Hanukkah was always my Jewish holiday of choice as a kid growing up in Brooklyn in the late 1930s and early ’40s. It required no religious responsibilities, and I didn’t have to stay home from school to observe it. Not like the high holy days, when schools remained open, making us Jewish stay-at-home kids stand out a little more. Not such a good idea at that time.
The attraction was that Hanukkah was a holiday of Jewish victory. The Maccabees were my heroes. They conquered their enemies and actually killed them in the process. Unheard of during those early years of my life. At that time, even before the war, we were getting firsthand information of what was happening in Europe from “greenhorn” relatives who told us tales in Yiddish, the recollection of which seem all too relevant and disturbing for me today.
But getting back to my memories of my childhood Hanukkahs. We did not receive gifts like my non-Jewish friends did. Vinnie and Carmine Curulli both got the first ballpoint pens for post-World War II Christmas gifts. They cost the equivalent of a small flat-screen TV today but could write upside down and under water. My brother and I got a quarter a day, for eight days. That was called Hanukkah “gelt.” At that time, that could buy me two copies of Action Comics with a nickel left over each day. Or if I needed a new pair of sneakers, my mom would save up my gelt and take me to the Davega’s on Kings Highway for a pair of Keds.
We never treated these days as a gift-giving time. That came later, during the commercialization of the season. Our Hanukkah candles (no bulbs at that time) were lit by me and my brother, with the appropriate prayers being said, in an old, bronze menorah that was placed on the washtub in the kitchen and left to burn for a few hours. We never thought of displaying it for the neighbors. It was for us to look at with the lights out and enjoy the mesmerizing glow of the burning candles during those cold nights. Anyway, our windows looked out on the alley and backyard, so who would see it?
Times have changed, and it is troubling the way we celebrate holidays today. The message is that our fiscal stability is now based on the spending done during the gift-giving season. We no longer shop for gifts for giving but to keep our economy afloat. Stores will close if sales don’t reach a certain level set by our economists. If I don’t buy that Kindle for my grandkid, the clerk on the other side of the counter will lose her job. Should I feel sorry for her and purchase it, or should I get Jack a good old-fashioned book for 10 bucks? So with the holiday season comes a bit of pressure. I, and the rest of the country, could do without that at this time.
My recollections of Hanukkah — or Chanukka or any way you want to spell it — are perhaps as indelible as the ink in Carmine’s first ballpoint pen. I am weighed down not only by the memories accumulated during the passing of time but by the troublesome comparisons of today with yesterday. Being raised during the specter of war, I am unnerved by the similarities between the ages. I am scared today as I have never been before. Not for myself or others of my generation but for those who don’t have the knowledge of the past to guide them through the future.
So, although Hanukkah is not a religious holiday, I will say a prayer, every night, all eight of them, for the future of our great country and a world that has become so much smaller and dangerous. We need the blessings of God over all of us at this very time.
So to all of you, a very merry Christmas and a happy Hanukkah!
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