It’s simultaneously the first night of Chanukah, my Papa Irwin’s 98th birthday, and Christmas, the last week of 2005. I am home in L.A. for a visit, my first in a good long while. It’s a celebratory cluster-fuck, and my mother is hosting a party.
“We light one candle tonight, for the first night, and this other candle is called the shamash,” she explains in a voice usually reserved for kindergarteners.
Present are my father and stepmother, my brother and his wife, some cousins, my mother, Papa, and me. Things are a wee bit tense, for many boring and complicated family-issue reasons, all of which boil down to I don’t want to be here.
My brother’s wife is invited to light the menorah, which is pretty straightforward since it’s only the first night and there is therefore only the one single candle to light. My brother is wearing a pair of two-hundred-dollar jeans that first appeared around the time he and his beloved miraculously found each other on JDate. I’m feeling fairly homicidal, but I sing thinly along with the bracha.
By the soup course, the man of the hour—Papa Irwin, not Jesus—is nodding off at the foot of the table, a depressing paper party hat resting asymmetrically on his head. One cousin is totally trashed and keeps telling me that I have sadness inside me and that she therefore would like to hypnotize me. A teenaged cousin smiles shyly and repeats, “What up, Carrie Bradshaw?” ostensibly because I live in New York and spend a good deal of my time having cocktails with the girls, sleeping with strangers, and lounging around my apartment staring at my laptop. Throughout dinner my brother’s wife unwraps and feeds him pieces of chocolate gelt. She eats no gelt, not because she doesn’t love money—quite the contrary!—but because she is anorexic.
I feel empty and morose, and strangely enough not even my gift-wrapped copy of this year’s Best American Short Stories (Thanks, Mom!) makes things better. I wonder whether I should wake up Papa so that he can enjoy his party, but he’s probably happier asleep, and I’m more than a little jealous. If I could nap through family time I’d probably enjoy being around my family a great deal.
I excuse myself before birthday cake is served and lie on a dew-covered chaise in the dark backyard. It seems I have a voice message, the blinking red light on my cell like a beacon of hope. It’s from an inebriated friend, himself home for a visit in the Midwest, wishing me a “Shabbat shalom, motherfucker!” which is funny, since, of course, it’s not Shabbat. “I’m calling all the Jews in my phone,” he says. “But you’re the only Jew in my phone, so really I’m only calling you!” This is sufficiently uplifting, and I spend the rest of the evening trying to relax on the chaise, fruitlessly searching for even one star in the Los Angeles night sky.
A Happy Chanukah to one and all.
After last night’s circus of despair, I forgo the candles ritual tonight. I have no plans and I’m in too crappy a mood for polite company. Oh, and it’s the day after Christmas! So the Western world feels shut down, desolate, totally depressing. There is only one thing to be done.
Every Jew and his mother are seeing Munich tonight. What this means, I realize belatedly, is that I am trapped in the sold-out theater alongside roughly half of heeb L.A. How did I not foresee this? Inevitably, I run into several dozen friends of my parents’. And my ex-father-in-law, who proffers a small wave and thereafter avoids eye contact. (Which, interestingly enough, is not so very unlike how it felt being married to his son.)
“Are you here by yourself?” asks the fourth or fifth family acquaintance I run into. I feel completely pitiful. Christmas is a time for Jews to see movies together.
“No,” I lie. Then I duck back into the crowd, muttering something about finding my friends.
I locate a single seat next to a benign older couple who, thankfully, don’t look the least bit familiar. They endear themselves to me 20 minutes into the film by nonchalantly passing me the popcorn. I have found my friends after all. When the lights come up at the end, the husband is white-knuckled with rage. “What’d you think?” I ask him. As Maestro Spielberg himself has pointed out, this movie is something of a Rorschach test for divergent Semitic passions. The man doesn’t disappoint.
“I’ll tell you something,” he says, fury cutting away at every word. “It ain’t a picnic being a Jew after Auschwitz.” I want to point out that it probably wasn’t a picnic to be a Jew during Auschwitz either, but I just nod emphatically as he goes on about counterterrorism not being morally equivalent to terrorism. I (violently) disagree, but I cannot afford to alienate my new friends, not when there’s a minefield of family acquaintances still filing out of the theater. He and his wife promise to buy my forthcoming book; I wish them a Happy Chanukah. And voila! The left and the right have called a special holiday truce.
My mother’s Havurah has its annual Chanukah party. The Havurah is a group of friends who meet once a month to schmooze, eat, and talk about books and politics. Even though I live three thousand miles away and don’t have all that much to say to anyone, I’ve known these people and their children for about as long as I can remember, and I’m increasingly grateful for this kind of continuity.
It’s a bustling party, a warm, lively, colorful gathering with food-laden tables and adorable children underfoot and a gigantic pile of gifts by the fireplace. Its resemblance to anything I’ve experienced of late in my own family home is minimal. When we arrive, the three candles in several Chanukiot are already burning in the window, casting a further glow on the proceedings.
