Recently I found myself lighting a candle as a way to honor someone who died and is deeply missed. For me, being Jewish is an ethnic and cultural identity—a connection to my history and to that of my kinfolk. So, I didn’t think of lighting a candle until my rabbi son suggested it might afford some relief, and it did seem fitting. I searched cupboards and drawers and found an African candle I had bought some time ago. I placed it in a favorite candleholder and held a match to the wick, enjoying the light and the richly decorated candle. I was thinking how right it was for the complex and bright spirit I was missing. It brought a feeling of solace—and my secular soul was struck by a forgotten memory.
I had a sudden mental image of my youthful mother in the kitchen of my childhood home, lighting the Friday evening Sabbath candles—an obligation she habitually performed every Friday night of her life—and there too was a vision of my old bubby (grandmother) benching licht.
The recall of ceremonies and practices I knew from a young age brings associations connected with my family’s immigrant history, and they are deeply ingrained and somewhat unconscious. This realization first came as I sat down to write my novel, Odessa, Odessa. Not knowing what I was going to write, I began to type as if by magic and wrote:
“Henya Chanah is a woman who no longer bleeds, so she puzzles over how this could have happened.”
In writing I began to grasp the significance and depth of my Jewish cultural heritage, as scenes and characters from nineteenth century Russia appeared from words that seemed to fall onto the page. I render Henya, the wife of a rabbi, over many years, as she and her family immigrate from the Settlement of Pale to a crowded tenement apartment in Brighton Beach where she lights the Sabbath candles.
“Traditionally, on Friday evening before kindling the Shabbos candles, Henya fires up the samovar by igniting a small piece of coal and pouring two quarts of water into the center cylindrical urn. She places the teapot—stuffed with black tea leaves from a small Russian grocery several blocks away, and whole cloves, and a pinch of cinnamon—on the crown of the samovar to keep it hot and ready to drink until Shabbos ends, marked by the tight light of the blue-and-white braided Havdalah candle.”
Henya is a rebbetzin, raised to know that the life of a rebbe is one of contemplation, and to know it is a woman’s place to attend to her husband’s needs. No one had to ask; she knew her duty.
The lighting of a candle transported me to the customs and traditions of earlier generations of Jewish women who sustained the emotional continuity in their ritual lighting of the Sabbath candles. I now recognize that my mother, her mother and all the mothers and grandmothers going back generations, lit candles and chanted the blessing to symbolically memorialize the enduring traditions of their lives, both the celebrations and lamentations—all that makes life meaningful.