For more than 20 years, a small group of families from our synagogue has gathered to light the Hanukkah candles. My family hosted the celebration for many of these years, which included a latke-fry, playing dreidel and a heated gift exchange. A couple of years ago, we reluctantly dropped the kids’ craft activities when most of the “kids” were legally drinking with the adults.
This year, it’s hard to imagine celebrating much of anything — particularly a holiday that is flame-centric. On the eight nights of Hanukkah you light candles, using a nine-branched candle holder called a menorah. On the first night, one candle is lit, on the second night, two candles are lit. Finally, on the eighth night all the candles are lit, along with the extra “helper” candle. When our group of friends gathered, everyone brought at least one menorah, creating a blaze that was intimidating even in normal times.
Burned in the wildfire that destroyed our home (and the home of another family in our Hanukkah group) were the boxes of holiday items that evoke memories of past celebrations, family gatherings and loved ones who are no longer with us.
“It’s just stuff,” I say. But that doesn’t stop me from mourning the destruction of the dozens of Hanukkah ornaments that family and friends made using salt dough and cookie cutters. The baked and painted menorahs, Kiddush cups, candles and Stars of David were strung on bright ribbons and hung in the windows every Hanukkah. The oldest salt-dough ornaments were made by my husband when he was a child. A kid who was obsessed with model airplanes, his ornaments were distinctive for the precise lines and fine details — and easily recognizable by the 1970s palette of orange and avocado green. The newest ornaments were painted by our son, a gorgeous mix of vibrant purples, blues and greens.
Between Hanukkahs the ornaments were stored in an old pink and gold box from the long-defunct Rosenberg’s department store. The box was stored in a plastic bin that was carefully stacked in an antique armoire, along with the bins of Thanksgiving, New Year’s, Valentine, Passover and Halloween decorations. All the bins were filled with a mixture of holiday kitsch, art made by two generations of children, loose glitter, torn construction paper, stray popsicle sticks and bits of candle wax.
Truth be told, there were many post-holiday mornings, when tired and head-achey, I was tempted to dump the whole lot in the garbage. I never did, and I always experienced the same thrill the following year when opening a bin and re-discovering the magic that had been stored away.
This year, there is no armoire, no bins, no Rosenberg’s box — but, yes, there is still magic. A few weeks ago, as we sifted through the ashes of our home, we found three menorahs right in the spot where the Hanukkah box was stored. These three small, broken messengers of hope revived my spirit enough to start planning this year’s celebration.
It will definitely be low-key (I don’t think our rental house kitchen can withstand the frying of 20 pounds of potato latkes), but we will celebrate friendship and family, light the candles, say the blessings and revive the kid’s craft project — baking and painting salt-dough ornaments. Happy Hanukkah.
Ann DuBay is community and government affairs manager for the Sonoma County Water Agency. She and her family have found housing in Healdsburg while they rebuild the home that was lost in the Tubbs fire.