The Lights Went Out
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The Lights Went Out

Chana recalls her experience trapped in a subway car during New York's 1965 blackout.

Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines. She is a regular contributor to the AJT.

For the record, electrical emergencies are not unknown to me.

I was on the subway in 1965 during New York’s biggest blackout, trapped for many hours with other weary commuters in the ancient days before cell phones. The trains stopped where they were, the lights went out, and the doors wouldn’t open. All the smokers in our car whipped out their lighters to provide illumination (yes, some lit up, and no one protested).

While a few altruistic individuals shared their snacks, throat lozenges and chewing gum, an innocent-looking teen pulled out a handgun and aimed it at a window. It’s reassuring to know that subway windows are bullet-resistant, but that time we passengers were disappointed. Everything’s relative.

Here’s a piece of advice: do your best not to be confined underground with angry New Yorkers looking forward to dinner and their favorite TV show.

I was once trapped at the apex of a mammoth Ferris wheel, on a first date. I’m never comfortable hanging up in the air with a steel bar between me and a free fall, but Stan was eager to try the oversized ride, and I decided to gird my loins and be a good sport. When the wheel suddenly came to a complete stop, some of the riders in lower seats chose to risk life and nice clothes by climbing down to freedom, but the rest of us stayed put. We were aloft for a long time, and I found out a lot about my date that afternoon, the most important fact being that, in spite of my protestations, he considered rocking back and forth in the sky to be a form of entertainment.

More advice: if you have even a touch of acrophobia, do not date people who have a different idea of high-altitude fun than you do.

Now we come to my latest, and, in my opinion, most instructive electricity-related situation: a recent Shabbat power outage.

My husband, Zvi, and I are Sabbath observers, which means that all our utility-related devices are set well before sundown on Friday evenings. Two weeks ago, uncharacteristically, I had prepared everything necessary a bit early, and I decided to light my candles and read while Zvi finished what he had to do before heading to synagogue.

There I was, enjoying a book, with absolutely no worries. The table was set, the meal was on a warming platter, the house lights were on or off, as needed, when suddenly they failed. I had already entered the world of Shabbat; however, my ace in the hole was still home. I ran into Zvi’s study, but he was a step ahead of me. He was frantically looking for the three battery-powered lanterns we keep, just in case we lose electricity.

It’s true that my husband periodically suggested that we purchase a generator for the all-too-frequent incidences of power outages, but I, the ever-thrifty and reality-averse member of our team, demurred. In a stopgap move, Zvi bought three long-duration lanterns. But we had used them before, so how long would they last? We immediately discovered that one of them already didn’t work and decided to place one of the functioning lanterns on our table and one in a bathroom.

The sun hadn’t completely set, and it was still a bit light outside. Zvi decided to pray at home; then we could take a walk to check the neighborhood. Even though our street was completely without illumination, we saw that houses on other streets had light, and some of our neighbors, especially those with young children, were heading to friends and relatives. We ate dinner and talked about the Torah portion, the news, our family and generators.

Was it better to leave our leftover food out, in order to keep from opening the refrigerator, which would reduce its temperature? We decided to chance it. As we opened the door slightly and quickly put food in, the house lights miraculously came on for good. It was so gloriously bright!

It occurs to me that our electricity-deprived ancestors lived contentedly from sunrise to sunset, adapting to the natural cycle of seasonal light. Shabbat oil lamps and menorahs actually extended the illumination in their homes. Isn’t that interesting?

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