# 24 : Hanukkah [1], 2015

The First Candle.

            The Virgins of Juquila and Guadalupe have been appropriately feted with processions and fireworks and music and crowds of women (and a few men) reciting rosaries in the streets in front of their capillas. The Christmas season is approaching with its heralds of fireworks, seasonal toy stores under plastic awnings, and brass bands with tubas. Lázaro Montesinos (gardener and alcalde) tells me that there was enough money left in the deslinde budget to throw a Christmas party for the over 65s, the tercera edad (third age) folks. So they did, up at the cancha, the covered basketball court between the Municipio and the grade school that also serves for the Wednesday market, the civic assembly hall and —since it is currently chicken-wire fenced while the preschool is being refurbished— for preschool. The poinsettia trees, here called nochebuenas, are all crowned with red blossoms. Small ones in pots, like you see up in El Norte, are lined up in front of every Oaxacan florist shop and public market. In another week or so ten thousand of them will be set out in the Zócalo downtown. Hanukkah, as you might expect, is not on the Oaxaca map.

 

            Most years Hanukkah for us involves lighting candles quietly at home with a few friends coming over one night for dinner. And that was our initial intent for this year, too, until Daniel insisted that we join his community at the Pueblo Nuevo synagogue for the lighting of the first candle. Sunday night, six o’clock sharp, so we can light as the sun sets. I spend a few hours on Saturday baking biscochos de anís, following a recipe from one of our Turkish Sephardi cookbooks, but with eneldo, which we have in our garden, instead of anis or fennel, which we don’t.

 

            Six o’clock. Knowing that Daniel’s community gives importance to strict observance of forms, I figure we should arrive hora gringa. As the hour nears I get nervous the way I always do. By the time we get the cats into their home in Linda’s study, the dog fed, watered, and taken outside, lock the house doors, the portón chico, and the portón grande, it is six fifteen. The car jounces along the dirt terracería crossroads onto Camino al Seminario, turns right in Viguera into the Friday market street, turns right by the high-tension electric tower, drives up the hill until the road Ts, swings left, and there is the green cement wall of the Etz Hayim synagogue. The car clock reads 6:28. Maybe they will have delayed the candle-lighting for us; if not, we will have to be content with the post-lighting festivities.

 

            I expect the street to be parked solid, since most of the congregants will be coming from pueblos in the southern valleys. But we see only one car, and park behind it. In the atrium Daniel, Rivka, a couple of others, are sticking glitter on styrofoam letters – “Bienvenidos - Feliz  - Januca.” Daniel’s son Eliseo is attaching rolled up scotch tape behind the letters and affixing them to the concrete wall, but they can’t get them to adhere. Bienvenidos is parallel to the floor, but Daniel wants Feliz Januca to form an arch. Someone draws it on the wall in pencil. Daniel suggests that there be more bow to the arch. A man I don't know sketches a second arch over the first. It is lopsided.

An argument ensues over the spacing of the letters. I suggest they start in the middle and work toward both ends so the arch will be symmetrical. Everyone agree that would be a good solution. “Yes, that’s the way to do it, let’s do it that way.” And then they go on fitting letters to the sketched arch and pulling them off and fitting them again. Glitter litters the concrete floor. 

 

            By now it is dark, long after the prescribed candle-lighting time. I ask Daniel where everybody is. He shrugs his shoulders.

            “It’s Mexico; Mexico es así. And some of these people are coming from far away. They’ll be getting here soon. Not long now.”

 

            A little after seven o’clock a few families begin to trickle in. The wind has picked up and the temperature has dropped. Although the compound is walled and the atrium is roofed, the wind is cutting, and Linda quickly fades from pink to blue. She gives me the sign. Daniel answers my question by assuring me that they won’t begin the ceremonies for another half hour, maybe more. So I take Linda back with regrets to our warm home, pick up my camera, and drive back to Pueblo Nuevo.