The traditional gift exchange (also known as a Yankee Swap, but insert joke about tightfisted Jews here) goes something like this: Everyone brings a gift costing 15 dollars or so. We draw numbers out of a hat. Number one picks a gift and opens it. Number two can either swipe number one’s gift or choose another gift to open. And so on down the line. It’s best, in this one game, to pick a high number out of the hat, so that you can see everything that’s already been opened and take your pick. Fortunes can be won or lost in an instant. I am excited to draw a whopping 17.
There’s a scented candle assortment, a neat baking kit with novelty cookie cutters, an M. C. Escher book, a T-shirt reading kish mir in tuches!, and then someone opens the gift I know I will claim as my own: an oh-so-apropos humor book called 50 Relatives Worse Than Yours.
Later, on the way to the bathroom, I duck into a carpeted hallway lined with photos: wedding photos, portraits of the grandparents as young men and women, baby photos, the whole nine. Like all family photos (others’ and my own), they fill me with unwieldy bitterness and hard-core longing all at once. My favorite of the little kids, a porky 18-month-old with a 600-word vocabulary, comes toddling down the hall in a rainbow onesie, holding fast to a jelly doughnut. The last time I saw this child she was in utero, and the next time I see her she’ll probably be a bat mitzvah, but no matter. “Hi!” she says. I grab and kiss-attack her and pretend to munch on her belly. She cracks up and we return to the party together. There are things I covet that, alas, can’t be grasped with even the highest Yankee Swap number.
My friend Heather, also in town visiting her own family, picks me up. We go for Mexican food in her mother’s car and listen to ancient CDs of a local Jewish pop star whose relentlessly earnest, heavily synthesized musicalizations of various prayers and parables have earned him a die-hard fan base of Jewish housewives all over Southern California. Heather and I share a secret past of having been members of this man’s preteen chorus army, when we were each sort of voluntarily molested by, respectively, a much older teen and another aspiring Jewish pop singer. We sing along, doing the cheese-ball jazz-hand choreography as we remember it, more or less exactly like when we were 13.
Today I fly to Seattle to spend the rest of the week with two of my best friends: Sarah and Jackie. Jackie and I both live in New York, but Sarah’s in medical school out here, so we three haven’t gotten to spend any quality time together in a while.
After some requisite gaping at the Space Needle, the lush, hilly views, and the stunning multitude of lovely coffee shops and cafes around town, Sarah takes us to a Chanukah party hosted by friends of hers, an engaged couple.
The guy is Jewish, but the kind of Jewish that seems to back away from itself; not Jewish, mind you, just Jew-ish. A real fan-of-Seinfeld kind of Jew (not that there’s anything wrong with that). His fiancée is not a Jew but has spent the last three days making latkes. She explains how at first they were too soggy because she’d used too much egg. Then she scrapped that batch and started from scratch. But the frying itself was tricky, so hall of the second batch had to be tossed. She wanted the latkes to be perfect. She really respects Jewish culture, and it was important to her that the latkes come out right. The latkes, needless to say, seem pretty loaded (and I don’t mean with applesauce and sour cream, either).
“Are you guys Jewish?” she asks us politely.
“Hell, no,” we say, shaking our heads in jest at the distastefulness of such a thought. (Then, when it’s clear that irony has no place here, we feel bad. “Yes. We’re Jewish,” Jackie says. “And the latkes look great!” “Do they?” our hostess asks anxiously. “Latkes are hard for everyone,” I reassure her.)
When it comes time to light the menorah, our hosts cast about helplessly. It becomes quickly apparent that Jackie and Sarah and I, along with the affianced guy, are the only children of Israel at this Chanukah party. “Don’t look at me,” Sarah says, backing away from the menorah like a vampire from a cross. Jackie and I—Jewish day school refugees, both—have a brief argument over whether tonight’s four candles go on the right or the left: I think they go on the right; she thinks the left.
“Rabbi Hillel said the right and Rabbi Shammai said the left, so it’s fine either way,” Jackie says, with more than a trace of sarcasm.
“Wow,” someone says. “You guys really are Jewish.” We sing the bracha alone and embarrassedly, like we’re on display at the mall next to a giant tree, a cardboard menorah, and a fat old biker dressed up as Santa. People! Chanukah is really not that big a deal, religiously speaking. If it didn’t happen to fall around the same time as the good old alleged virgin birth, Ross from Friends probably wouldn’t even know about it! Will our hosts be throwing a Sukkot dinner in their backyard? A Tisha b’Av study session? A Purim hoedown? I think not. So why, in the absence of any other Jewish observance or identity, this big, blue-and-white-streamered, latke-obsessed Chanukah thing?
