5:45 PM is windup time. I am finishing an email to my boss, letting him know how far along the current coding project is. Then I have to close up files and leave notes reminding me where to pick up the project in the morning. This process usually takes time because for the last forty-five minutes, the sounds of bored children at loose ends has been steadily growing.
“Samuel, stop!” Sounds of crashing and grunts. “Mama! Samuel keeps knocking over my blocks!”
“Rose, they are his blocks. You are supposed to be sharing them.”
“I AM sharing them. He keeps knocking mine down.”
“What are your choices, bud? What can you say to him?”
“Samuel! Don’t do that!”
“That isn’t what I had in mind.”
Dawn’s voice is getting thinner, less patient, though she is keeping mostly cool so far. She is trying to cook dinner. Little conflicts and problems that the children can normally handle on their own are large and looming at this time of day. I can usually count on at least one tantrum a day between five and six o’clock. Child experts call it Happy Hour, which only goes to show how sarcastic even child experts can be.
“Come on Yosef. Let’s go start the Maccabee army. We can wear shields!” There is a crash of wooden blocks, a squeal of delight, and then the pounding of four little feet down the hallway.
I hibernate the computer and turn off the desk lamp. I switch my computer glasses for my regular distance glasses. The computer glasses were a new addition to my wardrobe around my 38th birthday, just one in a series of small notices from my body that I am growing older. They allow me to see the screen at a distance of 18 to 36 inches without making my eyes work so hard. Sometimes I switch to my distance glasses before the computer is done shutting down, and a quick glance at the screen give me the shadow of a headache. I am hardly feeble. I am not falling apart at the seams yet. But what was I thinking raising preschoolers in my forties?
The office/bedroom door is ajar, but I slide it open and step gingerly over the baby gate. I am barefoot and step softly and quietly ont the large floor pillows on the other side. They protect Samuel from his own inertia when he charges down the hallway running from his sister. It is something of a challenge for me to see how far down the hall I can make it before they notice me. I get as far as the bathroom before Rose flies at me.
“Papa! Papa! Papa! Papa!”
She gives me a flying hug and I stagger back a couple of inches. Samuel is not far behind, but with Rose in the way, he holds back, satisfied with just repeating, “Papa!”
“Can we light the menorahs?” Rose asks, a tad louder than she needs to.
“Sure,” I say, at the same time Dawn says, “Rose, I asked you to put away your books ten minutes ago.” Somehow, only my voice is heard. “I’ll get the candles, Papa!” and she races off.
Samuel chimes in. “Candles! Candles! Candles!” When he is excited, Samuel has this demonic gravelly edge to his voice that makes him sound twenty years older and two hundred pound heavier. He growls out the last “CAAAAAAAAAANDDLLLEEEEEEES!”
“Put your books away, Rose, and then we’ll light candles.”
“OK! I’m doing it right now! C’mon baby-Samuel-Sam-the-Merry-O!”
I can tell from the depth and duration of Dawn’s sigh how long she has been after Rose to put her books away. She might think it unfair that Papa has the magic touch, but that’s not true. If at anytime she had told Rose, “No candles until books are put away,” Rose would have responded right away. Dawn just didn’t think of it.
We get down four boxes of candles, one for each menorah. Both Rose and Samuel have menorot made from two-foot long blocks of wood. The wood has been carved until only the letters spelling their Hebrew names remained, Chana Mindel and Shmuel Yosef. Metal candle holders poke out from the top of various letters. These menorot take up most of the back edge of the table, leaving just enough space in between for Mama’s and Papa’s menorot. This year, Dawn uses the small golden menorah carved in the shape of an espalier tree, a wedding gift. Strickly speaking, this menorah is not kosher because the height of each branch is supposed to be the same. Also, the cups that hold the candles are slightly too large and the candles won’t stay in without having their bottoms melted a little. But it is the most beautiful of all the menorot we own. I use a silver plated menorah that my parents brought home from a trip to Israel. It is rather simple in design and had several tarnished spots that resist cleaning. It looks something of a plague victim, but the blemishes aren’t noticeable in the candlelight. Once lit it has a classical grace that lends some spritual authority to the scene as it towers over the other menorot in our small Chanukah shrine.
