Finding My Identity By the Light of My Mother’s Menorah

The African American son of a white mother, Santi Elijah Holley revisits Hannukahs past with his Jewish forebears.

Santi Elijah Holley | Longreads | December 2017 | 10 minutes (2,481 words)

 

Every year it was the same thing. My mother and brother and I would trim the Christmas tree, place our presents underneath, and then gather around the kitchen table to light the menorah. My mother was Jewish, but non-practicing and certainly not Orthodox. She didn’t care much for the faith, either as a religion or a culture, but she’d been raised by two Jewish parents and she wanted to instill in my brother and me some modicum of respect for the tradition. But she also didn’t want to deprive us of Christmas. My mother may not have believed in ancient scripture, but she did believe in family.

On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, the three of us spun the dreidel and read stories recounting the triumph of the Maccabees and the miracle of the lights. We ate latkes and applesauce and gave each other chocolate gelt, while our Christmas tree blinked in the living room behind us.

Another tradition of ours — at least of mine and my brother’s — was making a mockery of the menorah-lighting blessing. Neither of us spoke Hebrew, but the lighting ceremony involves a nightly recitation of blessings and praise to the Lord. My mother would light the shamash candle, then begin to recite the Hebrew aloud, urging my brother and me to follow along. Rather than mimic these unfamiliar and strange words, we made up our own words, routinely replacing “kidshanu” with “kitty condo,” in tribute to the elaborate piece of furniture frequently occupied by our two cats. My mother glared at us every time and told us to knock it off, though she knew we would do the same thing the next night, and the night after that, and each and every one of the eight nights.

Our menorah was a cheap and simple one. It hadn’t been passed down through generations; it wasn’t forged by a Hasidic blacksmith, nor smuggled through continents and across oceans into the New World. It was plated a gold color, but it didn’t have the heft of solid gold. In all likelihood, my mother bought it at a discount at Kmart during the one and only week they sold Hanukkah items. After the holiday she would put the menorah back in storage, along with the dreidel and books, and we’d then direct our attention exclusively to Christmas. My brother and I knew ours was an atypical holiday tradition, but that knowledge only bound us closer as a family and provided a temporary adhesive to our otherwise fractured family.

My brother, Nathaniel, is eight years older and has a different father. His father is white; mine is black. That makes me two halves — a half-brother and half-black. Since my mother is Jewish, I’m a full-Jew, in accordance with the centuries-old law. (According to another old law, from 19th and early-20th century racial classifications, one drop of African blood makes me full-black, but I’ve never been able to discern which side — the black side or the Jew side — prevails.)

My parents divorced not long after I was born, and my mother hadn’t remarried since then. She brought up my brother and me in Ann Arbor, Michigan, mostly on her own, and my relationship with my father was limited to weekends, when my mother would drop me off at the house he shared with my aunt and grandmother in the neighboring town of Ypsilanti. Nearly everyone who lived in my father’s neighborhood was black and low-income. I had my own set of friends there, who considered me their white friend. We would wear out my grandmother, Miss Holley, who’d just as soon whup our behinds as offer us a glass of Kool-Aid. My father would take me around the neighborhood to visit his friends, who could dependably be found drinking something from a paper bag. They’d all slap me on the shoulder and tell me how much I looked like my old man, and then on Sunday afternoon my mother would come and collect me and bring me back to Ann Arbor, where I was the only black kid on our street.

My brother, Nathaniel, is eight years older, and has a different father. His father is white; mine is black. That makes me two halves — a half-brother and half-black.

I was given my father’s last name, which only made my situation more confusing and embarrassing, especially at school. Not only did I not look much like my mother, I had a different last name. My brother Nat had been given my mother’s last name when he was born, making me feel that much more estranged. I wondered why I carried my father’s name, seeing as how my mother was raising me almost solely on her own. Though it was undeniable that I looked much more like my father — as his friends reminded me every weekend — I was still every bit my mother’s son. I felt cheated that I didn’t have her name. I began signing my last name as Finley. It not only better reflected how I viewed myself, it gave credit where credit was due. In my early teens, though, I learned that even my mother’s last name was a recent invention, and its origin had its roots in a forgery of its own.

