Saturday, December 24, 2016


Did I spell it right? Should it be Hanukah? Or Chanucha? Hannukkah? You can't win when you transliterate. 
Western Wall Chanukiah (menorah)

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah, an 8-day Jewish holiday that celebrates a miracle. Oh! It's Xmas Eve, too.

But you know that story, and honestly, I don't, so let's stick with our strong suits and talk a bit about Chanukah, because it is an underdog beats tyrant-who-isn't-religiously-tolerant victory story, and nothing makes us feel better than an underdog walking off with the trophy.

In a nutshell (we've been cracking them all day long):

The Greeks ransacked The Temple in Jerusalem and did not allow the Jews to practice their religion anymore. (No Sabbath, no Torah, no tradition). We got the Temple back, big fight, and wanted to re-light the menorah, the ner tamid,  a lamp that is never supposed to go out, never did when the Jews were in charge. But they were booted for awhile, and it did go out. But after the fight, having recaptured the Temple, and a thorough, frustrating, infuriating search for pure olive oil, squinting into all of the Temple's nooks and crannies, the Jews finally found a tiny cup of oil, one that hadn't been deliberately spilled to the ground by the marauders. Picture a tiny earthenware jar, like the kind you see in the Museum of Natural History, that's what I do. The tiny pitcher of oil shouldn't have lasted more than one night, but it did. It lasted eight days. Let's eat.

No, let's light.

We just lit the first candle (there's a wick that stays lit that lights the night's lights, see upper right, pic above) and the rule is that while the candles are burning a woman should do no work. None. So I asked myself, Does blogging constitute work? No! Not if you don't edit! Then it's not work. It's not good, either, but it's not work! Does making popcorn constitute work? I wondered aloud. No, it is not work, definitely not. Let's eat.

Popcorn popper with crank (crank not shown)
This is a fun holiday. We play games that resemble gambling (dreidle), eat greasy foods like pizza and potato latkas (oil), give gifts or gelt ($). I go to the bank the week before the holiday and get rolls of quarters for the kids. Ten bucks, they feel rich. No lines at the bank.

And we sing! Below is the best relatively new song making the rounds. Just try to get your family to learn it to sing it in a round at the family Chanukah party. They'll resist and you will lose.

This first night of Chanukah is also Xmas Eve, as has been noted, and contrary to the incredible hustle and bustle, the horrendous bottlenecks of traffic this past week (unbearable in Chicago), this town is finally really, really quiet. And the two holidays falling on the same evening nixes Nittle Nacht, the evening Jews celebrate when it isn't Chanukah but it is Xmas Eve. You can read all about that on last year's post about this time, where I bemoaned the loss of reindeer in the windows on the Magnificent Mile.

So, enough. We don't want to make this too much work. . . .
Let's sign off about now and watch YidLife Crisis with Mayim Bialik. This particular episode should offend no one, but the show (other episodes) can be totally irreverent, so if you take your religion very seriously, take a pass on the rest, except maybe the Chinese restaurant one, Season 2, Episode 2, Yingle Belz. That's classic.  Or just subscribe, do as you're told.*

Why Jews Have Shot Glasses in the Home

Happy Holidays, friends. Don't drink too much, or at all, some of you.


*If I remember, that's what he says at the end: If you liked this,  then Subscribe. And if you didn't like it, Subscribe!

Thursday, December 08, 2016

When It's Too Late to Ask

A good friend of mine is leaving the country, going home, and she might never come back. She isn't leaving because she fears deportation, rather, she hasn't seen her mother in many years. The older woman is getting on, is in her nineties. 

The younger begs her friends to understand: "I have to see my Mommy. If not now, when?" 

We know what she means.

The littlest things can make you think about parents when they're no longer with you, when you can't just call or visit anymore.

FD and I used to have a tradition, inspired in part by my mother. In December she would give me money in a birthday card (out of her social security), and I was to take FD to the opera. Mom, a Dancing With the Stars person, knew we loved the Lyric, but in those days it was cost-prohibitive; we didn't go very often. The idea, to get us out of our work-til-you-drop rut, was a good one. The subtext, maybe, think of your mother while you marvel at the theater, the people, the production.

How do you not honor someone's request that you go to the opera?

It is that time of year, the season and we're opera hungry. So I checked Groupon, found a great price for front section, main floor seating. Not trusting the system and worried that in all probability we might not sit together, I called before booking. (Having that symptom of OCD, being a checker, isn't the worst quality). The nice lady at the other end of the line reassured me that our seats would be together. So we're going. In a way, it's a gift from Mom, an honor to her memory. She would have loved that I checked.

