On my way into the sanctuary of the Unitarian church, I pick up a book from a stack along with a supplemental photocopied sheet. I was told in advance that tonight’s Jewish service will be led by a community elder in lieu of an actual rabbi. Except for the yarmulkes on the heads of many of the congregants, the room looks just as it did the last time I was here. A few rows ahead of me I spy one of the amply-bearded gentlemen from the Quaker service I attended several months earlier, only here he is paired with a woman and dons a tie-dyed yarmulke or “kippah,” the little round skull cap often worn by Jews as a sign of respect to God above.
Traditionally, yarmulkes are worn by men. Here, a few women wear them too and several of the designs are surprisingly playful. A few rows ahead of me, a woman has one that appears very elaborate. I get close enough to see that each quadrant of her cap sports an intricately hand-painted Teletubby, the popular cartoon characters that resemble chubby baby aliens.
I open my prayer book to have a look inside, only to realize it’s upside down. Hebrew is printed on the page from right-to-left instead of the usual left-to-right so Jewish prayer books generally open in the opposite direction from those I’m used to even when they contain English translations. I flip the volume over: On Wings of Awe, a prayer book for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. What is normally the last page is the first page here and I think briefly about how this would make a good metaphor for Judaism vis-à-vis Christianity: everything’s wrong side up and backwards! Only the relationship between the two is far more nuanced than that, and the way books are printed in Judaism is so basic that my finding it surprising speaks more to a very personal ignorance than any universal truths. For someone married to a Jew-by-birth, who came of age surrounded by Jews, it’s astounding how little I know. I would probably be paralyzed with embarrassment if it weren’t for the fact that my lack of knowledge has found fierce competition with Phil’s.
In point of fact: Phil and I inherited a menorah from his family. It’s the kind where each of the wicks feeds into a common basin of oil. When we first got married, I made a special trip to the hardware store for the right lamp oil and even purchased a tiny funnel to pour it into the menorah’s small opening. I went online to read about the lighting of the Hanukah candles, but I skimmed the entry thinking Phil would know the specifics. Growing up, his family celebrated both Christmas and Hanukah.
A day or two into our first Hanukah, I realized it was time to pull it out. “How do we do it?” I asked Phil. I had a lighter at the ready.
“I have no idea,” he said.
“You’re joking,” I insisted. I had always assumed Phil knew more than he was letting on, that he was feigning Judaism amnesia.
“My dad always lit it.”
“You really have no clue?”
He was dead serious. “None.”
We were both hovering over the menorah. Just because neither of us knew what we were doing, didn’t mean we weren’t going to light the thing. I tried to recall the rules from my brief internet search: was it right to left, or left to right, and how many days exactly into the holiday were we?
Phil was getting impatient. “Just do it.”
“Fine,” I said. I held my lighter to each wick until I had created a little Hanukah inferno. After several minutes the wicks sucked up all the fuel and the flames died out. “Happy Hanukah!” we cried, batting at the smoke.