By some Maccabee miracle, Jackie and I have scored a pair of below-market tickets on Craigslist to tonight’s sold-out Sleater-Kinney show at the Showbox. What a day we’re having: strolling, shopping, eating, laughing. I love this city, it’s official. And I love my friends! And now we’re seeing my favorite band at a storied Seattle concert venue! For 18 bucks! Which is also chai! Life does not get much better. But for the fact that my sinuses still hurt a little bit after having expelled lemonade from my nostrils at dinner when Jackie made me laugh too hard recounting a comedy routine she saw recently (in which David Cross poked fun at misuse of the word literally, as in “I literally shit my pants!” or “My brother’s wife literally has an ass for a face!” or “My boss is literally retarded!”), I am having a grand time.
We are busy dancing and sipping vodka tonics when the amazing Carrie Brownstein, between spectacular sets, makes mention of the big C:
“So tonight’s Chanukah,” she says to the crowd, fiddling with the knobs on her guitar. There are few cheers. It’s a wonderful thing to belong quite so completely to my surroundings. This is what life is for, I think: to be a living, breathing, contradictory mess and belong entirely.
Janet Weiss, the drummer, concurs. “Yeah.”
“I think it’s like the fifth night,” Brownstein says.
“Woooo-hoooooo!” yells a guy nearby.
“Sixth!” I shout, just to participate, but then realize that I am wrong. It matters not.
“Sixth? Fifth?” Carrie asks. “Shit, I don’t know. I can’t be trusted with these things.” And with that the ladies rip into “Rollercoaster” (or maybe it was “Dig Me Out,” I can’t remember; I can’t be trusted with these things).
We forget to light candles tonight, as it’s two A.M. by the time the show’s over and of course it’s raining and we’re pretty buzzed, so as soon as we manage to find a cab back to Sarah’s, we hightail it woozily to bed.
We get into a fight today. Sarah feels left out because Jackie and I share a life in New York; I feel left out because Sarah and Jackie wake up hours earlier than I do and go running together (why would anyone do such a thing?); Jackie’s annoyed because Sarah’s annoyed; Sarah’s annoyed because Jackie’s annoyed; I’m annoyed because Sarah only grudgingly indulges my vegetarianism; and so on. It’s not so much a fight as a crossing of wires, a tripping of multiple overlapping insecurities and anxieties. Finally things boil over and we have a good cry, profess our collective undying love and affection, and immediately feel better. Typical girl bullshit. The truth of it is, my friends are my family (see also: Night I).
I consider Sarah my cosmic reward for having made it through a decade at Jewish summer camp. We shared a bunk bed when we were 11, and we got into a fistfight that year. (I won, Sarah; you know I did.) Our time at this Jewish summer camp was the source of much angst for me (and, later, much grist for the writing mill). It was a pretty soulless place. We often reminisce ruefully about the time we, along with all the other adolescent girls at camp, were formally lectured by a kindly and quite well-respected rabbi about the importance of marrying as early as possible and starting a family, and about how prioritizing career and/or self-actualization would mean not only that we would die barren and alone but that the Jewish people, also, would cease to exist.
Tonight Sarah is hosting Shabbat dinner, so we go to the market and shop for supplies. My contribution will be my signature vegan cupcakes, which are not remotely as unappetizing as they may sound, I swear to God (there is banana involved). In the frosting aisle, I pick up sugar letters (the whole alphabet, in triplicate!) and rainbow jimmies for cupcake adornment.
The Shabbat crowd is made up of Sarah’s housemates and several of their friends, most of whom are weekly regulars. I can’t overstate the wonder and joy of finding like-minded people gathered here for Shabbat, for Chanukah, for eating and hanging out. It’s that most rare of religious phenomena: organic. One of Sarah’s friends rolls two enormous blunts (“For aprés-Shabbos,” he says with a grin). In the kitchen, her housemates are ritually washing their hands while they make up an intricate rap—two play human beat box while the third interweaves the bracha and something about his “Shabbos bitches”—about, yes, ritual hand washing. Jackie watches them, agape.
“They’re always doing that,” Sarah sighs.
First we light the menorah, and tonight everyone in the room knows the words and sings loudly along. Then we light the Shabbat candles, with, again, everyone joining in. Then we feast. Then we smoke the blunts. “In the basement!” Sarah insists. “But it’s Shabbos!” we plead. She relents.
When I go into the kitchen to frost the cupcakes I find Jackie already arranging the pink sugar letters into words on each one. She’s diligently arranged “fun hole,” “eat me,” “tits,” “poop,” “ass wipe,” “fuck,” “balls,” “jizz,” and a couple others even I won’t repeat. Sounds infantile, maybe, but in our collective state of gladness they are the height of wit and creativity. Especially, of course, as the letter supply dwindles and we are forced to be extra inventive with spelling.
