Margery B. Sterns (right), 96, a a longtime resident of San Francisco, lights the menorah with her daughter Sandra. Margery recalls her Russian immigrant parents lighting the menorah as one of her top memories of Hanukkah. Credit: Courtesy.
Margery B. Sterns (right), 96, a a longtime resident of San Francisco, lights the menorah with her daughter Sandra. Margery recalls her Russian immigrant parents lighting the menorah as one of her top memories of Hanukkah. Credit: Courtesy.

Hanukkah 2018

Menorahs, memories, magic: Hanukkah conjures up some startling senior moments

“We were allowed to eat many latkes and doughnuts with homemade preserves, spin dreidels my brother carved out of wood and play cards way past our bedtime . . . ”

The menorah’s candles illuminating the dark outside never truly burn out. The latkes sizzling in the pan still give off their heavenly perfume, and the dreidel of youth spins on and on, preserving forever the wonder of long-ago Hanukkahs.

So even the sound of the Hanukkah blessings and “I Had a Little Dreidel,” or if you are Sephardic, quite possibly “Chanarot Hallalu” (“This Candle”),” even the sight of a menorah ablaze or a child’s chubby fingers prying open the gold foil hiding chocolate gelt can awaken the memories from their slumber, suddenly as clear as those starry December nights more than a half-century ago. Here are nine seniors’ memories to savor, one for each candle:

First Candle: For Sarah Devorah Henning, the holiday’s sights, smells and flavors are set against the backdrop of her grandparents’ apartment in Washington, D.C., populated by endless aunts, uncles and cousins. There are dancing candles in the menorah, a mountainous platter of latkes topped with cinnamon applesauce, a brisket, chocolate coins and little gifts for all of the children. Also locked in her memory are the smells and sounds of “the men folk smoking cigars and playing pinochle, and the ladies cooking and chatting.” And, since the highlight of the evening was the lively dreidel game, the kids went straight to the special drawer in the buffet, where their grandparents stashed their dreidel collection, and took over the coffee table in the living room for a game that lasted hours. While Henning has traveled far over the years—now 67, she makes her home in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel—“there are so many warm memories,” she says six decades after the last latke was eaten and the last dreidel put back in the drawer. “Hanukkah was always a special time.”

Second Candle: Besides the traditional spinning of the dreidel, the Goldstein family of Brooklyn, N.Y., developed its own Hanukkah version of the game “Hide-and-Go-Seek.” Jacob (“Jack”) Goldstein, 85, of East Northport, N.Y., relates that “we’d find Judaic items throughout the house: tallis, mezuzah, a Star of David on a chain, and, of course, the menorah.” Because money was tight for his dad, a tailor, the holiday was an opportunity to stock up on new shoes, pants and maybe a winter coat when their old ones got too snug. “But that didn’t matter to us. We each got to light a candle, starting with the oldest on down,” he recalls. “Our father sang the blessings while our mother made the latkes, and they were absolutely delicious.”

Third Candle: Back in the 1980s—when Miriam Kitrossky was still known as Marina and living with her husband, Levi, and their small daughter in Moscow—Jewish observance was risky business, including lighting the Hanukkah candles. “I remember when we began keeping the holidays in 1979,” recalls Kitrossky, a refusenik granted permission to leave the former Soviet Union eight years later with their three children, destination Israel. But before they were released, they would attend an underground Jewish school in Moscow, where Hanukkah meant performances, celebrations and menorah-lighting. “We weren’t allowed to have Jewish schools at the time, so if you were found attending one, you were called in for interrogation, or you’d find your house has been searched.” One friend who was printing Jewish holiday books for children in his home received a warning from the government: “If you continue doing this, there will be trouble.” Another school organizer was imprisoned. “But we still went. in Russia, Hanukkah was powerful for people needing Judaism, but not yet able to keep Shabbat or kashrut,” says Kitrossky, who at 60 now lives with her husband in the Jerusalem suburb of Ma’ale Adumim, and is the mother of seven and a grandmother many times over. “Here in Israel, our grandchildren celebrate Hanukkah in school, but in a way, it was more special in Moscow. In Moscow, you had to really want it, and it was something great.”

Fourth Candle: For Esther Hasser, Hanukkah will always be remembered as a mountain of dirt alight with dozens of candles. Each of the children in the neighborhood would bring a candle, and her parents would stick them in the ground like a giant menorah. “We’d each get to light one, and we’d sing songs and dance around them,” says Hasser who was born in 1949, the first of 12 siblings to be a native Israeli, when the country was a mere year old. Her parents and three older siblings were part of the tidal wave of immigration from Yemen and other Arab lands in the 1950s, and were given a plot of land in Pardes Hanna and told to build a home on it. The home her father built, stone by stone, consisting of a kitchen and a second room, housed the family of 14 for years. “This was a small village then with more clementine orchards [pardes] than houses,” she recalls. Now each Hanukkah, Hasser gathers her six children, 15 grandchildren and her little great-granddaughter for a boisterous celebration. “My son sings the blessings with the old Yemenite melody,” says Hasser who still lives on the same block she was born on. “It’s a happy time.”

