks. The family burst out in song as soon as the helper was in its place.

And then some patties, which I learned were latkes, were passed around.

It seemed wrong to me that in some part of London, not an hour away from my home, people who knew my Dad were celebrating while my Mum and sister sat alone, and my father had been sent away for longer than I’d been alive. An awareness crept up on me that we would never partake of the joy contained in this house—that this treat was going to live on in my memory as something profoundly unsettling, as a kind of watershed, and that rather than the Marmors being different, it was we who were different.

Lighting Chanukah candles at home.
Lighting Chanukah candles at home.

Even our name wasn’t really ours. Like everything about us, it was a perversion. It didn’t say anything about who we were and made us into who we were not. Why was my grandmother a Nachmias and my grandfather an Arenz, but my Viennese-born father a Kennedy? Why was my middle name the foreign-sounding Lena? Why did I not know whether I should go to the Jewish or the Christian assembly at school? Have the kosher or the regular school lunch? Why did I go to the Jewish Brownies but sing Christmas carols? Why did my friends not know the foods I described, like halva and mohnkuchen, and laugh at my mother’s accent? Why did I never want to leave the Marmors’ home?

That was my first and last encounter with the Marmors. They had given me a glimpse into another world—a world which for one momentThey had given me a glimpse into another world looked like it might be within reach, but which in reality was so far removed from our own it might have been out of a fairytale. I didn’t dare look into that fairytale again, not until long after my father had served not just his first sentence but two subsequent ones, by which time I was in my mid-30s, and it had become a matter of life and death.

After a long period of illness, at 35, I set out for Israel, ostensibly to write a hiking guide on the country but actually to explore my Jewish past. I arrived at the end of November, a newcomer to a country I knew nothing about. The first weeks were spent settling into an apartment in Jerusalem and poring over detailed trail maps deciding how to plan the task ahead. I booked myself into a kibbutz with a guesthouse in the Bet She’an Valley. There were plenty of hikes in the vicinity, and I was assured of warmer weather there.

Within moments of my arrival, I was invited to light the first Chanukah candle at the home of the guesthouse manager. Memories of my very first Chanukah came flooding back as I stood at Zvi’s kitchen table, his wife and children graciously accepting my presence, and repeating the words of the blessing I’d first heard 25 years earlier.

I didn’t actually go on any hikes that week. I was more interested in the religious life around me, the sense of purpose and of lives lived well. Zvi and his wife made me feel part of their family, lent me books to read and a bike to ride, and encouraged me to learn more.

The guidebook got written. A few months after its publication in 1997, I moved to Israel for good. This year I’ll be celebrating my 23rd Chanukah in Jerusalem, as usual with friends. It’s been a long journey to get here, and the fairytale ending is almost in sight.

Celebrating Chanukah with friends in Jerusalem.
Celebrating Chanukah with friends in Jerusalem.