***

My mother was born Susan Finley, to Murray and Elaine Finley. My grandfather Murray was a celebrated labor leader, who served as president of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union for 15 years. A longtime political activist and champion of social causes, he worked alongside President Jimmy Carter and Senator Edward Kennedy. After Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, his widow Coretta Scott King worked with my grandfather and others to make his birthday a national holiday. I wasn’t aware of all my grandfather’s accomplishments until later. I also hadn’t known until later that, until the middle of the century, right after the Second World War, he was not Murray Finley, but Morris “Mordechai” Finkelstein — the youngest son of four siblings born to Nathan Finkelstein and Anna Katzenellenbogen, Jewish immigrants from the border region of Poland and Lithuania known as Suwałki.

Finkelstein! What a name! Who were these Finkelsteins? I had no relationship with a Finkelstein. With my brown skin and nappy hair, I certainly didn’t look like a Finkelstein. I knew I was Jewish, but I hadn’t given it much daily consideration. Judaism, to me, was spinning a dreidel one week out of the year and eating potato pancakes and mangling the Hanukkah blessing before getting on with the real holiday. But you don’t get much more Jewish than Finkelstein, and I have Finkelstein blood in my veins.

There had reportedly been some scandal after my mother became pregnant with me, in no small part due to my father being African American, but it was quickly tamped down. In addition to being a union boss, my grandfather was also a member of the Greatest Generation of Jewish liberals. By the time I was walking and talking, Grandpa wasted no time spoiling me the same as any grandfather spoils his grandkid, frequently conjuring half-dollar coins from behind my ear. He had a big laugh and a bigger heart. I didn’t know him as Murray or Mordechai, Finkelstein or Finley, white or Jewish. He was Grandpa.

My grandfather retired in 1987, when I was 5 years old. They threw a big party for him in a fancy ballroom, with lofty speeches and videos documenting his life and accomplishments. The immediate Finley family was seated behind him on the stage — my grandmother, mother, brother Nat, aunt Sharon, cousin Jonathan. At last it was Grandpa’s turn at the microphone, to give his farewell speech.

“What’s Grandpa doing?” I asked my mother.

“Shhh,” she said. “He’s speaking, be quiet.”

“Grandpa,” I called out. “Hey, Grandpa. What’re you doing?”

“Be quiet,” my mother said again.

I stood up from my chair and broke away from my mother before she could catch me. I ran right up to the lectern, where my grandfather was in the middle of his speech, and I lifted my arms up imploringly. The ballroom fell quiet. He looked down at me, chuckled, then lifted me up into his arms.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said to the audience. “It is my honor to introduce my grandson, Santi.”

He kissed me on the cheek and everyone applauded. I smiled and waved to the audience — a young, nappy-headed black boy in the arms of an old Jew.

***

How the Finkelsteins became the Finleys is in many respects the classic American story of ingenuity, mobility, and assimilation. Nathan Finkelstein, a college-educated son of merchants, and Anna Katzenellenbogen, daughter of a prominent rabbi, emigrated to the United States in the early days of the 20th century, chiefly to escape Jewish persecution and the rumors of European war. Nathan moved his family from Syracuse, New York, to Flint, Michigan, where he took work as an automotive engineer. He and Anna had four children: Moses Isaac, Gertrude, Israel Harris, and my grandfather, Mordechai. Soon after the war, when Israel sought a management position with the Ford Motor Company, he was told exactly what the chances were of someone named Israel Finkelstein becoming a manager for Ford. With the patriarch’s blessing, Israel was allowed to change his name, and his brothers also jumped at the opportunity. The three brothers chose their new surname from that holy book of names — the phone book. And thus, the Finkelsteins became the Finleys. Israel became Larry Finley, Moses Isaac went by M.I. Finley, and Mordechai became Murray Finley, even adding “Howard” as a middle name for good measure.


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My great-aunt Gertrude had already begun her medical career as an Ob-Gyn, and she decided to stick with Finkelstein. She delivered over 3,000 babies during her 40-year career, and was honored by the Anti-Defamation League for her support of women’s rights and equal opportunity. My great uncle M.I. Finley went on to become a respected scholar, but even his new name couldn’t shield him from the hysteria of McCarthyism, and in 1952 he was fired by Rutgers University for alleged communist ties. After continuing to be hounded by various anti-communist committees and subcommittees, M.I. Finley emigrated to Britain in 1954, became Professor of Ancient History at the University of Cambridge, and published widely regarded books on ancient and classical history. He became a British subject in 1962, Fellow of the British Academy in 1971, and in 1979 he was knighted Sir M.I. Finley.

