On the eighth night of Hanukkah: first victory for freedom of worship, my cousins Gila and Chaim lit candles, sang holiday songs, and ate holiday foods in their Jerusalem home.
And then, with Gila's sister, Miriam, they began sorting through the sisters' late parents photo collection — each image a frame in the human story.
Among the photos is the one Gila is holding in the photo that Chaim captured and sent to me. "Thought you might enjoy this shot," he noted in his email message. Chaim was right! The photo was a Hanukkah gift for the ages. Here is why.
Portrait of two sisters
In the photo, I am about nine or ten years old and my sister, 15 or 16. To prepare for the photo studio session, I got a haircut (probably at Best & Co.) and chose my outfit. When I saw the finished product, I protested the false colors of my dress: Washed-out rose pinks had replaced the original rich reds. And it bothered me that my sister’s dress was more grown-up than mine, its waist bound by a tie.
Until Chaim sent me the image, I had no idea that my parents had sent the photo to my Israeli Aunt Sarah and Uncle Matityahu, parents of my cousins Gila and Miriam who lived in Kiryat Motzkin, on the outskirts of Haifa.
I did know that my parents distributed copies of the photo to my maternal grandparents (who lived less than a mile away from us, in Manhattan) and to my mother’s only sibling, Ruth, and her husband, Leo (who lived in Norwalk, Connecticut — an hour's train ride away). Aunt Ruth and Uncle Leo were childless, and winning their hearts was the upside of lacking American cousins.
Me: part brat, part trooper
I am not proud that I could practically wrap my pudgy finger around my Uncle Leo. And I am ashamed that I once hijacked my father into buying me a beautiful coach-style doll carriage, taunting, “Uncle Leo will buy it without requiring me to read Hebrew books.” My father caved and bought the carriage, which triggered my guilty feelings for being manipulative and rude. Though I dearly loved pushing those fancy wheels along West End Avenue and Riverside Drive.
Fortunately, I had a softer, sweeter side. When I turned 12, I got a parakeet, which I brought with me on occasional solo weekend visits to Aunt Ruth and Uncle Leo. The bird, traveling in a little carrying cage they had bought for these journeys, rode the train with me from New York’s 125th Street and Lenox Avenue station to South Norwalk. There, my aunt and uncle met us and drove the bird and I home, where their guest room offered a bed for me and a standard-size cage for the bird.
Aunt Ruth and Uncle Leo played central parts in my childhood. They took me to restaurants and the beach, and Sundays and holidays we rode in my uncle's grey DeSoto around their neighborhood — exotic haunts to a kid from Manhattan. In their grocery store (Friedson and Sons), I drank all the chocolate drinks I could swallow and munched on bags of Wise Potato Chips and I played with a steady supply of kittens my uncle kept to do a job I understood (thankfully) only years later.
My aunt, whose stock of Revlon nail polish included every shade of red, let me paint my stubby nails with abandon. Through my childhood years, she bought me red shoes, summer and fall outfits, and, in my early teens, taught me to knit — even supplying wonderful yarns and pattern books and the occasional “kit” to knit slippers and a scarf that cleverly doubled as a hood.
My aunt and uncle spoiled me rotten, which felt like sheer heaven. My happy memories with this childless aunt and uncle offset some of the pain of losing my father when I was 12, the same year my sister went off to college and then got married. And I am grateful, too late for them to know, for their care and affection.
So, when my Jerusalem cousins' discovered their copy of the photo of me and my sister, and then send me a photo of the photo, they triggered for me memories of special times and missing important people from a childhood and youth vanished yet never forgotten.
A Hanukkah gift for the ages.