This Chanukah, How Many Saw The Light?


This Chanukah, How Many Saw The Light?

Chabad shares the joy of Chanukah, candles, dreidels and donuts are distributed on the streets of Paris, France. Photo: I. Bardugo

by Julie Subrin - New York City

December 25, 2006

Editor's Note: There's no way of gauging how many were reached these past eight days of Chanukah. In addition to Chabad's public menorah displays, rabbinical students and high school girls from Chabad Lubavitch schools everywhere hit the pavement distributing chanukah menorah kits with candles, literature and other holiday materials, facilitating the participation in the holiday celebration by countless passersby.
Lubavitch.com thought the following essay by Julie Subrin from Nextbook, named Color Barriers, is worth sharing with our readers:
Granted, this was last Friday afternoon—that is to say, a few hours before the first night of Hanukkah. But I wasn't worried. I live in New York City, home to nearly a million Jews, and I work in a downtown Manhattan neighborhood that's filled with stores that cater to your every domestic need and desire. All I wanted was a box of Hanukkah candles—or so I thought.
First stop: Dean & DeLuca, a gourmet grocery shop with a kitchenwares section at the back. Feeling confident, I squeezed past the line of exhausted shoppers at the café, patiently waiting to pay too much for double espressos, chocolate-chip brownies, granola —whatever it took to fuel one more hour of frenzied gift-buying. I figured this place was likely to have something overpriced but serviceable. I was right about the first part. Their "Hanukkah candles" cost just under $20. Made of beeswax, they came in a pale earth tone—very tasteful, but to my mind they belonged on a bedside table in a country house upstate, not in a menorah. I passed.
Next stop, Crate & Barrel, where the section dedicated to "the holidays"—barrels (of course) overflowing with Christmas tree ornaments, stacks of plates decorated with plump snowmen, wreathes made of sage with artificial beads of dew—threatened to overtake the entire store. Surely, in the midst of this holiday excess, there'd be a nod to Hanukkah. I approached a bustling, apron-clad employee.
"Do you have Hanukkah candles?"
Almost before the words were out of my mouth, they felt wrong, out of place, and I was too, amidst all the red, green, silver and gold.
"Yeah, over here," the salesperson responded eagerly, "but I think we're out of the holders."
 Holders?
He led me away from the hordes to an easily missed area just to the left of the store entrance. There on a display shelf were clear plastic boxes of candles, and you could choose—white or blue.
That's when I first realized I had a problem. I wanted real Hanukkah candles, the ones with the spiraling ridges, in the sky-blue box imprinted with Hebrew lettering and the stylized image of a gold menorah, the candles in all sorts of colors, one sometimes bleeding into another. When my sisters and I were little, we used to argue over who got to pick the colors each night. Perhaps, at this late date, I'd settle for unridged candles in a generic box. But white or blue only? No way.
Next stop, Pier 1 Imports. I know what you're thinking: "Honey, you're barking up the wrong tree. Go back to Brooklyn, find the right neighborhood supermarket and you'll be set." But I was starting to feel belligerent. I mean, this town is full of Jews. We spend as much cash as the next person in the big home accessory chains, buying their Martha Stewart-style visions of New England chic. Did none of the drones in corporate headquarters think to requisition us some festive-looking candles when they put in their orders for nine thousand different variations on the Christmas tree ornament? No, Hanukkah candles are not ornaments. But that doesn't mean they're meant to be blank, void of all association, de-racinated.
"Hi, do you guys sell Hanukkah candles?" I asked the Pier 1 employee, a reed-thin guy, no apron but wearing a headset.
"Yeah, hang on." He walked away, and came back a moment later with a cellophane pouch of candles in hand. White. Every single one of them.
"Just white?" I asked, in a slightly hostile tone. "No thanks." I turned abruptly and left, as if to say, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself." Of course I was the one who should have been ashamed, shopping for Hanukkah candles at Pier 1 Imports a few hours before the holiday's start.
Next, I made a quick inquiry at a Duane Reade pharmacy at the corner. I was almost relieved when the indifferent cashier gave me a flat-out "no." No token gestures of diversity here.
Last stop, just because it was there: Sur la Table, an upscale kitchen supply store. I'd already determined that this project was a failure. At this point, it seemed, the search had become a form of self-punishment.
I made my way to the back without even a cursory investigation of the large area set aside for "holiday" items. There, I found a tall, beefy sales clerk, maybe in his mid 30s, wearing, of course, the requisite apron over his white shirt and khakis.
"Hi," I said half-heartedly. "Do you guys happen to sell Hanukkah candles?"
He looked at me strangely. My question, it seemed, had affected him somehow. Is he Jewish? I thought. A philo-Semite? An anti-Semite?
"Yes, you've come to the right place," he told me, his composure recovered, and led me to a menorah bearing nine white (of course) candles. I prepared myself to break it to him gently—I don't want white—but then I saw that he was looking at the shelf below, where the boxes of candles should have been. It was completely bare. "Hmmm..." he said. He seemed to be weighing something. "Hang on a sec." Hurrying off, he gestured for me to wait. I was suddenly very tired. I should just go, I thought. Instead, I aimlessly picked up and put down some brightly colored spatulas.
When he reappeared a minute later, he was holding a navy backpack. "You know, I'm embarrassed to say this, but I'm a really bad Jew." Uh oh. Where's he going with this? "I didn't have any Hanukkah candles either. But the other day, I saw those Lubavitcher guys walking down the street, you know how they do that, they go around giving out Hanukkah candles and tell you to light the candles and all that?"
"Uh huh."
"Usually I cross the street, but this time I chased after them and they gave me candles—two boxes, actually. You can have one if you want."
"Really?" Maybe it was low blood sugar—I should have joined the masses in line at Dean & DeLuca—but I almost started to cry.
He unzipped the backpack and rummaged around. And then it occurred to me—his candles might be all white too. After all, the Lubavitchers aren't really known for their attention to aesthetics. I could already feel that deflation that comes with disappointment, and I was fighting it. It's the gesture that matters. This man is reaching across the customer service divide. Just appreciate it. It's a mitzvah, really.
"Here you go," he said, handing me a glossy black cardboard box with a somber picture of burning (white!) candles on the front, and a red plastic dreidel. "They gave me that, too."
"Thank you so much," I said, turning over the little dreidel. "This is—I can't even tell you...." "No problem," he said. "Enjoy."
Out on the street, I took a deep breath, and then opened the box. There they were, rows of candles—red, yellow, blue, orange, white. They weren't the ones we had growing up, the pale ones in the blue box. But they weren't so dissimilar, either, and there was no denying it—they were Hanukkah candles.

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