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Flickers of Light

Project Coordinator: Rachel Bachrach

Everyone has a special menorah. A collection of personal accounts for every night of Chanukah

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

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E veryone has a special menorah — it might be the exquisite silver chassan gift from shanah rishonah, or the dried-out block of clay with bottle-cap inserts from elementary school, or the family heirloom that miraculously made it to safer shores together with bedraggled refugees. But no matter what kind of menorah Jews have lit over the centuries — openly with pride in years of comfort, or in hiding with bravery and mesirus nefesh during times of terror and death — that sliver of light continues to push away the overwhelming darkness.

1. Daddy’s Gift

Chaia Frishman

It’s barely November and the search for glass cups for the menorah is already on my mind. This menorah is anything but standard. Then again, neither was the man behind it.

Before “take your daughter to work day” existed, my father often brought me to his shop on 47th Street in Manhattan. There I was able to assemble small tools, watch metal shards fly as he worked on his machines, and observe him interacting with his customers. My favorite memory is the look on a bedraggled customer’s face when Daddy ripped up his bill, absolving him of his debt, and wished him a freilechen Chanukah. Daddy’s talent and business acumen could never compete with his compassion.

It was mixed into his baby food. Born on February 5, 1931, in Brest-Litovsk, a.k.a. Brisk (hometown of our great prime minister, Menachem Begin, Daddy used to boast), my father lived in a simple home. His father, Avraham Gwirczman, made aliyah in 1933. Daddy’s mother, Chaia Tzivia née Morosovich, and siblings followed two years later.

Life was hard. Daddy’s mother had to leave him home alone as a young child, so she could work as a cook for weddings.


School was a luxury my father was forced to give up at the age of 13, when he went to apprentice in a small metal shop. At the same time, he studied metal works in a vocational school.

Metal was his calling. To this day, the smell of grease at the auto body shops evokes warm memories for me. Daddy’s hands were perpetually rough and stained, smelling of the tar soap he used each night to clean them. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 689) 

2. Candles from Heaven

C.S. Teitelbaum

He knew it could very well be his final journey.

As the train clacked its way from Hungary to Bergen-Belsen, my grandfather — then a young boy, later to become the Liezher Rav, Rav Yehoshua Zev Meisels shlita — huddled close to his parents and seven siblings. They were all part of a “Sondertransport,” a special negotiated transport.

Too often, the Nazis yemach shemam used this code word deceivingly, and the passengers were sent to their deaths. But in early December 1944, that trainload of 4,200 Hungarian Jews did in fact receive special treatment. The Jews were sent as exchange prisoners to the Hungarian Lager located within the notorious Bergen-Belsen complex, where they were held as potential pawns for future negotiations with the Allied Forces.

As the Jews gathered at the train station, the Germans announced that anyone unable to work should go to a different transport, one that was supposedly headed for a non-labor camp. My great-grandmother intuited that “labor-free” meant death, and she insisted that she and her eight youngsters were capable and strong enough to work. My grandfather and his siblings were the only children on his transport.

They journeyed to the strains of “Ani Maamin” and “Habeit miShamayim ure’eh… necheshavnu katzon latevach,” sung with raw emotion by a people heading, like sheep to slaughter, to an uncertain fate. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 689)

3. Missile of Fire

Ahava Ehrenpreis

 “V’chitasu charvosom l’petitim — and they will beat their swords into plowshares,” says the famous pasuk from Yeshaya. In Sderot, come Chanukah, those holy words echo in a modern rendition: You shall turn their Kassam rockets of destruction into the light of the menorah. The story of Sderot’s special menorah began when Rabbi David Fendel, rosh yeshivah of the Hesder Yeshiva of Sderot, decided to transform the thousands of deadly Kassam rockets battering their community into something positive. In 2007, he contacted artist Yaron Bob, a sculptor who works with metal and lives in Yated, a yishuv not far from Sderot, and began turning his plan into reality.

Yaron used empty rocket shells collected by the army and police force of Sderot to construct a giant menorah. Once completed, it was placed on the roof of the yeshivah’s rocket-proof beis medrash, the highest point in the area. Now the menorah’s light can be seen across the region, including by Hamas, the inadvertent “donors” of its raw material. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 689)

4. A Gift of Light

Riki Goldstein

 They got engaged in 1937 in a shtetl near Trnava (Tyrnau in German and Nagyszombat in Hungarian), in the Jewish Oberland area of Slovakia. Proud and excited, Aidel commissioned a gift for her chassan: a custom-made silver menorah, crafted in the signature style of the Chasam Sofer’s personal menorah.

In the tzaddik’s opinion, a menorah with branches too closely resembles the menorah in the Beis Hamikdash, so this silver candelabra was most unusually shaped: no base, no branches, just a covered rectangular box with eight compartments for olive oil, placed on a small silver tray. Aidel’s heart overflowed with prayer as she watched her husband tzind the dancing flames of faith.

Three daughters were born to the couple, and then war came to Slovakia. The Jews of Pressburg and Nitra and Trnava no longer lit their menorahs openly; dark forces had shadowed their lights. In 1943, a son was born to Aidel — one of the only Jewish children born in Slovakia that year. He was the last infant to lie, at his bris, on the lap of the holy Nitra Rav, Rav Shmuel Dovid Ungar.

