by Eleanor Wachs (Sarasota, FL)
I would say that I was the only child in Borough Park, Brooklyn who begged for a menorah. When I was growing up, there was very little Jewish life in our apartment on 1466-49th Street. Yes, there were a few Yiddish words thrown in here and there, and, a few Jewish foods picked up at a delicatessen or kosher bakery or take-out to eat at home. But there was no mezuzah on the doorpost. No brown and white Hadassah Hospital sticker annually placed on the apartment door. No Shabbos candlesticks or Kiddush cup for wine. No Passover plate for a Seder. No Jewish calendar in Hebrew and English for benstch licht times. No blue tin tzedokah box for the poor that rattled nosily when coins were dropped in. There were no ritual objects in our home on display. Yet, I was surrounded by the signs of a continuing Jewish tradition. At a friend’s house, I learned when to use the soap with the blue stripe and when to use the soap with the red stripe when washing dishes. On Yom Kippur, I saw that it was expected to get dressed up but it was permitted to wear sneakers. It was much later, way past childhood, that I found out what a “shatnes” test was. I could not figure out why a dry cleaner could perform what I thought was medical test! (Orthodox Jews cannot wear clothing that mixes linen and wool.)
Brooklyn’s neighborhood of Borough Park where I grew up on 49th street was a Jewish world on display—noisy and busy—except for the Sabbath day, when it was peaceful and quiet. On Shabbos, everyone walked. Men in long, black kaftans flapping in the breeze like penguins’ wings and huge fur trimmed streimels, (black wide-brimmed hats designating a wearer as a member of a Chasidic sect) would walk with their small boys. Young girls, whether in the sweltering summer heat or the freezing winter, wore long sleeves and white tights, and would saunter across the sidewalks in groups of five or six connected by pinkies. Mothers wearing neat sheitls (wigs) and expensive suits strolled with other young mothers, infants, toddlers, and small children around them, gabbing effusively in Yiddish.
My street was bordered by two majestic temples. One was on 14th Avenue and one was on 15th Avenue. 14th Avenue had the Conservative temple with a choir, wooden pews, velvet and silver encased torahs and a rabbi with a booming voice that reached the 1,000 ears of the worshippers each Friday night and Saturday morning. The other temple, on 15th Avenue, was Orthodox with its beautiful Italianate dome that opened to show the evening stars. Four steibels (house synagogues) were on 49th where men, like rows of tall pepper shakers, rocked back and forth in prayer. Supposedly, there was a mikva, a ritual bath, in the basement of an unobtrusive red brick house with forsythia bushes and a decorative iron fence. The house was indistinguishable from the others on either side. How could there be a bath in the basement? What a mystery.
On Friday afternoon, everyone scurried around a bit faster to get ready for Shabbos. Bouquets of pink and white mums, dumped into white mop pails, were sold on the 13th Avenue corner next to the newspaper vendor where you could buy the Yiddish papers that were draped over the newsstand next to the New York Post, the Daily News and the New York Times. The silver candlesticks with the Shabbos candles were in windows by now. The crystal chandeliers in the front rooms on 49th Street were soon to glow for at least a full day, for turning on or off a light was forbidden. As I peeked into most any window, I would see the large dining table with a lace cloth. The next day, the table would be filled with crystal bowls of fruits and kosher candies. Sometimes, I would see the portrait of the “rebbe” hung on the center wall behind the dining room table; but, I never knew who he really was, or his name, or his importance.
Two enormous rosy pink apartment buildings stood tall near the end of our block. Our home was in 1466, apartment 4C. It was a cramped one bedroom apartment for four people. 1455 was its twin right across the street. In the dismal and dark lobby of 1466, (free of any furniture which had been stolen years ago), I would wait for the Shabbos elevator that stopped on every floor, and sniff the sweet aroma of chicken soup that whiffled through the first floor lobby, imagining the matzo balls in the steaming broth. Next course, I would guess, would be the chopped liver, a small delicious scoop sitting on a lettuce leaf, or perhaps an oblong of gefilte fish dunked in jelly sauce and magenta horseradish, followed by a few more courses and then a delicious dessert.
In this neighborhood, I wanted to celebrate Shabbos and all the Jewish holidays and their rituals. For Chanukah, I wanted a menorah. The menorah I yearned for was a plastic, chartreuse menorah with two lions at its base. It sat in the Barton’s Candy Shoppe window on 13th Avenue for the month of December. The lions’ heads were tilted back, their manes braided. They had a distinguished look for their important job of holding up the weight of the burning candles for every night of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. Across the top of the menorah was a metal strip for nine candle holders and underneath the strip was a Hebrew script which, of course, I couldn’t read. Surrounding the menorah were shiny gold coins of chocolate Chanukah gelt or pretend money that children used for barter when spinning their dreidels, or tops. I wanted this menorah in the same way that a young girl would want a pretty doll or a fluffy stuffed animal, two worthless dust gatherers according to my mother.