Though they had been known, respected, and honored all across the world, the Finkelsteins remained strangers in my own life.

***

My mother and brother and I eventually abandoned our holiday tradition. I was 8 years old and my brother was 16. On the first night of Hanukkah that year, my mother dug out our menorah, set it on the table, and pulled out two candles from the box.

“Hey Mom?” I said. “Why are we still doing this?”

“Doing what?” she asked.

“Pretending like we believe in this stuff,” I said.

My mother hesitated. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t either,” I said. “Maybe we should stop?”

“Really?” my mother asked. “Is that how you both feel?”

“Sure,” Nat said. “I wouldn’t mind stopping.”

My mother looked at the menorah for a moment, then shrugged her shoulders.

“OK,” she said, putting the candles back into the box. “Fine with me.”

I was surprised at how little resistance she put up. But I saw that she had also grown tired of pretending, year after year, that any of us cared. It was either that, or she was just tired of hearing Nat and me mangle the blessing every year.

My mother was Jewish, but non-practicing. She didn’t care much for the faith, either as a religion or a culture, but she’d been raised by two Jewish parents, and she wanted to instill in my brother and me some modicum of respect for the tradition.

In 1991 my mother and I moved from Ann Arbor to southwest Colorado, leaving Nat behind to finish college. In 1998, after graduating high school, I moved back to Ann Arbor, leaving my mother in Cortez, Colorado. Nat and his wife moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2002, leaving me behind in Ann Arbor. My mother moved back to Ann Arbor in 2003, and one year later I moved to Portland, Oregon. We had inadvertently replaced one tradition — one intended to keep us close as a family — with a new tradition of constantly moving away from each other.

***

The remaining Finkelsteins passed away. Grandpa and Grandma Finley passed away. Miss Holley passed away. In 2015, at 62 years old, after battling cancer for four years, my mother was nearing the end. Nat and I had flown in to be with her during her last months. I was 34 years old; Nat was 42. A few weeks before she passed, when we began to realize that our mother’s long battle was coming to an end, she asked Nat and me what of her possessions we planned on keeping for ourselves. Neither Nat or I were in need of much, but we also weren’t yet ready to accept the inevitable. We were, in some sense, pretending that this was only a phase, a false alarm, and the question of “who gets to keep what” would soon prove irrelevant.

We were seated at her dining room table, loaded with hospital receipts and medical pamphlets. I wanted to change the subject, to talk about the weather, politics, anything else.

“I don’t know,” Nat said. “I don’t really need anything.”

“Me either,” I said.

“Nothing?” my mother asked. “That’s silly. You should keep something for yourselves.”

We eventually abandoned our holiday tradition. I was 8 and my brother was 16. On the first night of Hanukkah, my mother dug out our menorah and pulled out two candles. ‘Hey Mom?’ I said ‘Why are we still doing this?’

Since moving to Colorado over twenty years prior, my brother and I had fallen more and more out of touch. Living on opposite ends of the country, we saw each other on average once a year, and we hardly talked on the phone. Growing up, I’d never considered Nat my half-brother. He had a different father, a different last name, and different complexion, but Nat was my brother — and soon our mother would be gone. I wanted to go back to the beginning, to before we began to drift apart from each other, and to remember a time when the three of us were a family.

“Well, there is maybe one thing I’d like to hang onto,” I said. “If you still have it.”

***

I am back home in Portland. It’s December 6, 2015: two months and two days since my mother passed away. The sun is beginning to set. I set the box of candles and a book of matches on my nightstand. I set the cheap, gold-colored menorah on my windowsill, and place the first candle in the rightmost branch. I strike a match and light the shamash. My mother’s voice comes to me as I hesitantly, haltingly, recite the blessing:

Barukh atah Adonai

Eloheinu, Melekh ha’olam

Asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav

V’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah

After the candle has burned away, I pick up my phone and send a text to my brother in Cambridge.

“Happy Hanukkah,” I write. “Love you.”

A moment later I receive a text.

“Happy Hanukkah. Love you”

* * *

Santi Elijah Holley is a recipient of the 2017 Oregon Literary Fellowship for nonfiction. His work has been published in Tin House, VICE, The Sun, and elsewhere. He is a contributing writer for The Portland Mercury, and guest editor for Proximity magazine.

Editor: Sari Botton