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Good Letters

Summer is here in Australia, a string of perfectly forgettable sunny days lulling us along until the sudden arrival of the holidays. Three years since leaving Canada, my husband, Michael, and I are still bewildered by Christmas tunes wavering mirage-like over the sunbaked pavement at the grocery store.

As we drive past the neighbor’s inflatable Santa bloating in the heat, our five-year-old, Ingrid, asks in ecstasy, “Is it almost Hanukkah, too?” and we arrive again at our awkward attempts to inhabit our Judeo-Christian traditions. It’s a perpetual conflict.

The sunshine doesn’t help either.

Among our grandparents we count three Jews and one Anglican (his), three Catholics, and one Lutheran turned Catholic (mine). Among our parents, two Catholics turned Evangelical Protestants (mine), and one nonobservant Jew, one New Age Universalist and one Scotch-Presbyterian atheist ex-stepfather (his).

Together for fourteen years, we’ve lived in five countries and stumbled in and out of at least as many churches. Michael says he’s a Christmas and Easter Jew, kidding/not kidding depending on his audience. He’d rather go to the beach on a Sunday. I miss the liturgy and friendships from my old Lutheran summer camp and keep wandering back to church.

In the absence of the families and communities that formed us, what do we share with each other? What do we give to our daughters?

Hanukkah is the one Jewish holiday that we continue to keep. The menorahs come down from their high shelf in the kitchen. There are five so far, gathered in the early days of our marriage. Michael, having lost three grandparents and his father by age twenty, tried filling part of the void they left by converting to Christianity, marrying me, and attempting to replicate his grandfather’s lost menorah collection. His sense of exile from his origins only seems to deepen as Ingrid reaches the age he was when his parents split up and his grandfather became his best companion.

A few months after we moved to Australia, Ingrid gutted the drawer where Michael keeps his grandfather’s things: a white and silver yarmulke, the prayer shawl bought on a trip to Israel in the late 1980s, a certificate of pilgrimage, and a plastic foil pouch of Burger King ketchup labeled in Hebrew.

Michael has been carrying these with him since he was a teenager. He has not been back to temple since his grandfather’s funeral, partly from grief, partly from ambivalence over his conversion. The tattoo, the bacon, the Jesus—he’s not ready to talk about it. And where would he go? Whom would he tell?

As he gingerly tucked his collection away, he paused to put on the shawl and fingered the knots in the fringe. “I know they mean something,” he said, “but I can’t remember what.”

Twisting the Hanukkah candles into their small holes, I tell the girls the story of the Maccabean revolt and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Legend has it that when the Maccabees cleaned out the Temple and reestablished sacrifice, the scant supply of lamp oil miraculously burned bright through eight days of celebration. The book of 1 Maccabees tells the origin of the feast without the miraculous oil, but the return of offerings, incense, light, bread, and music to the briefly restored Temple was reason enough to found the holiday we observe two millennia later.

Michael chips old wax out of the other menorahs and we remember past celebrations:

The Hanukkah before we left our first apartment in Montana, candles flaming in our first menorah, a U-shaped tree with a Star of David at its heart. I scrambled to attempt my first batch of mediocre latkes. The too-wet globs of potato and onion foundered in a pan of insufficiently hot oil.

The year we searched a Christmas-packed mall in Fort Worth and bought the only menorah we could find. A friend turned up early to grate potatoes and squeeze them through a kitchen towel to get the moisture level right for the latkes.

The brass Jerusalem souvenir menorah I bought in a Budapest antique store to nudge Michael after Ingrid was born. It had been a very long time since we celebrated anything. After the drawer incident, I unpacked it for our first Hanukkah here, and showed Ingrid how to wring the water from the potatoes.

I suspect the Maccabees wouldn’t recognize us, our Jesus, our dreidels and latkes. But we persist in recognizing them, and the lingering residue of their tribal faith that has come down to us through the ages: our shared belief in God. Candle by candle, night by night, we go through the motions of renewing our faith.

The eight days of Hanukkah make room for so much to happen. The joy missing one night might emerge another. The knack of spinning a dreidel and reciting Hebrew and believing grow a little more fluent as each day passes. By midweek, the blessings roll off our tongues again, and I encourage our daughters to repeat the Hebrew words, hoping they will feel more fluent in their mouths than they do in mine.

Michael recites, Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam…

With my Protestant impulse to pray in my mother tongue—to make room for us all to understand the utterance of our thanksgiving—I repeat again, Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe…

Tomorrow I will make the last batch of latkes of the holiday. I will look for divine provision in the mix of minced onion and grated potato, the pinch of salt, the spoonful of flour, and the egg. For a few brief minutes I will feel like a good Jewish wife, united with a far-flung and diverse tribe of women standing over pans of hot oil the world over, frying potato pancakes and thinking about Jerusalem.

Then together we will fill our darkened house with light and heat and affirm the possibility of miracles.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Alissa Herbaly Coons

Alissa Herbaly Coons holds an MFA from Seattle Pacific University, library cards from three countries, and hands when crossing the street. She blogs about her immigrant experience at startingoverdownunder.wordpress.com.

  • Denise

    So good to hear from you, Alissa. Blessings, and may you have cool nights.

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