Certainly ours is not the the most pious Jewish family in Brooklyn, so I was a little nervous when asked to write a piece about our Chanukah celebration. When it comes to things Jewish, we follow the lead of A, our minimally verbal autistic son who took it upon himself this Chanukah to set up and light the candles, which are a central component of most Jewish Holidays and the be-all and end-all of Chanukah, otherwise known as the Festival of Lights.
The word Chanukah essentially translates as “dedication” commemorating the chutzpah, the sheer gall, of a Jewish rebel force called the Maccabees. This ad-hoc army defeated Greek occupiers who had systematically removed or defiled everything Jewish from the most sacred of Jewish sites, The Holy Temple. During the cleanup, the Maccabees discovered that the Temple’s centerpiece, an eternal flame, had only enough oil to fuel it for one night—but miraculously that tiny reserve somehow lasted eight nights, giving them enough time to fetch more oil to keep the flame burning, if not eternally, then at least until the Temple was destroyed many years later. But that’s a different story for another commemoration, and definitely a whole other essay.
Anyway, to celebrate the restoration of the Temple, and the eight miraculous nights of light, Jews kindle candles watching them burn all the way down as we eat potato pancakes and other foods cooked in oil in honor of the eternal flame. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work according to tradition.
So this year, on the third night of Chanukah, A set up three candles the menorah, the candelabra we use for this holiday, wrested the shamash—the so-called guardian candle we use to light all of the other candles—from parental hands, and lit all four while I chanted the blessing. He participated in a few non-traditional rituals specific to our family as the candles began to burn: He ate the special Chanukah cupcake I made and decorated for him. (That ritual is the spoonful of sugar that helps his meds go down while there is so much disruption caused by holiday excitement.) He also opened his special dreidel-shaped cookie jar to find the third of his small eight Chanukah presents—also a family rather than a universal Jewish tradition and a stroke of genius from my husband invented so A could have some version of the Christmas stocking experience without a fireplace mantel, Santa, or for that matter a Christmas stocking.
So far, so good. Completely kosher even, I’ll wager, because Halakah, the Jewish legal code permits that which is not expressly forbidden, and at least to my knowledge our law does not forbid cookie jars in the shape of dreidels. But then the evening took an inarguably nontraditional turn.
All those candles A had carefully placed and lit, he blew them out.
Technically that’s a no-no in Jewish rituals. We march to the beat of our own little yiddishe drummer boy around here, and eternal or not a flame is still a flame. Still, I suppose I momentarily worried about the extinguishing of those tiny fires, if I had somehow failed to convey the meaning of the ritual. But then I thought back to something very Jewish A did last spring, apropos to no specific Jewish holiday, and I realize how much he truly understand and embraces his heritage, and how fully he deserves the role of religious leadership he has claimed in our family.
That day, I saw then nine-year-old A place his hand on the knob of our gas stovetop and begin to turn it. I put the kibosh on that right away, reminding him that adult supervision is required when he pursues this other special interest, cooking. Only grown ups get to turn on the stove. But there was no cookware in sight, so I was confused until he rummaged through a drawer and produced a candle. Smarty-pants that I am, I thought I had it all figured out. Clearly, he wanted to play birthday party, like he used to with pretend candles, and to my relief at the time, pretend flames (For a while there, apparently every day was our cat’s birthday.) But now, it seemed, he was aiming for greater verisimilitude. So I took a deep breath, and hoped the cat Fala’s attendance would not be required, as his house-wide sniffing chores already fill his feline agenda. But I soon concluded that neither cats nor birthdays were foremost in A’s thoughts.
My son locked eyes with me, took a deep breath, and said softly but clearly, “Baruch,” Hebrew for “blessed,” the first word of many Jewish prayers. Just for a moment, my heart stopped. It was my turn to take a deep breath. I asked him if he wanted to pray and he said yes. Luckily, back when I was affiliated with a congregation, I occasionally subbed when the cantor was out of town, so a simple Hebrew chant, I could handle. After I slowly articulated each word of the sabbath blessing that more diligent Jewish women use every week to welcome a much-needed day of rest, Arren carefully reproduced the words and melody. It took many repetitions, but he absolutely wouldn’t give up until he had mastered the prayer. I have never cantillated myself hoarse for a more worthy cause..
The question remains of where my son’s interest in Judaism came from, given the relatively non-religious aura of our household. Clearly his commitment is not the result of careful parental planning, but of serendipity.
Every weekday, A takes a school bus to a neighborhood very different from the one in which he lives. He spends much in this other world, the one where he finds some of his greatest joy His school has no religious affiliation but happens to flourish in the middle of a lively Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Many of his friends and teachers are Orthodox and dress accordingly. Surrounding stores sell mountains of kosher goods, and the people who live locally celebrate every one of the many Jewish holiday with vim, to the point that I am beginning to think that A doesn’t fully embrace a snack as such unless there’s at least some Hebrew writing on the package, and thinks that every celebration has a Jewish component. On Thanksgiving morning, before he graciously allowed me to serve as his sous chef, he put on a kippah, the skullcap Orthodox boys and men wear.
There’s no telling where his current relationships with Orthodox Jews will lead. A part of me hopes it will stick, even if it leads him down a radically different path from the one his parents have chosen. As uneven as my Jewish education is, even I know that Judaism calls us to balance individual needs with the common good, to reflexively offer material help to the sick, poor, or grieving, to do right even when, especially when, right is inconvenient. With or without accompanying rituals, those Jewish values are our values as a family. A learns new skills every day, but he may well need some kind of support throughout his life, and I will always be grateful to anyone has his back. Or better yet, anyone who will cheer him on as he lights his own way.