When I grew up, Chanukah candles came in a box with crude illustrations reminiscent of the old JNF tzedakah boxes where we put our charity coins. Think Halloween UNICEF boxes, only in a blue color scheme and with drawings instead of photos. The candles were hardly more than three inches long with spiraling ridged edges like twisted licorice. They were cheap and ubiquitous, but a few years ago we started to see fancier candles sold in stores. They were longer, smooth sided, with vivid colors and often multiple colors on a single candle. They were fancy and cost more, and when we were DINKs, we bought some because we could afford them. But now we buy them because we can’t find the cheap ones in the stores anymore. Such is progress. Dawn bought four different kinds of boxes and Rose and Dawn both wanted rainbow colors. This worked out well, since Samuel didn’t care; he just wanted “CAAANNDDDDLLLEESSS!” And I preferred the simple elegant blue and white collection to match my menorah.
Because we want things to be “just so,” we laid out our candles in advance and decided which ones would be lit on which nights. Dawn and Rose both wanted a variety of rainbow colors on each night, while I tried to stick to a single color scheme each night. This allowed me to give Rose a small mathematics lesson. My box was evenly split between white and blue candles. I decided to do all blue on first night, all white on the second, blue on the third, white on the fourth and then switch – white on the fifth, blue on the sixth, etc. Rose wanted to know why I didn’t just go back and forth every night, and I was pleased to be able to explain it to her in a way that did not bore her. She followed my whole description attentively and was even polite enough at the very end to say that she understood. I did not investigate this claim.
Rose insisted that we light her shammash first with a match, and then use it to light the other shammashim. We learned this the hard way on the first night, when she burst into tears, and we had to delay our prayer a few minutes before we could understand why. Samuel sat in Dawn’s lap, as patient as he could be, which is not very patient these days. We sang our prayers and took turns lighting. I helped Rose remember to light them in the right order. You fill the candles from right to left and light the candles left to right. Or as I tell them, you fill Hebrew and light English.
Then Dawn would help Samuel light his. This was the most nerve wracking part of the evening for me. Samuel is twenty months old. He is quite strong, able to bend silicon plastic spoons into the most interesting shapes. He is very fast, and he is entering his terrible twos, complete with kicking, hitting, and throwing-himself-on-the-floor-tantrums. So it takes a great deal of narishkeit on our part to sit him on the table, put a burning candle in his hand, and, grasping his hand tightly, help him light the candles on his menorah. For some reason, his candles were the only ones with wax on the wicks and so took much longer to light. Each night I unconsciously practiced holding my breath longer and longer as the number of candles increased, until my face glowed as brightly as the candles from the effort. But there was never a single mishap, perhaps because he really didn’t care about lighting or touching the candles. He wanted to watch them and would look at Rose’s already-lit menorah as he unknowingly lit his.
“Can we have our gelt now?” Rose always asks at this point. I remind her that Mama and Papa need to light their own menorot first, and we should probably get Samuel off the table before that. Samuel must be watched like a hawk for the next hour because he knows how to climb the dining room chairs. We strap him in his high chair, light our menorot, and then bring out the gelt. The children do like the candles, but the chocolate is great incentive too. Rose carefully unwraps all three of hers before eating any of them, and narrates what she’s doing, repeating herself louder and louder until she is sure she has been heard.
Rose likes this holiday, and we have put some effort into making it joyous for her without outright bribery. We don’t want to compete with Christmas. We want her to be able to go to her Christian friends’ homes and observe their traditions and help them celebrate, and have her bring friends home and show her what we do. We want mutual respect, but we want a clear distinction. We are Jewish. They are Christian. We won’t have a Chanukah tree. They won’t light Christian menorot. It’s OK to be different and respect and enjoy our differences.
Earlier this week, she came back from gymnastics with stamps on her feet and shins. One stamp was a Chanukah menorah. The other was a set of Christmas tree ornaments. She announced that she liked the Christmas stamp better. Four years old, and I wasn’t prepared. I asked her very nonchalantly, “Oh? Why is that?” Inside I felt shaken.
“Because the Christmas stamp is bigger.”
“Oh, I get it!” I answered cheerfully, but I am making a mental note: get a bigger Chanukah stamp next year.