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Hanukah: the Quintessential Female Holiday
Last uploaded : Thursday 9th Dec 2004 at 01:09
Contributed by : Andrea Simantov



This is an Awards for All ' Voices' essay

My fondest childhood memories always involved rituals.

The end of August meant riding a New York city bus with Mom in order to buy a new plaid book bag, 10 black & white speckled notebooks and a utilitarian pair of Buster Brown shoes. Aroutine visit to the pediatrician meant clean underwear, coloring books and, if there was an injection involved, a compensatory milk shake at the corner malt shop. Passover meant spring cleaning, jellied fruit slices and sleepover guests. But what made these rituals even more poignant?reflecting today from the podium of middle age?is the role my mother played. Mom always stood center stage and orchestrated the rituals of our lives, reveling in her role as the generic, indomitable Jewish woman.

Despite the generous airtime given to Judah Macabee and his band of fighting yeshiva buddies, Hanukah has always been a woman?s holiday in my home. I always felt a natural affinity for righteous radicals including Judith, the beautiful daughter of Yochanan the High Priest. Surprisingly rebellious for the era, she took issue with a royal decree which awarded ?first night rights? to the local ruler, allowing him to sleep with a Jewish bride before releasing her into the custody of her new husband.

On the eve of her own wedding, Judith made the required appearance before the supervising magistrate and seductively fed him dairy foods until he became thirsty. Plying him with wine until he got drunk and fell asleep, this very determined young woman severed his head and carried it to Jerusalem. Needless to say, the Syrian soldiers ran for the hills.

Threatening death to transgressors, the Greeks prohibited many important rituals. With nowhere else to turn, Jewish women had their babies circumcised even when it meant doing it themselves. In order to pressure husbands and brothers to wage war against the Greeks, many women threw themselves and their babies from the walls of Jerusalem, making a creative point: You will have neither children nor wives if you do not give us the right to publicly observe what is holy to us.

Inspired by these brave women, Matityahu and his five sons eventually rose up, paving the way for Hanukah miracles. Talk about the feminine power of persuasion.

While I wouldn?t necessarily volunteer to perform a brit, Hanukah is one holiday when I intrepidly enter the kitchen and, using an old but serviceable blueprint, locate the stove. Wielding a dusty heirloom cast-iron skillet, I gather my young?uns around me and impart all aspects of the holiday including the special fat-laden cuisine. Affectionately referring to this holiday of lights as the peptic ulcer season?, I introduce such epicurean delights as Croquettes du Pomme Frites (the Eastern European shtetl
latke) and Gala Puff-Pastry Surprise (in Brooklyn, the Dunkin Donut).

Every year, come holiday time, I search every shelf until I find a carton filled with ceremonial objects specific to the holiday at hand. With Hanukah?s approach, I urgently begin pulling bathing suits and multi-colored Purim baskets out of storage trunks until I find the precious box, which typically heralds winter in Israel. This year?s bonus find was a set of misplaced hand weights and a grainy, 1987 Jane Fonda exercise video.

Blinking back tears, I peer inside and find myself staring into yesteryear. I behold nursery school art pieces made of painted plywood - - some of the metal-bolt candleholders still firmly attached. Another creation, composed of gray clay and embedded walnut shell halves, is heavier than I remember. A patina of burnt olive oil remains?shiny, black and fragrant. And a round cookie tin that had served as a swimming pool menorah causes me to wince at the memory of sinking candles. I am grateful, suddenly, for the gift of foresight in not holding onto the infamous Raw Potato Candelabrum. To this day I can?t decide whether it was a theme piece in keeping with the latke tradition, or a subtle tribute to Irish Jewry.

The smell of doughnuts traumatizes me. This may have something to do with the time I volunteered to purchase them for our local nursery school. Carrying a covered tray of 50 jelly-filled sufganiot, I attempted to leap over a dirty puddle wearing an already too-tight skirt. Suddenly I found

myself lying face up in the service road of a major Jerusalem thoroughfare. My stockings and coat were torn but it was my already-fragile ego that sustained the greatest injury. I rallied, however, upon hearing the gathered crowd applaud as one onlooker gently lifted the loosened plastic wrap and announced, in several languages, that all 50 pastries were intact.

Hanukah also allows me to display, once a year, a glaringly under-appreciated musical acumen. Perched in front of an out-of-tune Baby Grand piano, I merrily plunk out several lively tunes from a book called Harvest of Jewish Music. My children listen in a near-catatonic state and some of them actually sing along with me?between the fits of laughter.

Laughter aside, I?m continually amazed at the important role ritual has played in my own life. There is comfort to be found in the smallest of acts. By reenacting the traditions of my mother and those of my foremothers, I can practice self-expression while simultaneously remaining connected to the larger tapestry of Jewish culture and history.

Andrea Simantov is a single

mother of six ; she is currently writing a novel.

This essay also appears in Ocean County Jewish Life Magazine.


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