Toward the end of a semester abroad at a Belgian university, I went with a group of fellow college students—most of them not Jewish—to visit Breedonk, a concentration camp 30 miles away. The trip was planned as part of our study-abroad program, and I didn’t give it much thought until we walked through the entrance. It was empty and eerie. There was a train car that had been used to transport prisoners into the camp. We spent over two hours wandering the grounds, going into dimly lit barracks and walking in circles on the outside paths.
Visiting the camp, I suddenly felt a connection to the Holocaust—and to other Jews—that I never felt on American soil. Learning about the atrocities in the same place where they happened helped spark my own connection to Judaism, and made me want to celebrate my own Jewish roots. I’d always been proud to be Jewish, but I never made time to observe holidays or follow traditions.
When I returned home from Belgium the next semester, I started looking for a Jewish tradition I could incorporate into my life, as a student living on my own. I wanted something that would be a constant commitment and that I could do without going to a synagogue and pretending to follow along in Hebrew. I wanted a ritual where I didn’t feel judged for not knowing everything about the religion. I decided to start lighting Shabbat candles.
The first time I lit candles, it felt a little strange. I was hunched over my kitchen sink, alone. It was probably close to midnight—about six hours past sunset on Friday night. The candle-lighting was not the start to a lavish Sabbath meal. In fact, I did very little besides recite the prayer that was printed on the back of a pack of candles. I waved my hands in an awkward motion, covering my eyes between quick peeks at the prayer. (I’d never done well learning languages and thought there would be no way to remember those few lines of Hebrew by heart.) The words coming out of my mouth felt foreign, yet comforting at the same time.
Lighting candles soon became my weekly ritual, even if it wasn’t entirely “by the book.” I lit them each Friday after coming home in the evening—1 a.m., 3 a.m., it didn’t matter. This small gesture felt like a big leap for me, a way to connect to other Jews and honor those who had lost their lives in the camp.
That was more than a decade ago. And since then, I’ve lit Shabbat candles every Friday night.
Because I grew up as an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, my rituals, like those of many peers, were non-existent. While I was in grade school in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, which still has a sizable Orthodox population, an American-born high-school student who’d been sent by a Chabad-affiliated synagogue called FREE—Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe—would come by our apartment to show the women in my family how to light the candles and say the blessing. My family did not have candlesticks passed down as an heirloom from generation to generation; we simply lit the candles on a metal tray and recited the foreign-sounding words along with the volunteer. Sometimes we worried about lighting the house on fire after she had left.
We had emigrated from the former Soviet Union only a few years earlier, and embracing our religion in this way felt too sudden after years of secularism. After the volunteer stopped coming around, we stopped lighting the candles.
My family did celebrate some of the holidays in Chicago that they didn’t observe back in the USSR. Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, and Yom Kippur were times when we’d gather just like the American Jews whom we one day hoped to be like. But Shabbat, a holiday that was celebrated every week, seemed like too much of a commitment to otherwise non-practicing Jews.
As I got older, I looked for some Jewish ritual that I could do on my own. I wanted a regular custom that gave me more personal time to reflect. But I wasn’t ready to alter my social life to commit to a family dinner every Friday, or to stay home in my college apartment while my friends were enjoying a night out. Celebrating Shabbat seemed at odds with staying out late on weekends. My Friday nights were reserved for barhopping, frat parties, and too much beer—not candle-lighting followed by a meal. I was hesitant to start following a ritual if I didn’t want to embrace all that it entailed, because I believed I should do all or nothing when it comes to following Jewish law. I wondered whether I was “Jewish enough” to partake in candle-lighting, which is the start of a more elaborate meal that I didn’t plan to eat.
But the combination of visiting a concentration camp and getting older made me feel like I could start my own ritual to celebrate the kind of Jew that I was. After lighting candles once, I realized it wasn’t a huge sacrifice of my time after all. And it felt necessary to be able to reflect on the week and be thankful for all that happened.
As I’ve continued to light the candles through the years, friends and family have given me candles and candle holders, encouraging my not-so-new routine. Thanks to my friends Alla and Karina, I now have travel candle holders for lighting candles safely on my many trips across the world and more decorative candlesticks that I still leave in the sink. They are weathered now after so many lightings, well-used with chunks of wax. My mother and grandmother regularly purchase candles for me, since I can’t always get to a store that sells them. And now that we sometimes do have family dinners on Fridays, we’ll take time to light the candles and say the prayer before the meal. I ask my mother and grandmother to repeat the prayer that I now know by heart. And I can feel that it means something to them to say it.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to live in a place that allows the freedom to practice religion—taking advantage of these opportunities in America is exactly what my family wanted when we arrived. For me, it’s a way to remember not only the week, but what it really means to be a Jew.
My ritual hasn’t changed much from the first time I lit them—it’s still not “by the book,” and I still often light them on my own, hunched over my sink. As a frequent traveler, I secretly light them in hotel rooms all over the world (I haven’t set off a fire alarm yet) and at friends’ homes (with a promise to not destroy anything). When I explain it to others, I make sure not to say that I’m doing it in the wrong way. It’s my way and what works with my life.
Nowadays, Friday night is one of my favorite times of the week. I love taking a few minutes out to be thankful for life. I enjoy the pause, albeit brief, to think about something other than the present. Though I rarely attend Friday night services and still don’t abide by most of what’s required on the Sabbath, I try not to work on Friday evenings—no matter the urgency of the deadline—and give tzedakah whenever I can. When my daughter gets older, perhaps I will light candles earlier with her, and maybe I’ll even learn to cook a Shabbat dinner. For now, this is enough.
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