 

            Now cars line the street. Seven or eight families are milling in the atrium, and others arrive every minute. The men are wearing Sunday slacks and button shirts; their heads are topped by a variety of yarmulkes, purchased, I would guess, in Mexico City or in the little Etz Hayim bookstore that Daniel’s wife Rivka runs next to his carpentry shop. The women are in long dresses, their arms covered for modesty, their hair enclosed by kerchiefs or knitted hats. The children, shined up for the party, replicate their elders in miniature: fancy skirts, dress pants, buffed shoes, and neatly combed hair. The kids are proud of their outfits and excited by the occasion. When they first come they in prance around showing off to each other for a minute or two, and then begin to chase each other and yell and giggle and whine to their parents the way they always do. The littlest kids are each wearing a headband with a paper candle stuck in it, so when they line up to go into the synagogue they look like a little human janukia. The two Zapotec women from the south valleys are skirted and huipil-ed, aproned and coifed, as for Sunday market. Every family brings with them a hanukkiah (here in Mexico written janukia), an eight-branched-plus-one menorah that will hold the eight januka candles plus the worker candle, the shamash, which is used to light the others: one candle on the first night, two on the second, and successively until the eighth night.

 

            This community’s tradition is that each family makes its janukia at home and brings it to the synagogue for the first candle lighting. Then they take them home again and bring them to the synagogue again for the eighth night, when there is judging as to which janukias are the best. Daniel takes me aside to show me the prizes for the winners, framed prints of Ashkenazi Jewish family life from long ago: Sabbath candles, a challah, Hassidim grouped around a table. The contest rules seem to require that the janukiot cannot be purchased, they have to be made from local materials.

            While we are all waiting for the lighting ceremony to begin, families fuss over the details on their janukiot, straightening bits that sagged in transport, regluing pieces that became unstuck. Many of these families come from the artisan villages south of Oaxaca City; they are used to making things, and the detail work does not faze them in the slightest. In fashioning their janukiot their imagination has run free, because the array of creations on the tables is truly Doctor Seuss-ian.

            One janukia is a boat whose rails are adorned with eight candleholders, with the ninth in the center of the poop deck. A family from near Tlacolula has brought piece of carrizo that they found twisted into the shape of the Hebrew letter lamed, with lamps for oil attached to the cane. Another has made a group of nine paper cylinders that have been pin punched so that Jewish-themed designs shine through when a candle is lit inside. Rivka has made a papier maché flower with blue and white petals, each holding a candlestick. There is a model of the Temple in Jerusalem with candles rising from its towers and turrets. Someone, I’d guess one of the kids in some family, has fashioned a janukia out of leggos. Another, simple but impressive, is a watermelon with eight apples and a pear stuck to its top. Another that looks simple but represents a truly extraordinary effort, is a line of eight female dancers adorn the cloth that faces the janukia; at first glance it looks like cross-stitch embroidery, but in fact it has been woven. That one was made by a weaving family that lives in village of Santa Ana del Valle, not far from the more famous Teotitlán. The proud weavers pose for a family portrait behind their creation.

            About 8:00 the fa

milies file from the atrium into the synagogue and arrange their janukiot on the row of folding tables that have been set up in the front. They jostle for space, arranging their creations to highlight their best features, and soon every inch of table is covered.

 

            Eliseo plays a hymn on his synthesizer, and after a couple of runs-through, Yaakov, another of Daniel’s sons, leads the congregation in belting it out in Hebrew. “Sing with joy,” Daniel charges them; “Januka is a joyous holiday.” The Zapoteca woman a couple of rows back, who always knows all the words and sings them at the top of her voice, sways with the beat.  Daniel gives a short homily – “esta fiesta encierra profundos misterios” (this holiday encloses deep mysteries) ---which from internal references appears to have been a reprise of his Shabbat sermon. Then he calls up the families to the row of tables and all together light the first candle and sing the three blessings of opening night, invoking the deity who is both a personal God, a tribal God, and a universal God:

            “Blessed is my God, our Lord, Ruler over all things, who has commanded us to light the Januka lights.

            Blessed is my God, our Lord, Ruler over all things, who did wondrous things for our forefathers back in those days at this time of the year.

