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A Visit From the Ghost of Hanukkahs Past

Seeing the Empire State Building lit in blue and white set my mind whirling

Molly Oswaks
December 19, 2014
Empire State Building lit up for Hanukkah. (
Empire State Building lit up for Hanukkah. (

I am a bad Jew. When I was in kindergarten, I convinced my parents to let me drop out of Hebrew school. They’d wanted to us to perform something called The Camel Dance, in which groups of five boys and girls walked around in a circle, backs humped over like camels, while some senile crone tinkled something out on a nearby upright piano. I have never liked to do anything that I’m not any good at (sing, dance, group sports), and this dance was an affront to my sense of self and dignity. Also, there was another little girl in my Hebrew school class whose prematurely arched eyebrows made me very uncomfortable.

I know, I know. None of this (camels, eyebrows) had anything to do with the substance of what was being taught in Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s kindergarten-level Hebrew school curriculum. I can’t imagine we did much more than color inside the lines of dreidel- and Seder plate-themed coloring books. Nevertheless, much as Maura and Shelly Pfefferman on the hit Amazon series Transparent allowed their daughter to cancel her bat mitzvah, my parents let their 5-year-old end her religious education.

A bit about my brand of Judaism: My mother’s mother is a Mexican Catholic who married, and was widowed by, a Hungarian Jew from Pennsylvania 20 years her senior. Nana’s Passover seders are a thing of beauty. For several years, I was allowed to bring my childhood best friend, Emily (who is both biracial and bi-religious), because to me the seder was a party, as fun and interactive as anything I’d even been invited to, with good food and the promise of presents. To this day, Nana still hauls out the Shetland pony-sized cardboard dreidel in which she stores the Hanukkah gifts. My father’s parents were both tri-state area Jews, but Grandma Winnie has never been interested in the role of holiday-party host. As it turns out, Catholics make great Jews.

Soon after my turn as Hebrew school dropout, my father was offered the chance to work out of the U.K. office of Pearson Television, his employer at the time, and my parents and I moved to London. We were there for five years, American Jews doing our non-Protestant thing. My mom hosted Thanksgiving dinner for us and a family whose daughters I’d become friendly with at my new school. When Hanukkah came along, we would bring out the menorah, and every night, for all eight nights, my dad would call me to the dinner table. “Say your prayers,” he’d prompt. And I would.

Baruch atah adonai…

We moved back to Los Angeles just before my 10th birthday, much to my relief. There had never been an end date to our time abroad, and my homesickness was constant. By contrast, my mother loved it. She loved the food, and she loved the culture. We went to whatever church service was being put on whenever our English friends invited us along, and continued to do so when we returned to the States. By my estimation, I’ve been to more Midnight Masses than I have synagogue services (not counting the outrageous Hollywood bar and bat mitzvahs I attended in 7th and 8th grade). My mother once casually announced that she would consider converting to Catholicism, because she thought it was a “prettier” religion.

Gradually, our Hanukkah observance faded, and our Christmas trees became more elaborate: giant Douglas firs purchased for large sums and laboriously decorated with satin ribbons, twinkle lights, and fake birds. Not the kind of trees more casual, actual Christians festoon with joke ornaments, mercury glass balls, and cheeky Santas. Our brand of Christianity is opulent, and empty. Still, even as I progressed through high school and became a too-cool teenager, my dad would bring out the menorah and yell to my bedroom, where I would sit reading something morbid with the door closed.

Come say your prayers!

My mom jokes about this. “Say ya pray-yehs,” she mimics, like a mobster about to shoot a guy square between the eyes. Say your prayers, sucker.

I moved to New York a little over seven years ago, for college. Visits home over the holidays were brief, concentrated versions of my life growing up in L.A.: nights out with friends, Hanukkah dinner at Nana’s house, Christmas day with Aunt Bebe (a Catholic who married a Swedish sailor) or Aunt Diana (a Jew who married a Catholic) or Aunt Lettie (Catholic who married a Christian).

New York is home now. For the past three years I’ve split my holidays: Thanksgiving with family in LA, Christmas with my boyfriend and his (Catholic) family in Virginia. Sometimes they say grace before the meal, and I sit there feeling, for the briefest moment, ignorant and foolish for having opted out of my own religious education. At least I’d know whom to thank, and how, in my own way. Now, no one reminds me to say my prayers; my dad could call me about this, or text, but doesn’t. Hanukkah, for me, isn’t much more than a childhood memory.

As I write this, on what is the first night of Hanukkah, I can see clearly from my bedroom window the Empire State Building, shining bright in the skyline. It is lit up with stripes of blue and white tonight. The top of the building is always lit up in some fancy combination of colors, sometimes flashing and fading into different hues. When it’s not obvious (like orange and green for Halloween) or white (which means nothing), I like to look up what the colors represent, because I am a child of the Internet. Despite living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which has one of the largest and fastest growing populations of Hasidic Jews in the world, I hadn’t realized that tonight was the start of Hanukkah. So I went to the website that describes and explains the reason behind the Empire State Building’s nightly colors: blue and white with a candle flickering antenna in honor of Hanukkah.

Say your prayers.

Molly Oswaks is a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in Playboy, Maxim, Cosmopolitan, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, and other outlets.

Molly Oswaks is a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in Playboy, Maxim, Cosmopolitan, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, and other outlets.