I didn’t expect any gift for Chanukah from my parents; however, I had to go the annual Christmas party where my father worked and where Santa Claus with his big sack would pull out gifts for all the children: Christina! Camille! John! Ann Marie! Eleanor! Santa would usually give me some token—I remember a silver bracelet that soon had a greenish tinge. It was an annual ritual for my family to go – my father making the rounds, making sure he said hello to this general or that lieutenant, and my mother standing by his side, smiling. But the late afternoon affair, which was usually on a Friday, always filled me with a deep sadness—I knew that I wasn’t going to celebrate either holiday. Santa wasn’t going to visit 4C and no menorah would glow there. I had nothing to say to the other children who would ask me about my Christmas plans.
On my long walks on 13th Avenue to the public library on 43rd Street, my usual ruse to leave the apartment, I would linger at the Barton’s candy shop window, checking to see if the menorah was still there. It never dawned on me that the shop would have more than one. Maybe I was attracted to its unusual color, or its prominent place in the window, or its chocolate surroundings. Unlike the many stores on the avenue filled with very expensive Judaica, this was a simple menorah. My mother bought candy weekly in Barton’s or Lofts, their competitor, to feed her chocolate addiction—or you could say raise her serotonin levels with sugar to escape an unhappy marriage. All varieties of chocolates, from fancy truffles to plain Hershey bars, were staples in our home, like crackers, or green beans, or fruit at friends’ houses.
One chilly night, we were walking home side by side from the library on 43rd Street and 14th Avenue, both of us holding the treasures we had found on the library shelves. When we passed Barton’s, my mother stopped. “Let’s go in here for a moment,” she said as if it was an unusual stop. She marched ahead opening the heavy, glass door with its long designer style handle, as I followed behind, giving a quick peek in the window for the chartreuse menorah.
“Yes, a box of butter crunch, a box of mixed dark chocolates, and a half pound of orange peel, and two chocolate marshmallow squares” were my mother’s orders to the candy lady who scrambled up and down the counter from case to case as my mother pointed out what she wanted to buy. My mother took out her wallet from her purse to get the money to pay for the chocolate. I stood next to her, anxiously gathering up chutzpah to ask for the menorah, expecting to hear the familiar annoyance in her voice because of my request. I knew that I was going to displease her and I knew of her quickness to anger that would rise in seconds and could last for days and shut me out.
“Ma. Ma? MA?”
Did she hear me? Was she too involved in figuring out if she had enough cash to buy her chocolates?
“What is it, Eleanor?”
“Ma…Uhm, can I get…Can I….Uhm….Can I get the green menorah in the window?”
Everything stopped. I held my breath waiting for her answer. The cash which was soon to be extended to the candy lady was snatched back into the second button of her coat. The candy lady stopped the transaction. She leaned back against the back counter, crossed her arms across her white uniform and stared at us waiting for the outcome. Was the sale finished or not?
“Why would you want that? We don’t need it.”
“Please. I will take care of it.”
Here was the paradox. Denying a Jewish child in Borough Park a menorah was like refusing a Catholic kid in Italian Bensonhurst a Christmas tree. C’mon, lighten up. It’s Christmas.
“Please Ma. I’ll do all the lighting.”
“Well, all right. Does it come with any chocolate?”
The candy lady went to the window and pulled out the menorah and put it in a special box made for it which she stored in a shelf behind the counter closer to the front window. Then, she put it into a Barton’s plastic bag, and stretched over the counter and handed it to me. My mother paid for her candy, my menorah, and the Chanukah gelt, and we schlepped home on the icy city streets with her plastic bags of candy, my menorah and our library books.
I must have bought a blue box of Chanukah candles somewhere on the avenue since they were everywhere and inexpensive. On the back of the box, the prayer for lighting the candles was transliterated, and I mumbled it even though there wasn’t anyone around to correct me if I made a mistake in Hebrew. Who would know?
Even then, I knew we were different, yet Jewish. It was both confusing at times and shameful. I was unlike any of the other girls in the neighborhood. But now I had my plastic menorah and I could enact the ritual that I saw around me in my community. The candy shops are gone now and my mother died years ago. Yet, I still have my candy shop menorah. It’s my Chanukah miracle.
As a folklorist (Ph.D Indiana University) Eleanor Wachs has written and published articles about crime victim stories in New York City, urban legends, and personal experience narratives. She currently teaches courses on folklore and writing at Ringling College of Art and Design and has lived in Sarasota for ten years.