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On This Night, Let Us Light

Rokhl’s Golden City: The joy of Hanukkah candles

Rokhl Kafrissen
November 24, 2021
Original photo: Alan Levine/Flickr
Original photo: Alan Levine/Flickr
Original photo: Alan Levine/Flickr
Original photo: Alan Levine/Flickr

There’s something magic about candles. Think about the ritual of lighting candles on a birthday cake, just to blow them out. No birthday would be complete without that moment of potential, when the birthday girl or boy makes their special wish. There’s something different about a birthday, a time when one can make special pleas to whoever might be listening up there.

The internet tells us that placing birthday candles on children’s birthday cakes was an 18th-century German innovation, something that seems extremely plausible to me. The blow-them-out-and-make-a-wish part is of more nebulous origins, however, with some sites claiming that people “may have believed that the smoke from the candles carried their wishes and prayers to gods who lived in the skies.” That sounds a lot more dubious—but if you know of firmer historical basis for wishing on blown-out candles, do let me know.

Of course, celebrating birthdays has very little basis in Jewish tradition. In his operetta The Sorceress, Avrom Goldfaden lampooned the idea of Jews celebrating birthdays, even as his newly composed Yiddish birthday song (featured in the show) created a brand-new tradition for celebrating Jewish birthdays.

In Jewish homes, candle-lighting offered up a moment of magic potential, not once a year, but weekly. For many who light shabes candles (bentshn likht), Friday night is a time to offer up silent personal prayers, along with the traditional blessings over the candles (sans the whole blowing-them-out thing).

Kabbalistic writing finds light associated with emanations of the divine. Jewish texts abound with luminescent imagery; as we read in Proverbs, “The soul of man is the candle of God.” So it seems strange that as much as Jewish law and practice abounds with candle-centered ritual, the duty to light them is rarely found in the Torah. “The Talmud … acknowledged that the injunction to welcome Shabbat with lights is not scripturally grounded, but a duty imposed by the Rabbis (BT Talmud 25b),” writes Ismar Schorsch. “Without light, the Shabbat is bereft of oneg (joy), which means that should our circumstances deteriorate to the point where we lack food, we must still beg for or borrow oil for light.”

Candles were (and still are) often part of traditional Jewish weddings, for similar reasons. However you feel about Fiddler on the Roof, it’s hard not to get chills watching the candlelit procession which accompanies Motl and Tsaytl to the khupe.

In his In Praise of Yiddish, Maurice Samuel notes that memorial candles for the dead were “not an early Jewish custom; it is therefore not only proper that yortsayt-likht, ‘year-time (anniversary) lights,’ should have a Germanic name, it is inevitable, for there is no Hebrew equivalent! Yet among acquired customs taken over from Christian practice, this is among the deepest rooted.”

Unlike yortsayt candles, neshome likht, soul candles, were not burned in the memory of a particular person. The souls in question were invoked at the creation of the candles, not the burning, as I explained earlier this year. Contrast the way practitioner Annie Cohen explained it to me in March, with how Maurice Samuel conjures up the world of the feldmesterin (the women who traditionally made the neshome likht): “It was a shtetl practice among pious Jewesses to gather in a ‘bee’ at which they made candles for the synagogue while listening to improvised prayers and the reading of simple works of piety, all of course, in Yiddish. … The bewigged Sores and Malkes and Feyges and Gitls and Zisls and Mirls and Beyles sit swaying by lamplight in the living room, which is perhaps also the bedroom, of a primitive cottage. … About them in the night is a cluster of similar Jewish cottages and beyond, on every side, the Slavic world, vast, brooding, mysterious, ominous.” It’s a pleasingly spooky image, sure, but he goes just a bit too heavy on the romanticized language, diminishing the important spiritual work being done by those bewigged Jewesses.

Tekufes teyves, (December-January, i.e., wintertime) was of course the time of greatest darkness. It cannot be a coincidence that not only do we find an important candle-centered festival at that time, but the longest sustained candle lighting event of the Jewish year. Each night of khanike, we light one more candle, warding off the gloom, whether it’s among the ominous Slavic countryside, or the slushy streets of New York City.

There’s a somewhat bewildering array of terminology related to khanike time candle-lighting, and I find myself returning again and again to my teacher Dovid Braun’s essential explainer from The Pakn Treger. For the most part, in Eastern European Yiddish, candles were placed in what was called a khanike-lempl, though you should really read Braun’s deep dive for all the menorah nuances.

