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Miracle on New Jersey Avenue

From the archives: An unexpected profusion of gifts for six Brooklyn siblings

Ben Birnbaum
December 11, 2007

Let me begin this Hanukkah story by saying that my parents endured a miserable marriage from day one, my father solacing himself over the years with increasingly strict religious practice and long hours at his business, and my mother distracting herself with as many children as she could bring into the world to need her. By 1958, when this Hanukkah story takes place—and thirteen years into the marriage—we were six children, ranging from age eleven (me) to one, with intermediate stops at ten, eight, six, and two, and we lived in a row house at the far end of Brooklyn, within an Orthodox Jewish community whose members seldom saw a need to leave the neighborhood except to visit Manhattan for work, the Catskills for summer, and Queens to be buried.

Within this self-sufficient enclave, of the thirty-plus holy days and fast days and festival days observed each year, the eight attached to Hanukkah were among the least consequential. From a devotional perspective, the holiday asked little of us: no canonical text to interpret, little more than standard liturgy to deal with in shul, and no need to wear a white shirt with a starched collar or refrain from radio-listening or subway riding. What Hanukkah did compel was an obligation to light menorahs at sunset and keep them lit until thirty minutes past star-rise, which, the rabbis said, began something like fifteen minutes after sunset—the precise interval being a matter of theological dispute dating back to the twelfth century and which had not (and to date has not) been resolved, an ambiguity that one could hardly imagine withstanding the rabbinical attention paid to Rosh Hashanah or Simchas Torah or opening day at Shea Stadium.

And while a few ostentatiously pious women insisted on treating the thirty minutes during which the menorah had to be lit as a mini-Sabbath, during which they performed no “labor,” for the rest of us, Hanukkah’s minutes, hours, and days were dully quotidian, marking the usual cycle of work, school, kitchen, and street, and only mildly inspirited by menorah lighting, some songs, and a set of rather untranscendent customs, such as eating potato pancakes, playing dreidl (the potato pancake of gambling games), eating chocolate coins out of stamped foil, and receiving (if you were a child) a handful of Hanukkah gelt—coins quickly lost at dreidl play before you were chased up to your bedroom to do your schoolwork.

In homes such as ours, however, in which both parents were native-born, that (European) custom of giving children Hanukkah gelt had pretty much disappeared by the late 1950s, replaced by the kind of out-and-out gift-giving that went on in other (Christian) American homes. There was one important distinction: The gifts bestowed on us (only on the first night of Hanukkah and only one per child) were not Lionel model railroad trains, Daisy air rifles, puppies, bicycles, or dolls that closed their eyes when you lay them down, but chess and checker sets, balsa-wood airplanes, alarm clocks, dictionaries, and, in extreme cases, cardboard barrels of Lincoln Logs (to be shared with brothers)—the kind of gifts, one might argue, that were aimed at improving mind, habit, and employment prospects, and constituting not a capitulation to Christian culture, but a reasoned and sober inoculation against that faith’s heady neopagan temptations.

And then one year—I triangulate it at 1958—a Hanukkah occurred in our home such as never happened before (nor after), not to us and not to anyone in Brooklyn I knew, by which I mean that we children received presents every night for the eight nights, and they were not improving gifts but such things as watercolor paints, board games, playing cards with poker chips, rubber Mickey Mouses, and holster sets with silvery toy guns.

I don’t recall my parents offering an explanation for Hanukkah 1958, and I didn’t seek one from them. Nor do I remember probing the matter with my brothers, the fact being that they were as dopey with delight as I was—and reason, in any case, isn’t of particular value or interest to children in homes such as ours, where things happened or didn’t happen by lurches (miracles as well as disasters), and alertness, rather than understanding or questioning, was the habit to cultivate.

Within two years of Hanukkah 1958, in any case, my parents were in marriage counseling, my father was saying that my mother was crazy, and my mother was seeing a shrink for depression. The rest of the story played out over some years, hurtfully and sometimes explosively, but predictably. And we were scattered.

Recently, I asked my mother whether she remembered the Hanukkah when there were gifts for us every night, and she, who has a sometimes amusing but mostly infuriating habit of inventing the past to suit her present, was disappointingly unimaginative in her response: “I sort of thought that we had done this a number of times, but that was such a very long time ago, with much happening since then, so I can’t be sure.”

Neither can I, of course, but I am my mother’s son, and I make up necessary stories: In my mind, my mother approaches my father one night after we’re all in bed. Alright, she says, we should give them a nice Hanukkah. The children are fine, he says—they have a roof, food, they’re happy—you should have seen what I had when I was a boy. You’re too cheap to spend the money, she says, and you know you had a good year even if you’re not telling me or the IRS. You haven’t earned a nickel since we married, he replies, so when you know what it means to earn a living, come tell me about it. She cries. I feel sorry for you because you don’t know what you want, he says. They should have presents every night, she says, like other children. What you want is to make a goyish holiday in my house? he says, but okay you know what?—if I put it in your hands, that’s what it’ll be, so I’m going to take care of it myself, and we don’t need to talk—you can be happy.

The next night after we’re in bed, my father empties the trunk of his car onto the living room floor and my mother sees it’s all crap from the five-and-dime. Wrap it up, he says—at least you should be able to do that, no? That’s when my thirty-four-year old mother with peptic ulcers and six young children feels astonished to discover that she is not crying.

* * *

My father remarried—a tractable young widow with whom he replicated his broken family (my mother, as was the custom back then, got the break on custody)—while my mother married a man who was the love of her life, and who loved her as powerfully. And all of us married as well, and at Hanukkah in our homes around the world we stand during the nights of this week with our spouses and the children still living at home, and we light menorahs, some of us in response to the demands of halacha, as when we were children in Brooklyn, and some in response to other claims. I, who fall into the second category, light a menorah certainly not to exult in the victory of the Maccabees (fanatic purifiers, they would have turned me out in minutes) or to honor the most insipid miracle ever imagined by Jews, but to remember what I can remember, including the fevered Hanukkah of 1958, of course, but also a winter night two years later—deep winter, but not Hanukkah—when my parents went off together to what I had determined was one of their sessions with a marriage counselor, and I was left to babysit for the brood. My brain rank with images from bad books and worse television, I prepared what I thought of as a malt shop table in our dining room, and set it with spoons and paper napkins and my mother’s brass Sabbath candles, and prepared two tall glass dishes of ice cream topped with Hershey’s syrup. When we heard the key in the lock, my brothers and sisters and I ran to the door. With kitchen towels draped over our arms, we escorted them to the table, lit the candles, and carried in their dishes of ice cream on a silver tray.

They sat down and ate every drop in silence, my mother staring at the table, my father still wearing his homburg. And for a few minutes, by the power of something, it seemed we kept our parents’ impure and dying marriage from guttering out.

Ben Birnbaum is a Jerusalem-based reporter who has written for Newsweek and The New Republic. His Twitter feed is @Ben_Birnbaum.