Is this what our parents had in mind for us when they chauffeured us to day school, Hebrew school, and bat mitzvah lessons? Is this what they hoped for when they waved good-bye and sent us off to that Lord of the Yid Flies summer camp? Pornographic vegan cupcakes, Shabbos blunts, al netilat yadayim woven intricately into a rap in a house high up on a hill in the Pacific Northwest? I must say that I think so. At first glance, the above might seem like religious perversion, but scratch the surface and you’ll see a roomful of young Jews claiming that identity in the context of countless other identities. Dig deeper and you’ll find a roomful of Jews owning Judaism—and loving it—in a way no easy parochial regurgitation or rote spawning could ever approach. Oh, how I wish that kindly and completely misguided old rabbi could be here with us now. If we could bottle this and sell it, surely we’d be knee-deep in Jewish continuity-hysteria-foundation grants. And just imagine the weed that would buy!
Another party tonight; New Year’s Eve, though it’s difficult to get all that amped up about a milestone so traditionally overloaded with good-time pressure. Every year it’s the same, the anticlimax so much more prevalent than the purported climax. (Like hooking up with a future Jewish pop star. Or whatever.)
Sarah’s friends from medical school arrive in clusters. A future anesthesiologist has brought the board game Cranium, which we are to play as the evening’s entertainment. A future neurosurgeon bears a bottle of champagne in each fist. A future gynecologist brings her gangly, 15-year-old brother, because he had no other plans and she couldn’t bear to leave him home alone for the last/first few hours of 2005/06.
Two old friends of Jackie’s join the party too, thankfully rounding out the left-brain contingent. We four form a Cranium team, as the med students want no part of our liberal arts asses. The med students also Just Say No, which means that our team at first appears to be at something of a disadvantage.
Here’s a piece of advice: don’t ever play Cranium with a bunch of medical students. Especially don’t ever play Cranium with medical students if you are a) someone with an iota of perspective on board games, b) someone with an iota of perspective on competition in general, c) extremely stoned, or d) all of the above.
We are incapable of taking the game seriously, which frustrates our furrowed-browed, adorably Type A opponents to no end. While they huddle together and strategize, we gleefully sing rounds of “Light one candle for the Maccabee soldiers, with thanks that their light didn’t die! Light one candle for the pain they endured when their right to exist was denied!” We lose track of whose turn it is. We shout out answers to other teams’ questions, trying to be helpful and sportsmanlike. And, eventually, we legitimately win the game. This is infuriating to the losers, whose losing is almost enough to incite the kind of existential crisis usually sparked by fatal botched diagnoses in residency. They’ve lost Cranium to a bunch of stoners?!
“Good game. Congratulations,” they say tightly.
By then it’s about 11:55, so we head out to the street with noisemakers and pots and pans, looking out over the city and the Space Needle, where fireworks will signify the end of the year.
Unbeknownst to us, the 15-year-old has been drinking champagne all night, and he starts vomiting his brains out (not literally) pretty soon after we welcome the New Year.
Once again we’ve forgotten the candles.
We almost forget all about the eighth and final night, too.
When we finally do remember, just before bed, we load up the whole menorah together, no debate tonight about where the candles go. We set it in the window, the rest of the house dark and quiet. It is the first day of 2006 and tomorrow we’ll all go back to our lives: Sarah to three months of internal medicine rotation in the middle of Idaho, Jackie and I to Chelsea and Brooklyn, respectively. It’s going to be a big year for each of us: lots of changes and miracles and stepping-stones and new challenges we vaguely know are on their way. And who knows when we’ll all be together again?
I am nominated to hold the shamash, which I find I’m excited to do, like when I was little and it felt like a great honor. I light the candles from left to right, starting with the newest and lighting one for each of the past seven nights as I go.
First is tonight’s, eight, with my girls beside me and the sound of Seattle rain gently pelting the window under our three tone-deaf, exhausted voices. Then last night’s, seven, and the collective ruckus we made banging our pots and pans to usher in a new year while fireworks exploded over the city. Six, Shabbos blunts and porno-cakes. Five at Sleater-Kinney. Four as token, pseudomissionary Jews in a roomful of well-intentioned holiday whores. Three at the Havurah party. Two alone at the movies. And by the time I make it to the last candle, the first night, Christmas, my uniquely fraught family and my uniquely fraught place in (or out of) it, I’m almost able to own even that. It’s been a good week, it’s a new year now, after all, and the whole menorah is glowing, full, finally complete.
Jackie and Sarah and I stand looking for a moment at the blazing menorah and its reflection in the window. Above it our faces are reflected, too. We linger for a moment and then we turn away, off into a new week, a new year, and a blessedly blank slate.
Elisa Albert is the author of the novelsAfter Birth, The Book of Dahlia, and the story collection How This Night is Different.
Elisa Albert’s newest novel, Human Blues, is out now from Avid Reader Press.