The Silver Menorah

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13 Dec 2006

The story of this silver menorah is the story of four generations spanning three countries. Rochel, a woman of vision, who left Lithuania as a young girl in 1905, and brought up her family in South Africa. Helen, her strong willed daughter, who abandoned her comfortable lifestyle in South Africa for the fledgling State of Israel. Lea, accepting and tolerant. And Rachel, who rekindles the flame of yiddishkeit lying dormant in her soul.

Rochel Goldblatt fingered the large parcel wrapped in shiny brown paper in her lap. She glanced at the watch pinned to her starched white blouse, and sighed. Several more hours to travel before she reached the small town of Carletonville, where her eldest daughter Helen lived. The train felt hot and stuffy, and Rochel’s eyes smarted from lack of sleep. Thoughts tumbled rapidly through her mind, chasing each other with wild abandon. Had she done the right thing? Would Helen understand, or misconstrue her intentions and be furious?

It was December, 1953. Every year she came to visit her daughter and family for a few weeks holiday. She had been pained on her last trip to see Helen’s visibly waning interest in Yiddishkeit.

“I keep a kosher home, Jack is involved in the shul. What more do you want from us, Ma?” Helen’s curt tone froze the words that rose from Rochel’s throat. A wave of sadness swept over her as she realized that her daughter was moving away from her roots.

She had been struggling for months to think of some way to encourage her daughter. With the days of Chanuka rapidly approaching, the germ of an idea began to take shape. Not a wealthy woman, she nevertheless commissioned a silversmith to fashion a large Chanuka menorah. She pored over sketches, working with the artisan to create a beautiful object. She intended to present the silver menorah to the shul in Carletonville, in memory of her husband. She hoped that this link with her father would provide Helen with a tangible reminder of her past, and would kindle fond memories of happy childhood times.

With a screech, the train pulled into the station. Clutching the carefully wrapped menorah, she spotted her daughter and son-in-law waiting on the platform. Pasting a bright smile on her face, she waved gaily and walked towards them.

“Thank you, Maggie. You can clear the table now.” Helen nodded to the black maid, and turned her attention back to her mother. “I can see you’re excited about something, Mother. What is it?”

Rochel went to her room and returned with the bulky parcel. Almost shyly, she peeled away the thick layers of padding and soft tissue paper. She held it up to her astonished family, revealing the graceful lines of a beautifully crafted silver menorah.

“I would like to present it to your shul, Jack, in memory of Dad. Next week is Chanuka, and I felt it would be an appropriate gift, especially since Dad loved the holiday of Chanuka so much.”

Jack gladly agreed to arrange the details, chief among them contacting a carpenter to construct a podium on which to place the chanukia. The first night of Chanuka would be a gala evening for the whole community, highlighted by the kindling of the new menorah.

Helen and a group of young wives from the shul planned a lavish menu for the party, eager to make it a special evening. Rochel felt a keen sense of pleasure watching the community caught up in the excitement of their preparations.

The days passed swiftly. Wearing matching polka dot dresses, Helen’s two daughters skipped happily up the steps to the shul entrance.

“Grandma, hurry up,” urged Lea, the six year old. Tugging on her younger sister’s arm, she scampered into the shul, followed at a more sedate pace by her parents and grandmother.

The gleaming radiance of the silver menorah lent a quiet dignity to the recently built shul. People flocked over to Rochel to thank her for her generous gift, complimenting her on the stunning chanukia.

She concentrated intently as the chazzan made the brochos (blessings). “…lehadlik ner shel chanukah.” “She’asa nissim la’avosanu…” “shehechiyanu…” She prayed for a miracle of her own for her family, that her daughter not sacrifice the beauty of her religion, lured by a pleasure-loving society. She saw her young granddaughters, staring raptly at the sight of the glowing candles, innocent faces reflected in the polished silver.

It was in 1965 that Helen made aliyah with her family. They settled in Netanya, where the children rapidly adjusted to Israeli society. Rochel managed one visit to her children before her death ten years later. Helen’s daughters attended typical government schools in their neighborhood, far removed from the traditional Judaism they had known in South Africa.

The years passed, the children grew up and married. Lea, the eldest daughter, married Ehud, a sabra. Eighteen years later, their daughter, Rachel, married Yair. Eager to show her children where she grew up, Lea proposed a family trip to South Africa. One of their first stops was Carletonville. In 1991, the town was greatly changed from Lea’s childhood. The number of Jews living there had dwindled dramatically. The shul was on the verge of closing its doors.

“The menorah,” exclaimed Lea. “I remember my grandmother bringing it for the shul when we first lived there.” They clustered around the podium to read the inscription on the plaque. Presented to the Carletonville Hebrew Congregation in 1953 by Rochel Goldblatt, in memory of Herman Goldblatt.

“Mom, you should arrange to bring it back to Israel if they close the shul here. It belongs to your family, doesn’t it?” Rachel declared. “After all, your grandmother was the one who donated it.” Locating an old cousin still living in Carletonville, they received permission from the community to take the silver heirloom home with them.

Lea drove to the retirement home where her mother had been living for the past eight years. Ever since her husband, Jack, had died, Helen had preferred to live in Beit Protea, rather than to be on her own. She was surrounded by old friends, many of them South Africans with whom she shared a common bond. Nestled on the back seat of the car was a bulky package, tied with thick cord. “…so, we brought it home with us. I thought perhaps you would like to have it.” Lea concluded.

With gnarled fingers, Helen gently caressed the smooth lines of the menorah, overcome by powerful memories of her mother. How many years had passed since that memorable Chanuka, when her mother had surprised them all with her magnificent gift.

“Thank you, Lea, it means a lot to me. I’d like to have it at Beit Protea with me. We can light it in the shul, for all of the people living here.” And so, almost forty years after the original Chanuka celebration in the Carletonville shul, Helen planned another Chanuka party. Surrounded by her children and grandchildren, the silver menorah was presented to the retirement home, in memory of Rochel Goldblatt. One woman stood out from among the crowd. Her hair covered by a stylish scarf, Helen’s granddaughter Rachel watched the dancing flames of the silver chanukia. The power of Rochel’s prayer was clearly portrayed in the young face glowing contentedly in the menorah’s shiny reflection. The chazzan’s voice sounded clear and strong in the large room. “…shehechiyanu ve’kiyimanu ve’higianu l’zman hazeh.”

Sheila Segal teaches in a women’s seminary in Israel, where she has been living for the past 23 years. She enjoys writing in her spare time.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.