Fifth Candle: Potatoes did double Hanukkah duty for the family of Marty (“Mayer”) Weiss, one of nine children growing up in the small Czechoslovakian town of Polana. “We had no menorah, and there were no candles back then.” So his mother cut a potato in half, dug out nine holes, and filled each one with oil and a wick she made by twisting cotton balls. “It worked,” says Weiss, now 89 and living in suburban Washington, D.C. The kids got out of cheder (Jewish school) earlier than the usual 8 p.m., rushing home with great excitement. “We were allowed to eat many latkes and doughnuts with homemade preserves, spin dreidels my brother carved out of wood and play cards way past our bedtime,” says Weiss, who regularly speaks with school groups for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. All this halted abruptly in 1944 when the family was taken to the ghetto, eventually landing the teenaged Weiss in Auschwitz. “For me, there were no holidays in the camp,” he says. “We were too tired and too hungry to even think about that.” Only Weiss and his sister survived Auschwitz, and they, along with a brother who’d lived through forced labor in Russia, were the family’s sole survivors. As for Hanukkah, his own four grandkids “really know how to celebrate,” he says. “I’m the only one of my family who lived long enough to have nachas from grandchildren, so I’m not going to miss this opportunity to celebrate with them.”

Sixth Candle: Growing up in Ethiopia, Bracha Emees recalls a special kind of sufganiyot as the treat for Hanukkah. But unlike in other locales, the traditional holiday doughnuts contained no filling, she insists through her daughter, who translates. Instead, the miracle of this Hanukkah was in the dough—so yeasty that it exploded in the bowl to heights that amazed the children. Then she’d watch fascinated as, while the candles burned in the menorah, her mother boiled the sufganiyot in a huge pot. Now that Emees, 60, and her six children are in Israel, arriving among the influx of Ethiopian Jews during the 1980s and early ’90s, Hanukkah is a more lively, communal holiday, enjoyed keenly by her seven grandchildren. “It is good to be here because there are Jews here,” she says with a smile. “In Ethiopia, there were almost none.”

Seventh Candle: Shlomo Berlinger can still recall every detail of the Hanukkah ceremony in Sweden. It was the only childhood home he remembers since his family escaped Germany in 1931 when he was just 3 years old. “Hanukkah was a magical time [that] my two sisters and I looked forward to for weeks,” he recalls. On the first night, his rabbi father would collect the family, and ceremoniously light the candles and intone the blessings. “Then my father would open the door to the next room where were three small tables, each holding a gift for one of us—toys and other things that would make us happy—with one standout: an elaborate carved chess set with a clock set in it. They were also given “treats we had at no other time,” says Berlinger, who now lives with his wife, Rut, in a senior home in Jerusalem not far from their daughter and four grandchildren. “It was a very great moment.”

Eighth Candle: Growing up in a small town in Michigan, Leah Golan knew next to nothing about Hanukkah, or for that matter, Judaism, until she was 14. Soon after the Six-Day War, their father called her, and her 14 brothers and sisters, together to announce that the family would be Catholics no longer, but Jews. “They gave the five oldest kids the choice of whether or not to become Jewish, but the rest of us were automatically included in the family conversion,” recalls Golan. And suddenly, since there were few Jews in their town, they were now outsiders. “Gone was the tree; my parents put up a wreath in the shape of a Magen David, my dad picked up a menorah at the closest Judaica shop, and pretty soon, our relatives stopped visiting. My parents said it was just a price we had to pay to be Jews,” she recalls. Now 64 and a longtime resident of Kibbutz Hama’apil with her husband (five of the 15 siblings live in Israel), Hanukkah is something that her three children and grandchildren have as a birthright. “They grew up with no doubt that this tradition belongs to them,” says Golan. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

Ninth Candle: Margery B. Sterns can recall perfectly the look on her mother’s face when she blessed the Hanukkah candles. “She covered her face and became very quiet in that same old-fashioned way as when she lit the Shabbos candles,” says Sterns, who, at 96, is a longtime resident of San Francisco. But as the fifth of six children of Russian immigrants to Grand Forks, S.D., the family was one of only six families in the town’s tiny synagogue. Sterns says she also clearly recalls her father praying his own prayers over the candles. “Sometimes, he was so moved by his davening, he would cry,” she recalls. “I believed that my father knew everything about Hanukkah and everything about life. Ours was a beautiful Jewish home, just a beautiful way to grow up.”

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