During Hanukkah, a light in the darkness

Gail Appleson is a writer for Armstrong Teasdale LLP and freelancer who lives in St. Louis. “Dor to Dor,” is an intermittent Jewish Light series looking at various aspects of “grown-up” life and generational connections through the lens of Jewish writers living in the St. Louis area.      If you are interested in contributing to Dor to Dor, email [email protected].


For as long as I can remember, I’ve always lit Hanukkah candles. I never really considered skipping it. But for some reason this year, I just couldn’t bring myself to get my menorah out of its box.

I suppose I just got sucked into that holiday depression that can grab some of us who face the season without parents, spouses or kids. Why it hit me worse than usual, I really couldn’t say. But not even chocolate chip cookies, which almost always work, could get me out of it. I had turned into a sad Jewish version of Ebenezer Scrooge. All I needed was a Yiddish term for “bah, humbug.”

Then this wonderful thing happened.

One of my colleagues came to my office bearing an aluminum foil wrapped package. She carefully placed it into my hands.

“Latkes,” she said with a knowing smile.

Wow. Homemade latkes. Well, if chocolate chip cookies wouldn’t work, maybe this would. After all, Trader Joe’s potato pancakes are good, but they don’t come close to someone going to all that trouble of making them and then having the thoughtfulness to bring them to you at work.

And while I’ve enjoyed every morsel of those latkes, the best part of this story is what my friend had to say about menorahs. She told me about her family dinner (she made 70 latkes!) and how lighting candles is an integral part of her Hanukkah celebration. Although I greatly feared she would grab those latkes right out of my hand, I felt compelled to confess that I had not lit candles the first two nights of Hanukkah.

“Maybe I’ll get one of those electric menorahs,” I said trying to make it sound like it was no big deal. “It just seems like a lot of trouble to clean the candle wax.”

“No, no. You don’t want an electric menorah,” my colleague said. “The candle wax is beautiful. I want my menorah to be coated with wax. That way you know it’s been lit, year after year.”

She made me promise that evening I would light candles, take a photo and send it to her.

So when I got home, I dug out the box with my menorah. As I lifted the top, I remembered the first time I had seen the brass memorah in the gift shop of my parents’ shul in Memphis.

Although I was just a fledgling news reporter at the time, I was working in another city and it was pretty clear my career path would not lead me back home. Mom said that she and Dad wanted me to select a menorah to take where ever I went. I knew immediately which one I wanted. It was small but solid with brass Lions of Judah along side of two doors that opened to reveal tablets with the Ten Commandments.

Just as Mom and Dad wanted, the menorah has traveled with me to various cities, including some 20 years in New York. In fact, I lit this menorah in December 2001 in my Manhattan apartment celebrating the fact I was still alive following the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, about six blocks from where I worked.

The menorah moved with me to St. Louis, when I arrived in 2005 to take care of my mother. We lit it together in her last years here.

As I gently lifted the menorah out of its box, I looked at it with a sense of new found wonder. Its branches were coated with layers of blue, red, green and orange drippings that had thickened through years of use. I set it upright, put the candles in the holders and placed a plate of my friend’s latkes nearby.

After I lit the candles, I took a photo and posted it on Facebook, tagging my friend in the process.

“Now, that’s a menorah. My latkes are honored,” my friend responded.

That was Thursday, the third night of Hanukkah. A few days later, when I was in shul for Shabbos morning services, Rabbi Mordecai Miller remarked that I looked happier than he’d ever seen me…that perhaps I’d come to terms with something in my life.

It’s a hard thing to explain, but I’m positive that something did happen when I lit that precious menorah earlier in the week. In one of those marvelous Hanukkah miracles, that dark cloud lifted as my eyes opened to something I hadn’t seen before. It was those rainbow-colored layers of wax and the history and importance of what they hold. My friend was right. They were beautiful.