With the arrival of Hanukkah, I decided it was time to introduce the holiday to my two-year-old son, Sam.
Not knowing where to start, I consulted iTunes, since music had played a central role in my Hanukkah experience. With more excitement than a woman of close to 30 should have, I come across Paul Zim’s The Magic of Chanukah, the same album I used to listen to as a kid.
Within a few seconds of pressing play, I could barely hold back tears. Suddenly I was back at my childhood home, cuddled up beside my dad, watching the Hanukkah candles burn. I remember a time of innocence and wonderment, when my awareness had not yet extended beyond the safe parameters of home.
I long to feel that way again. When did life get so complicated? Not feeling much older or different from that eight-year-old girl, I am bewildered by the fact that I will be turning 30 soon and have a two-year-old child of my own.
A menorah is part of my lesson plan but Sam grows more frustrated by the minute, trying to grab the candles. He gets hold of one, breaking it into a million little pieces. Watching this makes me think about my new role as Jewish educator and what that might entail over the next 18 years.
I’m blank except for a mental image of my father, my Jewish educator. Dad made it his duty to ensure that my brother and I had some kind of Jewish identity and gave this role everything he had. I wasn’t so sure I could do the same.
Raising us Jewish wasn’t an easy feat for him. We lived in a homogeneous, church-going neighbourhood in Dartmouth, N.S., with my mother, who preferred to march to the beat of her own drum. If we were going to have any religious foundation, it would be up to him.
In the weeks leading up to Hanukkah, Dad would fill the car with Hanukkah tapes, playing them as we drove to and from our activities. At night before bed, the tapes would come out again. Drawing on his love of Broadway musicals, Dad would break out into song and dance. We would follow his lead, arms waving wildly, skipping and jumping to the rhythm of the music.
There we were, just the three of us, laughing, shrieking and parading around the house, singing at the top of our lungs. We were untouchable, a unit, and in that moment, nothing else seemed to matter, even the painful reality that caused my stomach to knot and weighed on my heart: My parents were going to separate. What I didn’t know at the time was that moments like these would be our last memories of living together under the same roof. They separated when I was 12.
I never thought much about my father spending hours teaching us about Jewish traditions and how to read Hebrew, or having to leave work early three times a week to drive us across the Macdonald Bridge to the synagogue in Halifax for Hebrew school. Only now, as a parent having learned fast this gig isn’t a walk in the park, do I have a deep appreciation for the dedication and hard work my Dad put into making sure we had a faith to hold onto.
Judaism has become like a long and invisible rubber band tied securely to my ankle. No matter how many times I have strayed, tried to deny it, investigated alternative belief systems or been too lazy to get myself to a synagogue, I can only venture so far before it finds me again and taps me on the shoulder to remind me of who I am.
I’m fully aware that to the more observant, my Judaism is watered down. I will be the first to admit that if you were to quiz me on history and theoretical discourse, I would get a big F. There are times when I question who I am and what I believe in, but what I do know is this – Judaism has been the one thing in my life that has remained consistent and real.
No matter where I am, what I am doing or who I think I should be, hearing the familiar Hebrew melodies gives me a sense of connectedness and brings me to a place that feels like home.
The day my father realized his efforts had come to fruition happened two years ago, on the first Friday of my son’s life, also known as the Sabbath, or Shabbat. With candles lit, the familiar traditional prayers filled the room.
I looked up from rocking my newborn baby over at my dad, singing with enough gusto to put Pavarotti to shame. Something made me look again, and this time I saw it, a flicker of melancholy in his eyes. I tried to catch his attention, but it looked like he was working hard to fight back tears.
I knew exactly what he was feeling because I was feeling it too. All those years, all those memories that we both share – trips to Toronto to stock up on Hanukkah gear, celebrating the holidays, singing and dancing around the house to Jewish music, trips to the synagogue, Hebrew school, my Bat Mitzvah, lighting the Hanukkah candles, the uphill battle my Dad struggled with to pass on his Jewish identity – flooded in all at once and, no surprise, I started to cry too.
My father, doing his best to cover up any sign of his emotional outpour with his quirky jokes, gave me a nod and said, “Very good commander, keep up the good work.”
I nodded back and smiled, knowing he had just passed the torch on to me. It is now my turn to teach my son everything Dad taught me, although it took until now at Hanukkah, two years later, to fully understand what that meant.
Rachael Schelew lives in Toronto.