photo by Lucy Altrows
The Fifth Night
My mother taught me that at the moments of our greatest joy we must still remember that people suffer. That’s one reason a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony ends with the shattering of a glass. But a person may create a new ritual to represent the convergence of emotional opposites, a ritual that holds significance only for the person and her family. Does the observance of that ritual, from year to year and generation to generation of that family, count as a tradition? And how do tradition and ritual fit in with the growth of awareness?
The first Chanukah I remember arrived two months after my fourth birthday. In later years I would come to understand the significance of the holiday as an assertion of identity in defiance of oppression, and as a celebration of religious freedom. But at four, what I cared about was fun, food, family. For supper my mother would grate and add and strain and fry as she cooked latkes, luscious potato pancakes, which we slathered with sour cream. She would say a blessing over brightly coloured candles—red, yellow, blue, orange. For each of the eight nights of the holiday, an additional candle would be added, always being lit from the shamas, the helper candle.
My father and my older brother taught me how to spin a dreidel, a little four-sided top with a Hebrew letter printed on each side, and we played lots of dreidel games. I wasn’t a good spinner and got anxious about that, but my father said not to worry—that I’d catch on with time and practice. It turned out that I was already showing signs of the poor eye-hand coordination that has been a hallmark of my life. Still, I revelled in the dreidel games, and my parents treated my brother and me to Chanukah gelt—gold-foil-covered chocolate coins. What’s more, I loved winter, and this was a wintry December in Montreal. Could life get any better?
We had celebrated four nights of the holiday. The coming evening would mark the fifth night of Chanukah. But for now it was early morning. We sat over a breakfast of fresh-squeezed orange juice, scrambled eggs, and rye toast covered in sweet butter. I could smell the coffee percolating on the stove. Already I had learned to delight in that aroma. My father made a pun and we all laughed. My family has always been big on jokes, especially puns. The phone rang. My mother picked up and in the next instant everything changed.
It was my grandmother. Uncle Al had suddenly died in his sleep.
He was my mother’s brother, and at twenty-eight, the youngest of her four siblings. She and her sisters adored him, as did my grandparents. Uncle Al was a big deal to my brother and me too. On Sundays in the summer he’d take us for long drives in his red convertible. We’d go everywhere—up to the Laurentians for a hike, down to Robil’s for pistachio ice cream, over to St. Cyril Park to toss around a ball and ride the seesaws.
My mother, in shock, had to get to her parents’ place right away. I was rushed down to a neighbour’s apartment for the day. My brother was old enough to walk to school on his own. My father left for work.
All day I wondered. What did it mean that Uncle Al was dead? What it was like to be dead? Did personality survive death? If not, was death nothingness? What was nothingness? Was the mind erased? I lay down and pretended I was dead to get a sense of it, but consciousness kept interfering. What did it mean, then, to not have consciousness? And this brought me back to the first question, the one about Uncle Al.
That day of rumination was the stark opener to my lifelong engagement with questions about death. That night we did not have latkes for supper. We ate more simply. But it was still Chanukah, and the candles had to be lit. My mother, in her fresh grief, could not bring herself to use brightly coloured candles. Instead, she put all white candles into the menorah, the Chanukah candelabra. I counted them: six white candles in all, the shamas, and one for each night of the five nights of Chanukah so far. It was eerie to watch those white candles burn, in acknowledgment of both this happy holiday and our family’s mourning.
For every Chanukah after that for the rest of her life, my mother burned brightly coloured candles on the first, second, third, fourth, six, seventh and eight nights, but only white candles on the fifth night. Now I burn only white candles on the fifth night, in memory of Uncle Al and also my mother, my father, and other loved ones who have died.
When I am dead I imagine my daughters will do the same.
Rona Altrows is an essayist, fiction writer, editor and playwright living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She is the editor of You Look Good for Your Age, an anthology on women, aging, and ageism, to be published in spring, 2021. She is the author of three books of short fiction and a children’s book . With Naomi K. Lewis she co-edited the anthology, Shy, and with Julie Sedivy, she co-edited the anthology Waiting. Her fiction and essays have appeared in online and print magazines, and her 10-minute plays have been produced and published in Canada and the US. She is co-producer of the 10-minute play festival Gimme 10 Minutes.
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