21: Eight Candles

21: Eight Candles

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

Eight Candles

May the lights of Hanukkah usher in a better world for all humankind.

~Author Unknown

Five days into Hanukkah, my friend Susan and I were having our usual Sunday breakfast at a local deli. In honour of the holiday, I had ordered eggs with latkes instead of home fries. I took a bite, savouring the contrast of the cold sour cream against the warm, crunchy potato pancake.

“So, did you bring potato latkes to school?” Susan asked as she spooned applesauce onto hers.

I shook my head. “Nope. I may love eating them but I’m not willing to spend an hour shredding potatoes and onions and then frying them up. Too messy and I usually shred at least one finger in the process.” I shrugged. “None of the stores near me sell them already made. So, my students will have to wait ’til Passover when I bring in a box of matzoh for a taste of traditional Jewish food.”

I smiled as I remembered my adult English as Second Language students’ reaction to last year’s taste test. If you’re not used to it, matzoh tastes like cardboard. Actually, it pretty much tastes like cardboard even if you are used to it.

“My principal laughs,” I continued, “saying I’m the only Jewish teacher she knows who also brings in hot cross buns for Easter and candy canes for Christmas. Hey, this is Toronto, the most multicultural city in the world. I figure it’s my job to introduce newcomers to some of the major holidays in this country.”

“How do you handle the other holidays?” Susan asked.

I took another bite of latke and pictured the bulletin board that ran the length of the classroom. “After twenty years of teaching, I’ve found pictures of almost every major holiday in every religion and culture in the world, plus some fun ones like the tomato-tossing festival in Italy. Every December I cover the entire wall with pictures and brief explanations and title it ‘Holidays from Around the World.’ They don’t even have to be December holidays. Then each student does a short presentation about a celebration from his or her own country. That way, no one is excluded and everyone gets to be an expert.”

I sighed, thinking back to what it felt like being excluded around Christmastime. I wasn’t an immigrant, but at the public school I attended, December meant Christmas, complete with a tree in the main lobby, decorations throughout the school and a Christmas concert. Although the school was about ten percent Jewish, Hanukkah simply didn’t exist at school back then. I told Susan how glad I was that it was different now.

Susan shook her head. “Maybe not so different.”

“What do you mean?” I asked before popping another mouthful of latke.

“Now that I’m a principal,” she began, “I make sure that our school decorations include Hanukkah dreidels as well as Christmas trees. I even bring in an electric menorah for the main office. You just tighten one more light bulb every day until all eight candles are lit.”

“That’s great. So what’s the problem? Is the school board complaining about the extra electricity you’re using?”

“It’s not the school board,” Susan said. “It’s the police.”

“The police? Now if it had been the Fire Department, and the menorah used real candles, I could see how that would be a potential fire hazard. But an electric menorah? No way.”

“Yes way,” Susan said. “Now be quiet and listen.” She gave me the look she’d honed as a teacher and now used just as effectively as a principal. “It all started with Officer Mike. I’ve told you about him. He’s the community police liaison, a really sweet guy and the kids like him. He brought his sergeant in for a surprise visit and the menorah was sitting on the counter with two of the bulbs screwed in so they lit up. We chatted for a few minutes before I had to take a phone call in my office. By the time I finished the call, they’d left.”

“I’m still not seeing a problem,” I interjected, and then thought the better of it. “Sorry, your story. Me eat. No talk.” I smothered the last of my latke with sour cream, sighed in anticipation, and chowed down.

“Neither did I until a few minutes later when Officer Mike came rushing back into the office without his sergeant and went straight for the menorah. That’s when I noticed all eight candles were lit when it was only the second day of Hanukkah. He grinned sheepishly at me, and then began unscrewing six of the lights.”

She rolled her eyes. “Turns out his sergeant had never seen a menorah before and thought it was some new type of Christmas decoration. He didn’t know we light one more bulb on each of the eight days, and that it was only Day Two. He figured the unlit candles hadn’t been screwed in properly so he tightened them until they lit up. I guess he thought he was doing his manly thing in an office filled with women. Officer Mike didn’t want to embarrass him by correcting him in front of the office staff.”

I snorted. “Manly and parochial. So much for the most multicultural city in the world. I just hope Officer Mike had a quiet talk with his sergeant afterwards so you don’t get a repeat of this next year. Hmmm, when Passover rolls around, maybe the sergeant would like some matzoh as a friendly ecumenical gesture. What do you think?”

“Definitely,” Susan said, “and I’ll make sure Officer Mike gets some, too.”

~Harriet Cooper

Toronto, Ontario

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