New people moved into my condo complex a few weeks ago. Under normal circumstances, I would have baked a little something and walked down to introduce myself. But I’m pretty sure that nicety is not COVID-19-acceptable, and I weighed leaving the goods on their steps with a note.
But Todd Gutner warned of wild weather, so that didn’t feel quite right either. Knowing I would be embarrassed if we met at the mailboxes, or pulling into our parking spaces, I did nothing.
My Hanukkah dilemma years ago at the Big House on Deepwood Drive was similar. Having already invited everyone I knew to the annual latke party, I debated inviting the neighbors around the cul-du-sac. We had moved into an established cocoon of fancy homes and were the first new kids on the block in years.
I told myself the hesitancy had to do with the crazy mixed crowd that attended our events. There were restaurant compadres who were career partiers. Those kindred spirits knew each other from the incestuous round-robin of employment places we had all moved to-and-from over the years. Also among us were our hairdressers and their husbands. My few Jewish friends and their families were in attendance, and the girls both had friends in the mix.
But, if I were being honest, an uneasy fear of anti-Semitism lurked in the back of my mind. I’m not always sure if it’s out there. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to find out. (More on this in a bit.)
As years went by, teachers got added to the roster, then my new day-job boss, Al, and his wife, my next new day-job boss-turned-friend and her husband, more work colleagues, and seriously, just about everyone. When I invited the UPS guy to stop by, I realized BFF was right and it was getting out of hand.
The story of Hanukkah is one of my favorites, closest to the spirit of our American holiday of Thanksgiving. Many know it’s about the plight of the Jewish people in the second century BC. The ruling Syrian-Greeks wanted the Jews to accept their culture and beliefs and forbid them to live as they had always done. The Jews studied and prayed in secret, and used a spinning top now known as a dreidel to pretend they were gathered to play a gambling game when their occupiers got curious.
Then, against all odds, a small band of faithful but poorly armed Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated the Greek army, drove them from the land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (the Greeks completely trashed it), and rededicated it to their own Jewish way of life. When they tried to light the Temple menorah (the seven-branched candelabra), they found only a single vial of uncontaminated oil. Miraculously, they lit the menorah and the one-day supply of oil lasted for eight days until new oil could be purified. Thus, the light and oil have come to signify so much.
Speaking of oil, no matter how cold outside, everyone attending the latke party was advised to leave their heavy coats in the car. As it was, the smell of the miracle of Hanukkah would be on their clothes, hair, and socks for weeks to come. Frying potatoes and onions for hours leaves a lasting impression.
None of that mattered when you saw the glow as friends hugged and laughed, and even as we dealt with the apocalyptic mess left in my kitchen. Something felt very special about connecting friends from the polar sides of my life. And, it was satisfying when people asked thoughtful questions, the most common being about the “gelt” or chocolate coins used when playing dreidel.
Gelt, as I told them, symbolized money parents gave to their children when learning prayers and about their culture. It also became a way for the children to learn about and provide tzedakah, or charity. Similar to the western concept of charity, tzedakah is an act of goodwill and an ethical obligation.
So, it was with tzedakah in mind that I invited the Deepwood Drive neighbors. Those who came the first year became members of the tribe, coming each year after. While never really absent, my suspicions of anti-Semitism were way off the mark and it felt great (for once) to be wrong.
This year, also with tzedakah in mind, I masked up and went to meet the new people a few condos down. They weren’t home, but imagine my surprise when I saw a brightly lit neon menorah in their window. Taking it as a divine hint, I left a completely different note introducing myself and saying Happy Hanukkah.
Light has so many meaningful metaphors and Hanukkah tells us the more light the better. It’s kind of like the number of people invited to the latke party, which at this rate just might become a community event.
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].