Shedding Light on the Way We Were

Shedding Light on the Way We Were

Scribbler on the Roof

By Ted Roberts

Wow, has Chanukah changed! In my day it was a thrifty little holiday wherein kids received a few coins on each of the eight days.

A thin silver dime was a pleasant surprise on the first night of the holiday.

In my time — and we’re talking the ’40s — Chanukah meant only a dime, or maybe a quarter if you were a world-class kid. It also meant potato latkes, naturally, and a visit to grandparents and aunts.

We kids lined up in front of Great-Aunt Dora, the mother of all grandmothers. The line ended at a deep armchair that Aunt Dora filled up nicely. She was old and large. And she smelled like her kitchen, whose walls were impregnated with 60 years of onion odors.

When your parents pushed you into Aunt Dora’s arms, you knew right away she was an Olympic fryer of onions. And when you kissed her, you couldn’t help thinking that she probably loved cold goose grease smeared on pumpernickel.

But on Chanukah it was worth it because after the oniony hug, she pressed a coin into your little hand. She gazed steadily into your eyes and, with her hands on yours, folded your finger around — a dime? A quarter? A half-dollar? Who knew?

The protocol of the event called for you to answer her steady gaze with your own and not immediately examine your gift. That was greedy.

The bag beside her was full of coins, from nickels to silver dollars. Maybe, I thought, she rewarded the best huggers and kissers with silver dollars. And the shrinkers who only offered a light squeeze, trying to avoid all those onion fumes, earned only nickels.

I was usually strong enough to squeeze a quarter out of the ordeal. My cousin Arlene, a wily charmer who was manipulative enough to visit Aunt Dora the week before Chanukah, always scored with a shiny silver dollar.

Besides visits to Aunt Dora, coins and potato pancakes, the holiday featured frequent retelling of the feats of the Maccabee brothers, the leaders of the ragged Jewish army that ambushed the Syrian hordes of Antiochus in Judaea’s mountain passes.

It was a glorious victory. It was one of our few victories. This, remember, was in the early 1940s, pre-Israel. Jewish victories were as rare as those of the Washington Senators on the baseball field.

In fact, as far as we kids understood history, the last time a Jewish army had won a war was the face-off with the Canaanites. And we didn’t get full credit for that because the Almighty, with “outstretched arm and mighty hand,” marched at our side.

Besides, we heard our parents discussing the news out of Germany and Poland. More humiliation.

Chanukah reminded us that at least once the Jewish team won a pennant. And Hank Greenberg’s heroic feats with the Detroit Tigers confirmed that Jews could be athletes as well as accountants, physicists and novelists — professions, in our childishness, we considered inferior to that of first baseman for the Detroit Tigers.

So once a year we kissed Aunt Dora and feasted on applesauce-smothered potato cakes.

In the living room, the adults talked about business, family and Aunt Dora’s ailments as they listened to the music of frying latkes coming from the kitchen. My cousin Arlene cleverly deserted our games and sat and listened at Aunt Dora’s knee. Thinking all the while of next year, I’m sure.

Then we all sat around the dining room table and dug into mounds of latkes. Aunt Dora, because of her age and her silver dollars, always went first.

My cousin Arlene usually cut up her potato cakes for her. I know what was on her mind. She was already planning next year’s reward from Aunt Dora.

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