Chanukah memories

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Chanukah is a fun, cheerful holiday and one that often provides a chance to spend time with family and friends during the celebration. It even has an official game. Every family has their stories and some of them go way back. Here are a few short Chanukah anecdotes from some folks who have lit hundreds of Chanukah candles.

Dreidel is a serious business
When Jacob was a small child in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, dozens of extended family members lived within a short distance and big holiday events took over the world as far as he could tell.


“I remember everything smelled like cooking oil,” he said. “We would eat more latkes than I ever really wanted.”

When he was 6 or 7 years old, Jacob remembers being very excited to join his father and several uncles and cousins in a game of dreidel for matchsticks, with a $5 prize for whoever had the most when they were called to dinner. Despite going well at first, arguments soon broke out over the validity of the dreidel used, where it was spun and all kinds of other factors affecting the game.

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“Loud voices were normal,” he said, “but this was really serious, faces were turning red.”

Although he said it embarrasses him to think about now, Jacob said he remembers sneaking a few extra matchsticks into his pile when he thought nobody was paying attention, although it ended up not mattering overall.


“Eventually it was my father and his cousin who had the most and they argued about who really had won until my mother came in and started yelling at them for waking my baby sister,” he said. “We had to stop and no one won but I told my father I thought he had the most matchsticks, which I think made him happy.”

Careful with that candle
As a child in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in the early 1950s, Ruth Gutstein would go with her family to the Workmen’s Circle Chanukah event, participating in a small show with the other children who were around 10 years old. While the children were all on stage holding candles as they celebrated the holiday, Ruth’s attention wandered for a moment and her candle strayed near the head of one of the other girls standing on stage.

“My candle got too close to her hair. It lit it on fire,” she said, recalling the moment when the girl’s hair caught fire.

Happily, a teacher was standing nearby and noticed what had happened before any real panic could break out.

“He had these big hands and he just reached out and put his hand around the fire and put out the girls’ hair,” Ruth said.

Unsurprisingly, this memory has stuck with her in the decades since, and perhaps serves as a reminder of keeping an eye on the candles during those eight nights ahead.

Where’s the Menorah?
When Abe was a child in California during the 1950s, his mother used to light a delicate, gold-plated menorah handed down to her from her grandmother, who had taken it with her to the U.S. from Poland when the family immigrated.

“It had a big Lion of Judah for the base and the oil wells that spread up from it were very thin,” Abe said, remarking on how carefully his mother would take it down and put it back every year.

When he was 12 and roughhousing with a friend during Chanukah, he had knocked against the table where the menorah was placed and it had fallen, cracking some of the gilt and twisting one of the arms. In a panic, Abe swore his friend to secrecy and smuggled the menorah away in his school bag, pleading ignorance when his mother frantically searched.

“I was terrified she’d figure out it was me,” he said. “I just wanted time to figure out a way to fix it.”

Despite his best efforts to find a replacement or someone who could fix it, after a week he’d had no luck and finally confessed to his father what had happened.
“He knew my mother was upset it was gone and wouldn’t want to see it broken,” he said.

After taking it to a jeweler for repairs, Abe’s father presented the menorah to his mother and waved away her questions.

“He used my allowance for the next six months as a way to make me pay for it, but I was just happy he never told my mother what happened,” Abe said.

“Yes, that was my Chanukah miracle.”

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