In the 1870s, Reform rabbis like Isaac Mayer Wise were key in reviving Hanukkah in the United States. Strangely enough, as part of his plan for Reform in America, Wise at one time proposed (among other innovations) eliminating the lulav, dropping the Purim megile, and even getting rid of lighting Hanukkah candles! These were all, in his opinion, practices with no foundation in the Bible. Clearly, Rabbi Wise was not interested in whether they had a foundation in fun.

Modern Hanukkah candles have come to resemble birthday candles. They’re small and quick burning and come in rainbow colors: They’re the funfetti of ritual objects. And in this, the darkest timeline, who doesn’t need more funfetti in their life?

Of course, the miracle of American capitalism cannot leave well enough alone. For my money, the most bizarre new Hanukkah merchandise is Homesick candle brand’s holiday scent, Latkes and Lights. My problem isn’t necessarily that its notes include baked apple, vanilla, and musk instead of burned oil and match smoke. Rather, the iker, the main idea of Hanukkah lights is that they are many and they burn in a specific pattern across a specific amount of time. One friend of mine was just telling me about the frummer side of his family, with a large number of family members each having their own khanike-lempl. I’m not saying your home has to be a fire hazard to inhabit real Yidishkayt, but one single scented candle feels like apikorsis just because.

Many years of anti-Hanukkah agitation have led to a certain backlash against the grumpy Hanukah as Jewish Christmas interpretation of the festival. I think we’re now in the anti-backlash backlash portion of the cycle. It’s OK to have fun with Hanukkah. Get the scented candle if you insist. (If you want to send me one for research purposes, I won’t say no.) And the truth is, candles and presents and family/friends are kind of a no-brainer occasion for joy. Especially after such a prolonged period of absences.

In such a mood, I am all the more receptive to sentimental songs such as Avrom Reisin’s gorgeously simple Borekh Ate (Blessed Art Thou.)

Borekh ate
zingt der tate
un er tsint di likht

(Father sings Blessed art thou as he lights the candles …)

In Borekh Ate, a father lights the Hanukkah candles with his child. The long-ago sounds are with us once again. Something holy still remains within the Jewish family, and wherever Jews gather together to light candles against the long darkness.

Matones (gifts) for the Yiddishists and Yiddish-curious: If you still haven’t decided what to get the Yiddishist in your life, allow me to offer a few choice selections. I’m semi-obsessed with these Oy Vey hoop earrings from Unkosher Market. They’re a little pricey for costume jewelry, but just the right size to make a statement … The good people at Vaybertaytsh have made all our Yiddish swag dreams come true with an extremely cool new line of Yiddish shrayberins (women writers) T-shirts and stickers … And finally, if I had to recommend one reference book this year, it would be the League for Yiddish’s newly revised and expanded Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary.

ALSO: Nov. 27, Eleonore Biezunski (fiddle, voice) and Ilya Shneyveys (accordion) will bring their klezmer duo to Brooklyn boite Barbes. Two sets, 6 and 8 p.m. If you come for Biezunski and Shneyveys, make sure you stay for the 10 p.m. show, BONK at Barbes: Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars. (It’s a very big sound for a very small space. Think about bringing your ear plugs as well as your dancing shoes.) … Yung Yidish Tel Aviv’s Mendy Cahan will bring a special khanike program of Vort un lid (word and song) to the Sholem Aleichem Cultural Center (Bronx) on Nov. 28. Join the virtual program here … If you’re in Toronto on Nov. 30, head to the Jazz Bistro at 251 Victoria Street for “Channukah Date Night“ featuring the Radical Jewish Music of Queen Kong … Friend of the column Vivi Lachs will celebrate her new book, London Yiddishtown, with a Great Jewish Books lecture at the Yiddish Book Center. Dec. 12, register here … It’s very hard to make specific recommendations for the upcoming Yiddish New York festival, but surely “Oy, I Like They … A Queer Tribute to Aaron Lebedeff“ is worth shouting about. My Yiddishland comrades Miryem-Khaye Seigel and Shane Baker will present “a queer and irreverent take on the music of one of the Yiddish stage’s legendary figures, Aaron Lebedeff.”

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.