            Blessed is my God, our Lord, Ruler over all things, who has cared for us and sustained us unto this day.”

 

            Yaakove leads us in another rollicking Hebrew hymn, and then we sing it again for good measure. Everyone applauds; most take pictures with their cell phones. Then we all go out to the atrium to eat.

 

            I sit with Moisés and his girlfriend Laura, who is studying lanugages at UABJO (always referred to with the single word wabjo), the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca. She was not raised Jewish, as was Moisés, but finds the religion and the community amenable, perhaps because she clearly dotes on Moisés. We continue an earlier conversation about how Januka cuisine features fried food, in reference to the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days, how in the Ashkenazi north-European tradition these are latkes, or potato pancakes, and how in the Sephardi Middle Eastern tradition they are fried doughnuts. Neither of these are part of this community’s tradition, so I invite Daniel and his family to come to our house for the third-candle lighting and to sample some homemade latkes.

 

            While we are talking, a styrofoam plate appears on the table in front of me. On it are some rice, some boiled chicken in a white sauce, another piece of chicken in a very spicy red sauce, and a little salad. Laura passes me a plastic glass of jamaica, purple hibiscus juice. The families have all brought something for themselves and to share with their neighbors. I reach below my chair for the box of bizcochos de eneldo that I had made, noting what they are and that they are meant for dessert. But this is not a dessert culture, and delayed gratification does not seem to be part of Januka celebrations, so when Daniel’s daughter Dina sees the box she dips in to try one. Immediately some other hands at our table do the same, and then the box makes the round of all the tables and —zipzap!— the bizcochos are gone. For a moment praises of the cook fill the air —exaggerated, I believe, because I thought the bizcochos kind of dry and tasteless— and then folks get down to serious eating.

 

            After dinner, gradually, the party fades away. The children, except for three hyperactive little candle-crowned munchkins, are drooping. Parents heft them to shoulders, tuck janukiot under their free arms, and head to their transport. I bid goodnight to Daniel and his family, reminding them about our Tuesday date at the Casa DaviLinda. “At sunset, about six o’clock.”

 

The Third Candle.

            Tuesday, long before dawn, the singing begins. From the porch, in the first glimmer of daylight, I can see a large tarp strung across Santa Cruz’s paved road, and three rows of rented folding chairs set out in the street in front of our purple Virgen de Juquila chapel. A brass band —it looks to be the San Pablo high school group— is playing a bouncy religious song in two-step time. Of course: ¡¡today is the 8th, la Virgen de Juquila!! I had forgotten when I extended Daniel the invitation. Far down the hill, near the San Pablo Municipio, I can hear another band thumping and droning: accordions, clarinets, trumpets, drums, and, from the sound of it, at least three tubas. From up the hill, near the ford where the river shallows in front of the Juquila shrine in the Taboada neighborhood, I catch additional wisps of music. Our main road, the Calle Independencia, is blocked in at least three places, and will be from dawn until far into the night. I have to get word to Daniel’s folks.

 

            Midmorning, after giving Qalba her exercise walk and logging for the Cornell survey two-dozen species of noise-resistent birds, I take the car out on an exploratory. I can get from the house to the Calle Pípila, the dirt road that enters just above Tom and Judith’s house, with ease. Five weeks into the dry season Pípila is two centimeters deep in dust, so the CRV is followed by a tan cloud. At the top of the next loma I can swing left down to where Pípila intersects another dirt road that joins the paved road just before the San Pablo church. That works. Now, if no more Juquila chapels block the way, I can get down to the carpentry shop to give Daniel and his sons a map.

            Eliseo pours over the map, and I rehearse with him every step of the route.

            “Turn left just past the church; skip the first dirt road on the right that may look OK but eventually turns into a goat path; turn right at the three wooden crosses; climb the hill and resist turning onto any of the small tracks slipping off to the left and right. As soon as you pass the third eucalyptus tree, turn right again. That’s Calle Pípila. Then right on Independencia.”