Because of my friend's imminent departure, I thought the best gift for her might be a photo album. Looking through stacks of pictures, I found it impossible to stay focused, hard not to linger over the hundreds of pics that my parents had left behind, memories of us, of themselves as children, as young adults, parents. So many photos of themselves as friends. They had these roles, you know, and sitting on the floor in that walk-in closet, snapshots everywhere, I would ask aloud, nobody there, What is the story behind this one? Who is that? This really is us.

Whatever happened to that dress?
Who is in the way back? Where was I? Is this Logan Square?

There are other questions you have when you divest of your parents things, or decide to keep them.

Like: Where did you get this metal retractable100-ft tape measurer, and why have I never seen it before? It looks a century old! It might be.

Or: When you used that pinking sheers, when you sewed that dress you wore for my wedding, that long, cream, lovely dress that enhanced your Jackie Kennedy looks, what did you think about? Did you think of my brother, the one who didn't live to have his own?

Is that guy in the back of the picture a long lost cousin or a photo bomber? Where was it taken? Was I a happy baby? Did I laugh a lot? How did you forgive me when I crashed your first car, that Studebaker Lark, in the parking lot learning to drive? And when I lost that ring?

A person feels so powerless. How could so few people, only two, have this information? Your questions aren't something you can Google. No search engine is as informative as your mother, your father, not when it comes to something about their house, their reactions to things that happened, their lives, the lives of their relatives, friends, and yours.

Most of us have time to ask, time to get information, those extraordinarily important details, the ones that fill in the blanks. But we don't think to ask them because at the time, it isn't important, not then, not while we're middle-aged and our parents seem immortal.

And if we lose a parent young, it has to be worse. That parent isn't around to answer the simplest questions of youth, like, Should I date this guy? Should I marry that one? Can I just fail this class, because I hate my teacher?! A surviving parent might have answers, but might not be as approachable, or might become sad with your questions. Or you, a young person, simply don't know to even ask. What little kid thinks to ask?

When my younger brother and I spoke together for a few delicious hours on the night before Thanksgiving, we relived the last few years of our parents' lives. Thinking back, we had regrets, sure, but considered ourselves so lucky. We could make our own hours as professionals, and when the folks became physically vulnerable and needy, we could rearrange our schedules to help them. We spent some of that time trying to jog their memories on those drives to see doctors, or while checking their meds. The answer, inevitably: "So long ago. Who can remember?"

Those years flew by, the ones that might have been informative. And we, as the middle-to older-middle-aged generation, fall into the trap that our parents set. We talk about us, not them, when they catch us. We do it in short snippets, for that is all the time we have, and they settle for that. They catch us on the phone, between first and second shifting, or as we make lunches for the next day, or  drive an afternoon car pool, maybe run to a basketball or baseball game, varsity basketball. We could be trying to concentrate while filling out the parent portion of a student loan application, and the phone rings. There isn't much time to talk. And when they catch us, in those lucky moments when we are caught, when we're able and willing to give them the time of day in real time, on the phone*, it is about us, and about our children, because they direct the dialogue that way. Most probably, they do.

Not to give advice to anyone, gentle reader. . . but

assume that one day you will want to know how they kept that 100 foot metal tape measurer from you, the one from the Navy, probably. Or that the pinking sheers has some kind of history, and you don't know when or why your mother decided to sew her own clothes, and some of yours, only that they would be beautiful, an improvement over whatever one could buy retail. And your parents won't be there, probably, when these things occur to you, to tell you anything, and all you'll be able to do is assume, that at the time, whatever they did, they did with you in mind. Probably.

And you'll want to know how it felt when they bought their first major appliance, or a building, and how it felt to have to sell that building to make you a wedding. How did they cope with their in-laws, how did they make it work, if everyone seemed to get along, and how did it feel if it didn't work, if nobody got along.

Make it about them, this season, is my thinking. Ask the people who raised you to tell you the story behind the picture, because pictures jar the memory. Ask them about their transitions, how they handled the move, the first job, the first child, or their health crises, deaths of their parents, alcohol-addicted siblings. Ask about any firsts and lasts, because these are what we remember best, and these are also in the photographs in that big plastic Target container. Bring it out sometime before opening the presents this year, so the kids can hear the stories, too.

My friend, the one who is going home, is going to do that, too. And it is likely her mother will say, "I don't remember. It has been so many years."

But maybe, because her family was so far away, and they know how to use the phone, maybe even, she knows.


*The telephone is this amazing appliance. You talk into it, hear someone talk back, no typing required.

P.S.  Below, a copy of the cover of the Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band vinyl album. My oldest brother shared it with me the day it came out; he brought it home. We were 15 and 17, and I was delighted that he wanted to share it. He hadn't been a talkative brother. The questions for that guy, innumerable.