In the course of a recent game of “Jewish geography” with the mother of a new boy in my youngest son’s class this year, I happily discovered that she is the younger sister of a girl I was friends with in elementary and middle school. I can attribute my not recognizing her, despite my generally strong memory for faces, only to having last seen her when she was around eight years old and at least a foot shorter than she is now. The realization that I was speaking to my old friend’s sister resulted in a gush of memories about time spent at their family’s house at birthday parties and play dates. This new (re-)acquaintance indulged me as I waxed nostalgic about the handmade (by their mom) pink and purple crocheted vest her sister gave me for one of my birthdays, the amazing, imaginative cakes their mom (who later opened a bakery and dessert business) made for their birthdays, and the light blue mini- jelly beans in candy dishes at her bat mitzvah party (this must have been my introduction to the now widely available Jelly Belly). It’s fascinating how remembered experiences are anchored by physical objects that evoke not only feelings and sensory memories, but also provide context and meaning for one’s personal narrative. Even for the non-hoarders among us, the things we carry with us – both physically and mentally – tell our life story.
I am the purger in our family, and I pride myself on this. I have a lot less accumulated stuff as compared to many people I know, and I have done my best to try to get our kids to take after me, rather than their pack rat father, in this respect. The only things that I have insisted be boxed up and moved with me from place to place have been my books (of which there are many), my letters (I was quite the correspondent back in the pre-email era), my photo albums (from the time in my life when I was organized enough to actually make albums), my children’s childhood artwork, and my ritual Judaica.
Interestingly, the Jewish ritual object that has been with me the longest is a single candlestick that was given to me as a party favor at the aforementioned friend’s bat mitzvah. I remember arriving home from the event and realizing that the favor was Shabbat candlesticks, and that I should have taken two. The adult me would have insisted on being driven back to my friend’s house to get the other candlestick, but the middle schooler I was then was too embarrassed to do such a thing. As a result, I have carried this lovely, yet lonely and useless half of a pair with me for thirty years.
As I reflect on it, I think that I did not automatically know to take two candlesticks because I had no personal reference for Shabbat candles. Sure, I knew about lighting Shabbat candles, and did it in school every Friday as part of our class Kabbalat Shabbat, but we had no such ritual objects in our home. We owned a single chanukkiah, in which we lit the Hanukkah candles each year, but since we did not observe Shabbat in any way, there was no need for Shabbat candlesticks or a kiddush cup. My parents still do not do Kabbalat Shabbat, but their china cabinet now contains Judaica that they have been given as gifts over the years.
I am sure that my mother’s ancestors, like most Jewish immigrants – even the poorest among them – brought with them a few prized items from the Old Country. If not a samovar, then certainly candlesticks, and maybe even a chanukkiah. I am also sure that they never got passed down to me because over time they were neglected, and even lost or sold, by the assimilated descendants of their original owners. I assume that among my father’s relatives, the more traditional side of my family, there were such objects passed down. I remember my Bobbe benching licht, as she called it in Yiddish, but I do not know what happened to her candelabra (she used a multi-branched silver one). My guess is that it has gone to her daughter, my aunt.
So, what I carry with me on move to move and keep in my china cabinet and sideboard, are all the ritual objects that my husband and I received as wedding presents eighteen years ago. A few pieces in the collection were added in recent years, having been given to our two older sons as bar mitzvah presents. There are many silver items, but the ones that are most used and are actually the most valuable to me, are the handmade ones produced by our sons when they were in nursery and the early grades of elementary school. On Shabbat, we use either silver or brass candlesticks, but on Hanukkah, our tall teenage boys light candles placed in metal nuts glued a decade ago by their toddler hands to decorated blocks of wood. The fancy chanukkiot that remain in the china cabinet will never be as beautiful to me as the ones proudly made by our sons. And the most wonderful part of all this is that they have never complained about this tradition…at least not yet. I am secretly tickled that the boys are so attached to their handmade chanukkiot, and I hope that this attachment to the ritual object will ensure their lifelong attachment to the ritual itself.
So, I cannot tell my family’s story through the stories of objects, at least not those used for ritual observance. I was handed down Judaism, but not in an physical, tangible way. I must have intuitively sensed this as I reached out and chose the ceramic candlestick from the selection arranged on the table in the front hallway as I exited my friend’s house that day in February 1980. Having had no bat mitzvah and being yet more than a decade away from my wedding, I began building a collection of objects that I will pass down to my children and grandchildren to connect them to Jewish memories and, even more importantly, to Jewish life as they live it.
© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.