Eighteen months later, Aidel gave their silver flatware, jewelry, and money to a gentile neighbor and moved her family into a freezing attic to escape deportation and death. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 689)

5. The Potato in the Closet

As told to Malkie Schulman by Maksim Shilkrot

By the time I was four years old, I knew that in our city of Kishinev, in Moldova, the walls had ears and the windows had eyes. In the Soviet Union, religious activity was illegal and liable for severe punishment, so everything religious was performed in secret. For example, to prevent inquisitive neighbors from noticing anything out of the ordinary, my mother served cheese and meat together on the same plate with a napkin separating them. The napkin was ostensibly for aesthetic purposes. In reality, it was to keep the dairy and meat separate.

Despite our constant fear of the KGB (secret police) marching into our home unannounced and arresting us, my parents worked hard to instill Jewish values in their two sons. Holiday rituals especially were very meaningful to them, although purchasing a menorah in a store was out of the question. Menorahs were only to be found on the black market, which was under the ever watchful eye of the authorities.

To circumvent this dilemma — and in commemoration of what he and his fellow Jews had experienced during the Holocaust — my grandfather fashioned a menorah from potatoes. Though most of his relatives were murdered at Babi Yar or died on the fatal train rides to slave labor camps, he was lucky enough to survive. He spent those years in the ghetto in Ribnitsa (Ribnitz), a Moldovan town close to the Romanian border. The ghetto’s Jews who were determined to uphold tradition would take their precious potatoes, carve holes, fill them up with grease or oil — whatever flammable material they could find — and light them.

Their resourcefulness sparked my grandfather to follow suit. To make our menorah, he would take three or four large potatoes, drill a hole or two in each potato depending on its size, and insert candles. In Communist Russia, potatoes were safe: they were an everyday grocery item that no one would think twice about, and they could be tossed in the garbage when we finished using them. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 689)

6. My Pewter Menorah

Yaakov Rosenblatt

When Chanukah arrives, I take out my 14-inch pewter menorah from our breakfront. All year, it sits behind a variety of items: dishes, trays, Kiddush cups, and a Havdalah set. On Chanukah, we place it on a folding table near the window, on a glass tray covered with foil. It sits on the far side of the table and serves as a backdrop for the smaller menorahs in front of it, the ones our children made in school and the one my wife received as a gift from her parents decades ago.

In our first years of marriage, I used a much smaller menorah, the low, brass chanukiah I had used in yeshivah. It left an oily residue between the cups I could never quite get clean and was too narrow for the glass cups that had become fashionable. It only worked with cotton wicks, which left a faint light at the edge of each cup. The pewter menorah, which holds elegant glasses and tall floating wicks, was a giant step forward.

My father had a silver menorah, purchased after our house was burglarized in the 1980s and his menorah was stolen. My childhood memories are of a silver menorah and menorahs made of bottle caps or steel bolts, glued to wood with Elmer’s. There wasn’t much in between.

I like my pewter menorah. It is sturdy, tall, and elegantly crafted. Sure, it’s imperfect. The glass oil cups don’t quite fit into the candelabra arms; they rest precariously on the branches, and a slight nudge can drop a cup and make a mess. One of the branch tops is also not quite round, and the glass on that branch tilts noticeably. But it works. And it has served me well for the last 15 years. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 689)

7. The Menorah that Survived with Us

Margie Pensak

The sterling silver menorah stood stately and proud against the backdrop of the White House’s East Room, where then-president Barack Obama was hosting his final annual Chanukah reception. During his introduction to the menorah-lighting ceremony, President Obama paid tribute to the menorah’s owners: Rina and Joseph Walden, a young Polish couple who acquired it in the early 1900s, and their descendants, who brought the menorah, the only Walden family treasure to survive the Holocaust, to Israel. One of those descendants, Dr. Raphael Walden, is married to former Israeli president Shimon Peres’s only daughter, Tsvia. The White House ceremony was therefore also partly a tribute to Shimon Peres, who had passed away earlier that year.

Dr. Walden, a resident of Kfar Azar, a village near Ramat Gan, Israel, shares the story. “My grandfather was a self-made wealthy businessman in the leather business in Warsaw,” he says. The family history can be traced back at least four centuries to Warsaw, Poland. His illustrious forefathers include his paternal great-grandfather, Rav Aharon Walden, known especially for penning Shem Hagedolim He’hadash (Warsaw, 1864) and Mikdash Me’at (Warsaw, 1890).

“When my parents were ready to enter university, there was a quota for Jewish students in Poland. Being fervent Zionists, my mother wanted to study medicine and my father wanted to study agronomy — occupations that would be useful for them in Palestine. So my parents decided to move to France to study there.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 689)

8. Illuminating a Home

As told to Mimi Nissan

When I remember my first year married, I mostly remember purchases. After all, a new Jewish home needs many things. A mezuzah, carefully nailed up on the doorpost on move-in day. Candlesticks, to graciously usher in the Shabbos dusk. A siddur or two, and a few seforim to line the walls in deep blues and burgundies.

And a menorah, to be brought out once a year and lovingly polished before taking its place at the window or doorway, where it will proudly declare to the world, “This is not just a house — this is a Jewish home.”

When Chanukah came around during that first year, we did in fact have a menorah. Years before, when I was still a single baalas teshuvah, I had bought a simple, silver-plated menorah for about $30 from a local Judaica store. Each year I would light the small menorah alone in my basement apartment and sit by the lights as long as I could, basking in the mitzvah.

But now that I was married, I found myself looking at my old menorah with disappointment. While it held bright memories for me, it certainly wasn’t what I had imagined my husband lighting.

Doesn’t a chassan deserve a special menorah? I worried. Doesn’t a Jewish home need a real Jewish menorah? (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 689)

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