In the beginning – how else does one start a wonderful story? – a Jewish family invited the whole neighborhood to make Light together over eight days. But first, the father Jim sculpted giant clay buildings to hold the candles and the sun and moon aligned so the first time we assembled was Christmas Eve. I hadn’t lit a menorah candle before but after the first night I was drawn as though magnetized whenever I was in town – six of the eight nights at 6 PM between the Eves.
Every night I learned something new. Since I arrived early on the first night, I heard the story of Hanukkah from a boy in a wheelchair. His mother was gently grilling him, “Why do we even do this?” Since there were only a handful of early-birds, I stood alongside and encouraged him, “Oh good, I don’t know this story. Tell me.” I learned about the small amount of oil that miraculously lit the desert for more than a week.
That’s when Jim slipped in with others and explained the process. Someone would hold a did-he-say-shama candle from which we would light all the others. The first house held eight candles. If you were filling the lowest floor it was best to straighten your elbow and, to avoid burns, form your wrist into an L-shape so you could safely lower the candle on your fingers. When all were lit, we’d extinguish the string of electric lights and recite or sing the traditional Hebrew prayer together. That’s what I remember about Day 1. Oh yes, I also remember spontaneously hugging Jim and his wife Carolyn, too, at the end knowing I had found a gem and would be returning night after night.
I took my own family to the Hanukkah observation the next night. Mom and Carolina huddled together under a new down comforter (a gift from Santa) and sat on the bench in front of the menorah. Rob stepped up to serve as Shamash holder. And since Jim was out-of-town, his oldest son Jesse ably led the proceedings. After prayers, we sang a few songs, including the one I knew about the dreidel.
James came with me on Day 6. We’d first known James as a baby 20 years ago when his folks lived across the street before they moved back home to Australia. He’d returned to check out this second home of his. An outdoor Hanukkah lighting seemed the perfect way to re-introduce him. I chuckled when he asked, “Is this what usually happens in America? Everyone is so friendly.” Why answer? After all, I might risk altering any surreal glow that the usual neighborhood Hanukkah lighting might pose after 30+ hours of traveling. Maybe he was imagining the soft warmth of similar and simultaneous miracle-making in neighborhoods across the land? Yes, maybe we obese Americans do all drive giant pick-up trucks but at least we know our neighbors and assemble in the rainy darkness once a year. An extra bonus was James met Gabe, another of Jim and Carolyn’s sons, and launched a plan to get together later. Knowing Gabe proved especially gracious two nights later after all the buildings were lit because James could welcome in 2017 with peers.
As the week progressed I had a chance to ask Jim a question now and then. I learned that he didn’t start out to build a menorah but after constructing some of the village, realized what he had in his hands. I learned that he’s left-handed and so, in recognition of this family characteristic, untraditionally lights the menorah left-to-right. He explained that the bricks between the buildings and his home were crafted individually and serve to reflect light, thus creating more of it, rather than to provide a fire break as I’d assumed. The small white vase cradled in the wall above the center candle is a “social experiment” always there throughout the year to see if anyone walks away with it. This artful story goes on and on – starting long ago in the desert and evolving, fresh and polished-up each year, even here in drippy Seattle.
While I knew Jim’s name before our week of lighting candles together, I wasn’t sure of his last name (Stout) and had to ask how to spell Carolyn. I knew the basics: he’s a physician as well as a potter and has three sons. This week though, what I remember best about all I’ve learned, is Jim’s deep soul. I watched him share an ancient tradition matter-of-factly with just the right amount of both laughter and reverence, especially for those of us gathered at his home, outdoors and in public. I saw him interact with his family and all of us. I left knowing his deep creative self because he had humbly and peacefully touched all of ours.
Would that we could all create light together and share our stories in this way.