Or the Menorah of Mendel Shmuel…
My friend of the soul and #FirstEverWorkHusband, Martin, was Jewish, but of a variety he said his father described as “unobservant Orthodox”. (He also always told me that he wished he had come up with that description). The first time I asked to see photos of him as a child and a younger man, he only had a few that he could share. He had stored some on his laptop computer some years before, which was a blessing since the actual photographs got left behind in the wake of his split from his second wife. (That’s a long story that still triggers visceral responses in me, and I don’t want to revisit those emotions this close to Christmas.)
I was able to see Martin at his bar mitzvah, complete with tallit and yarmulke. His formal senior portrait from high school was definitely a reflection of the era, complete with enormous bowtie, and equally enormous hair (which HE referred to as a “Jew-fro”. DO NOT hate me, HE was the one who called it that.) There were pictures of him with his siblings, his parents, some cousins. But there were not as many pictures as he would have loved to share, and as I would have loved to see. I am just so grateful for the ones he did preserve, thanks to technology.
I asked him if he had managed to grab his menorah when Wife Number Two decided she no longer wished to be married to him. He was unable to find and pack it before he was forced from his home. So I decided that I would send him one for Hanukkah that year. Amazon and I were able to get the gift to him just in time for the first night’s candle to be lit.
He sent me the above photo as soon as he had opened the box and before he lit the candles. For an “unobservant Orthodox”, he seemed to remember the ritual of Hanukkah pretty well, he said. Much like the religious traditions of my own youth, such as the Apostles’ Creed, the memories forged in our childhoods seem to stay with us the longest.
Sadly, the menorah I gave him also appears to have gotten left behind in a move. At the end of 2019, Martin’s health had deteriorated to the point that he had to go into a nursing facility. This relocation occurred almost immediately after my last time to see him in person, when we went to Fort Walton to be present for his mother’s memorial service. I never imagined that I’d never see him in the same room again, but his decline from that point was fast and steep. He was only 54 years old. The nursing home provided the residents with holiday decorations based on their religious preferences, so Martin received another menorah.
Again, he sent me a menorah photo, with a different set of emotions attached. He told me that he felt like a shell of a man, that he had lost everything…his independence, his dog, Boris, what was left of his health. Both of our hearts broke in a new place. But I was grateful that he at least could look at the little blue lights and recall his heritage. And since he had explained to me the difference between a 7-lamp and a 9-lamp menorah, I was grateful that the nursing home provided him with the “right” one.
As I write this, it is December 21, 2022, and tonight is the fourth night of Hanukkah. I now manage the smallest branch of my county’s public library system, and we decorate for the holidays. Thanksgiving was simple, because it is not religion-specific. For the December holidays, I knew that I wanted to represent Advent/Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, because we all want to see our cultural and religious traditions honored. So I purchased another menorah for the library. I don’t know if it resembles Martin’s original one. I’ll never know, unless one of his siblings happens to have a photo and happens to share that photo with me. I would like to think that he would be happy with the way we’re displaying it. (Per my friend Lucas’s suggestion, we removed the candles and are placing them night by night, even though we cannot light them in our public space.)
Martin loved candles, as do I. Their glow, warmth, and scent all provide such simple comfort. On one of my few cherished visits to his place in Orlando, I missed Hanukkah by several days, so we decided that we would make latkes on New Year’s Eve. We ate them with applesauce, because neither of us liked sour cream. Then we lit candles, talked, snacked on leftover latkes, and wished each other a Happy New Year. It was such a simple, warm time of friendship and gratitude. So even though we missed celebrating Hanukkah together, it was still a Festival of Lights.