The Symbolism of Meaning

Eight pinpoints of quiet light, flames aglow atop the candlesticks. The room is dark. Their flicker reflects off the red dining room wall, illuminates the swirling painting above.

On a brass tray carted in a tattered bag from coldest Russia to the new world of New York, two knobby brass candlesticks. My great-grandmother’s. Given to me by my mother when I became religious enough to want to light candles every Friday night, 12 years ago.

Tonight, I lit five – the traditional two, plus three for my children. My grandmother lit two. My daughter lit her single candle, a Chassidic custom I adopted for her at age three, to have her own tangible tradition in a way of living made expressly for men. This single silver candlestick and its accompanying ritual were her third birthday gift, mother to daughter, something only she has, different from the boys.

I’ve never embraced the sexism of religious life. I ignored it for a number of years, tucked it away like a forgotten memory in a back pocket, but never banished it completely. I couldn’t.

And now, as I emerge a butterfly from the longest cocoon, I face it full-on. I lived one way for a decade, trying to fit myself into someone else’s corset, never able to tie all the laces.

At this end, I am back to the pick-and-choose, whatever-makes-me-happy approach of my youth. Except now, I carry a woven basket of real knowledge so that each choice I make is a grounded one.

Candlelight bounces off the walls. The room is dark except for the metaphor of light to bring in a special day. Light for knowledge, light for inspiration, light to open our eyes. Dark when we are sad, when we don’t know, when we have forgotten how to question.

I look at my candles and think, I can choose to be rigid, I can choose to be free-flowing, I can choose when to light or not to light or how many to light.

And as I welcome the light into my home, my children are smiling. No one screams at them to straighten a tie, clip on a kippah, say a certain blessing before taking a bite.

My children run eagerly to the sink for the ritual hand-washing, two spills over each hand, the water a wake-up call, a refreshing noticing of this very moment, then the blessing in Hebrew in their tender little voices.

We each made loaves of sweet challah today. They run back to the table, unwrap their little loaves and I unfurl the large ones, my I-can-do-anything-if-I-can-make-bread. Together, all of our voices, the short prayer, then sweet bites.

This tradition was given to us by ancestors, by generations gone before us. We choose to accept it in a way that it is meaningful.

In my neighborhood, people follow a certain routine, respect the stricture of one way of living.

In my house, we follow the rhythms of the morning, of the mid-day, of the evening and twilight, and of the night when even breathing softens the rooms. Tonight the tooth fairy will visit Asher’s room. Tomorrow he will see the sunrise in ecstatic glee.

And I will sip my coffee slowly, listen to sweet music, maybe make pancakes, maybe waffles, and feel the senses through my fingertips in a way that is most religious.

Traditions are ours for the taking, or for the parsing, or for simply learning of the many options that exist. And then each of us makes it up as we go along. No one is different, though they may believe they are faithful to one right way. There is no absolute truth. It’s a convenient charade, a comforting blanket on a wintry afternoon.

I bless each of my children on Friday night, their little heads bent toward the floor, my hands on their silk-soft hair. That was not something done in my childhood, and though I am back to feeling free enough to make my life how I want to live it, I have adopted this one of many traditions as mine-exclusively.

A special little noticing of each individual child. We make memories if we try. And sometimes, quick rituals make the moments last a little longer. That’s all. The gift of the ancestors is the richness of being together, the connections of blood and passion, and the idea that this life means more than we know.

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