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Santi Elijah Holley

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

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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.)

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