March 4, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Chanukiot of Sheffield Road

It was the first night of Chanukah. The candles were lit, Maoz Tzur had been sung, and everyone was ready to sit down for latkes and jelly doughnuts. But Beanie needed to be walked. He was a small, white mutt of unknown breed, but everyone in the Birnbaum house adored him. Beanie stuck to a strict schedule, and nature waits for no man. So with a heavy sigh, an empty feeling in the pit of his stomach and an empty plastic Glatt Express bag in his hand, Jonathan Birnbaum grabbed Beanie’s leash and went to take him for a stroll. It was a beautiful night in Teaneck. The air was crisp, and you could almost see your breath when you exhaled. The moon was behind a thin layer of clouds and peeked through occasionally for added atmosphere.

Jonathan stepped out in front of his house and let Beanie linger on the grass. In the front window he could see all of the chanukiot that had been lit by his family. The Birnbaums were doing an excellent job of pirsumei nisa, publicizing the Chanukah miracle. From his vantage point on the lawn he could see all six of the chanukiot they had lit, all in a neat row, with one candle and a shamash in each. He stared at the large silver menorah his parents had given him when he left home. It had been inherited by Jonathan’s mother when her Uncle Benno had passed away, childless. He had received it as a gift from his cousins who fled from Germany to Mexico in the 1930s. Although it was actually Mexican, it was as close as Jonathan’s mother had to a family artifact. She had left Germany with her parents after Kristallnacht with nothing, grateful just to be alive.

The chanukiah in the window that caught Jonathan’s eye the most was the only one that wasn’t lit. Next to all the burning candles was a small brass chanukiah with eight very small branches. It had been Jonathan’s father’s when he was a child. He thought it had come from his own grandfather, from the German town of Flacht, but he wasn’t sure. The branches were too small to fit conventional candles or oil flasks, but they put it out for the sense of family continuity it gave them. It was like the Kos Eliyahu, the Cup of Elijah, of the Birnbaum Chanukah lighting, for the members of the family who weren’t there.

Beanie and Jonathan continued slowly down the block. Walking down Sheffield Road so soon after Chanukah candle lighting was like a tour of the chanukiot of the neighborhood. In a way, it was a tour of each family’s personal history.

Four houses down on the left lived the Davidoff family. Mark Davidoff had many beautiful chanukiot in his house. One was silver with a large Magen David supporting the shamash. One had translucent colored glass with a Chagall-like painting on the base. But Mark lit on a chanukiah he had carved in woodshop in Camp Raleigh in 1985, when he was 10. The eight oil lamps sat on top of a 4-inch-high model of the Kotel Hamaaravi, the Western Wall, that he had carved with a pocket knife. He felt a sentimental attachment to his handiwork, and it was the only chanukiah he would light. Sitting right next to his chanukiah on the windowsill was one his 5-year-old daughter Sharon had made in school that year. It, too, was a wooden model of the Kotel, and Mark, Sharon and Dina, Sharon’s mother, couldn’t have been prouder of the matching set.

Diagonally across the street from the Davidoffs lived the Simons. Beanie always like to linger on their lawn, and the Simons had one of the nicer landscaping jobs in the neighborhood, so Jonathan never argued with him. Among the chanukiot in their window was Rina Simon’s. It was a simple design, thin metal branches on a small base painted with different geometric shapes in red, green and blue. It looked like something you might find in a synagogue gift shop. But what made it special was that Rina never cleaned it. She let the wax collect on it from year to year. The multi-colored wax had taken on a thick, knotty quality that made it look like the roots of an old tree. Some remnants of wax had dried in droplet form hanging off the branches like stalactites. It looked majestic, ancient and wizened all at once.

Jonathan tried to get Beanie to pick up the pace, but he slowed the pooch down when he reached the Teitelbaums. Sam Teitelbaum had the most unique chanukiah he had ever seen, and he stopped to watch its oil burn. When the Teitelbaums lived in Israel in the 1980s, Sam befriended a dealer in Jewish antiquities in Jerusalem. With his help, Sam constructed a chanukiah out of eight ancient oil lamps from the period of the Maccabees and mounted them on an olive-wood base. According to Sam, they weren’t museum quality, but they were still beautiful. The Teitelbaums lit with glass flasks inside the ancient oil lamps to protect them, but to Jonathan, that was as close to a Hasmonean experience as any of his neighbors would ever approach.

Beanie and Jonathan turned the corner onto Country Club Drive to complete their walk. The first house belonged to the Moskowitzes. Sarah Moskowitz lit on a brass chanukiah modeled after one in a Sephardic synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. When Sarah was 18 she spent a year studying in yeshiva in Israel. Her parents came to visit her, and on their trip they saw the synagogue and fell in love with the chanukiah encased in glass out front. They found a model of it and bought it for Sarah as a surprise. They kept it for her until she got married and settled down. From the base hung fish, a symbol of fertility, and clenched fists, a symbol of strength. It stood over a foot tall and had a Levantine look, standing apart from the more modern chanukiot on the table.

Next door to the Moskowitzes, the Schusters had no fancy chanukiah in their window. Debby Schuster lit on a small, modest blue one that had been a gift from her roommate in college. She had learned to light on it before she converted to Judaism, and the kindness of her roommate in patiently teaching her the blessings over the candles and teaching her Chanukah songs would always hold a special place in her heart.

Beanie’s leash got snagged on an azalea bush in front of the Levys, and it took Jonathan a few seconds to extricate him. The Levys had many pretty chanukiot in their window, but the one that Jonathan noticed was the Winnie the Pooh model that had caused such a ruckus last year. He couldn’t believe they still had it. The Levys purchased it last year at Amazing Savings, and when they lit it, Tigger’s nose caught fire, necessitating a visit from the Teaneck Fire Department. It was later recalled by the manufacturer of this Ten Mile Wood disaster. Sima Levy had accidentally put it back in the box with their Chanukah supplies from last year, and now it sat among the other chanukiot, unlit, emitting a faint burnt plastic smell. They kept it on hand as a reminder of Chanukahs past.

The last Jewish house they passed before returning home was that of Rabbi Ehrlich. He was the rabbi of the Birnbaum’s synagogue, and he lit with a special chanukiah. It had been his father’s father’s. It was heavy silver, with two outward-facing lions supporting the eight oil lamps on their backs, and Jonathan could not think of a more appropriate design for their rabbi, the backbone of their community. Rabbi Ehrlich’s father was a community rabbi in Passaic, New Jersey, and his grandfather had also been a rabbi in Poland before he emigrated to the Bronx. His great-grandfather had been a dayan, a judge, of some prominence in Europe before World War II. The rabbinical tradition ran deep in their family. When Rabbi Ehrlich recited the brachot over the olive oil in his chanukiah, he could feel his grandfather in the room. He would recite She’asa Nisim La’avoteinu—He who created miracles for our fathers—bayamim hahem—in those days—bazman hazeh—in this time, and feel multiple levels of generational connections. The Maccabees, his congregants, young and old, and his family, past and present. It was a magical moment for him.

There were still latkes on the table when Beannie scampered through the door of the Birnbaum House, nipping at heels and licking hands, but the best sufganiyot, jelly doughnuts, were clearly gone. Still, Jonathan felt the walk had been time well spent. His journey through the neighborhood had given him perspective on his community and everything it represented. Maybe next year he would let his son light with Uncle Benno’s chanukiah and buy a new one for himself. It would have to be special. It needed to last a long time.

By Larry Stiefel

 Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics.

 

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