            Daniel, looking over Eliseo’s shoulder, talks through it twice. He’s got it: ¡facilísimo! They are looking forward to seeing us at 6:00.

 

            At 7:45, in the pitch blackness, they appear at the front gate. Did they turn at the church? No. At least not the first time. They retraced and made the turn the second time, but ventured into the goat-path road. Then . . . Never mind, they are here and welcome; two carsful, about a dozen folks. As we are setting to light the candles, in walk Moisés and Laura: they’ve parked below the purple Juquila shrine, threaded their way through the praying crowd, politely turning down —says Moisés— requests to kneel and recite the rosary, and then walked up the last couple of hundred meters to our house.

 

            We light the candles, in the glass janukia Abby made for us years ago, and in a second janukia that Daniel has brought with him. BYOJ seems to be the local custom. Yaakov leads us in two iterations of Mah-o’tzur, a traditional Januka hymn in Hebrew. The three children, who look to be three- or four-years-old, know all the words and really get into the singing. I teach the family another song, Mi yimalel, and they make me go over it a couple of times until they have learned it. Then we sit down to the cups of homemade gazpacho (too strange to be a total hit), and the latkes, maybe sixty of them, that I have spent all afternoon preparing. I followed the traditional five-ingredient recipe that all you experienced latke cooks know well: eggs, grated onion, grated potato, knuckle, and blood. The sixty latkes, schmeered with sour cream and homemade apple butter, disappear faster even than the bizcochos of two nights previous.

            Goodbyes, and a reminder that we should come to the synagogue about 6:00 (right!) on Sunday for the judging of the janukiot and the lighting of the eighth candle.


 

The Eighth Candle.

 

            Sunday, the last day of Januka was to be a full one for us. The Santa Cruz general asamblea in the morning that would appoint next year’s municipal government. In the afternoon, a party to launch a fascinating new memoir by a friend of ours about her experiences in China in the 1980s. Then in the evening, the eighth candle with the Pueblo Nuevo community.

 

            Late Saturday night Dina calls to say that they have rescheduled the Sunday events for three in the afternoon. The reason? Many people have a long way to drive, and they want to finish before dark. We lament that we have made other commitments for the afternoon, but will slip out to share some of the holiday joy with them for a few moments. We don’t shake loose from the book launch until 4:30, and Linda and I are both exhausted. We agree to make the synagogue visit brief. We have printed off some photos of the previous Sunday for them. We can deliver those, hug everyone, watch with them the last flickers of the eight candles, and then leave. 

 

            But down in Pueblo Nuevo we find almost no one at the synagog, and we see only a half-dozen janukiot on the tables in the atrium. I make a gesture of inquiry with my shoulders and eyebrows.

 

            “People are coming later,” Daniel informs us. “We’ll light the candles around 8:00. Then eat a little something and . . .”

 

            Linda and I flash each other a look. Stand around for another three and a half hours as it gets colder and darker, making small talk with the handful of people who came on time? A flicker of agreement passes between us. We express our regrets, citing previous commitments, hug everyone we can reach, and walk out to the car, followed by two of the women. One hands me a bag, stapled shut, which they say is a present from the community. We can open it when we light our eighth candle. The other hands Linda a pot containing a beautiful small barrel cactus. It is going into bloom, a delicate purple flower opening at the top. A gift from the people in the south valley.

 

            Climax: we go home, light the eight candles, and open the bag. The gift is a small framed print of some Sabbath Candles, with a lovely handwritten dedication on the back. When our eight candles go out, we go to bed.

 

            Anticlimax: we never did learn which janukia won the prize. Maybe all of them did. They were certainly all deserving.

 

            Postscript: and the other five nights of Januka? For the fourth candle we invited 25 of our expat and bilingual Mexican friends for a latke fry at our house. Remind me never to do that again: by the sixth hour over the hot griddles I never wanted to see another latke in my life. For the seventh candle we dined at the home of some Mexican-Israeli friends: baba ganoush and . . . latkes!

 

           

 

 

 
 

 

           



 

 

 

Comments