Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tree of Life

I have never bought a menorah although I have two in my home. One was from a relative and the other came to me strictly by happenstance. Ever since my run-in with a former fellow tenants, when the Stars of David’s were craved into my walls and doors around my flat with the immortal phrase ‘Kill the Jew’, the local neighbour people have taken to calling me the Jew Lady. From time to time I would run into this older homeless woman. It was hard to tell her age under the layers of clothes and dirt. She spent practically one entire summer stalking me on the street and every time she saw me always demanded to know if I was the Jew Lady.

Every time she started hectoring me down the street I was overwhelmed by a profound sense of guilt. It was solely irrational but purely an instinctually response. I did my best to ignore her by turning up my iPod and walking fast away. One day, in the fall, I relented, turned off the iPod, and slowed down to speak to her. I asked her why she kept calling me the Jew Lady. She answered because she was tired of always being the alone.

I asked her if she was hungry and she said yes. I took her into a local coffee shop and bought her lunch. Over coffee I asked her if she would let me help her. I explained I had friends who worked for a Jewish community centre and they could probably help her – at the least - she would have a place to go where she would not have to be alone. This idea aggravated her and she fled the coffee shop.

I didn’t see her again for weeks. Then coming home late one night shortly before Chanukah I found her sitting on the steps outside my front porch. Her bags were all arranged at her feet. She told me she had something to give me and reached into one of her bags and pulled out a menorah shaped as a Tree of life. While I am not overtly familiar with Kabalah, I do understand somewhat the nature of the symbolism associated with the Tree of Life - which can represent the unique and unknowable nature of G-d. I didn’t want to take it from her and explained I wasn’t religious. It seems to be one of the few things of value she possessed. She grew impatient with me again. In frustration, she shouted out at me she has no home, no doorway or window to put the menorah in which to light it. If I would take it and light the candles for her each night she could see it, enjoy it, and know she wasn’t alone.

What could I do? So I took the menorah, and for the first time in my life I placed a menorah in my front window on Chanukah. In for a penny, out for a pound, so I called the local Chabad house and got the candle lighting times and on the first night of Chanukah, I placed the menorah in my window, and pulled my grandfather’s siddur off the bookshelf. I lit the shamash, and started to search for the blessing, and instead, found a handwritten piece of paper tucked into the prayer book with instructions and the blessings to recite for lighting the candles each night. It was like someone knew this day would come for me and so sought to prepare me.

Once I started to sound out the words, I realized I knew them and the meaning and so I sang them out. I was surprised and taken back by the comfort I got from doing this. Perhaps, it was because for a few lost souls there was finally a little light was shining in the darkness. I haven’t seen my bag lady since she gave me my menorah but every year since, I place her menorah in the window and light the candles.
If only it was so easy for the rest of us to bring in a little light into our souls.

The whole point of my menorah story is that this year I will be out of town during Chanukah and I still wanted to bring my menorah and light it. Even though my bag lady wouldn’t see it I did not want to break faith with her. I promised her and gave her my word. I would do this in memory of her.

I was afraid it would get damaged if I traveled with it in the great lot of things I will need to bring for a month’s holiday with the Tribe so I had my friend carry my menorah back out west. Apparently, it got mangled in transit so it can no longer stand on its own. The thought of having no usable menorah to light has distressed me and plagued my sleep. I am not sure what has been made bent can be straightened and rather than risk having no menorah to light I have started a search for a new menorah but nothing I found held meaning for me.

In the end, the menorah was repaired and tonight night, I will do what literally hundreds of generations have done before me on this night. But when I place my Tree of Life in the doorway, light the first candle and recite the last blessing, Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu Melech haolam shehecheyau vekiyimanu vehigianu lizman hazeh [Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.], know this - I stand in awe at the mysteries and inner workings of the universe in which a homeless woman can act as a catalyst to show me my place in the light of the universe.

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