The Menorah: Reconnecting with a Secular Friend
I sat and waited for her in her house on Mt. Olympus, Los Angeles, of all places, with her Great Dane drooling on my lap. It was Chanukah and we were both home on vacation.
My friend finally came in with a rush of cold air as the front door closed. She was late, she said, because some strange men in black hats stopped her in front of the grocery store down the hill. They asked her, “Are you Jewish?”
She was very smug as she showed me what they gave her. She was also surprised that they wanted nothing in return except for assurance that she would use it. She took it out of the box and placed it ceremoniously on the table between us. She looked at it closely and then at me. “Well, what is it?”
It was a menorah.
I was not surprised that she did not know. Although we were in college then, we had met when we were in seventh grade at the local public school. I was a recent transplant from New York, with a thick accent that made me stand out, and she had come from Russia a number of years earlier.
My friend was young enough not to have an accent, but old enough to have the anti-religious ways imbedded in her DNA. I came from New York Jews, the kind that ate big pickles and hot knishes sold on the streets of the city and knew how to throw a great bar mitzvah party, but not much else. I also knew that the object those men had given her was a menorah.
So, I told her what I knew at the time about Jews lighting the menorah. “Why would any human want to be pegged into a label? It is so limiting,” she said. “But I will light it because it is pretty.”
That was at least better than the tree that would soon enter her house. I was always surprised by that. I thought that no matter how secular a Jew was, a tree was always forbidden. She explained it to me once: “It is a New Year’s tree. Everyone is Russia has them. It is not for that other holiday. We did not have that in Russia.”
So I sat in silence, with her dog still drooling on my lap, while she lit the candles. She then took her favorite snack out of the fridge, caviar and cherry tomatoes, which the dog seemed to love but I could not stomach. It seems Russians loved these foods.
My friend and I chatted about life, school, and the future in front of the flickering Chanukah candles. Although the visit was one of many over the years, it stands out in my memory.
Three years after this visit, I become observant and got married. My friend went to law school. She would say to me, “We are so different now. You wear a wig and look just like those ladies I see on Fairfax. Soon you will have a million kids and look like a schlump.”
I was not offended by her words as I explained that we weren’t that different at all. I think that disturbed her. We didn’t see each other for a few years after that.
Then I heard she got married. I invited her and her husband over for Shabbos dinner. I was surprised that he was Jewish.
She was enamored by my two little girls, but not at all by Shabbos. She talked a lot about her wedding, and I realized I hadn’t been invited. I remember feeling hurt most of the night, but trying not to show it at the Shabbos table. Maybe she caught on to my feelings, which may have caused a rift in our relationship.
I did not see or hear from her again for 16 years. One day, I searched for her. I finally found an email connected to her law firm. I sent her a message saying that I would love to reconnect with her and that I missed her terribly, but I did not hear back.
A year later, I was at the school where I worked as a principal. It was a vacation week but I found I could accomplish my paperwork when no one else was there. I noticed an email come in from my friend. I had sent my message to an old work email of hers, which she rarely checked. She gave me her cell number.
That was in 2011. After 17 years, we had much to catch up on. We were excited to see each other again, to share our families and our lives. So that Shabbos, just a few days after our phone call, she came to my house with her second husband and her two little girls. She never had children with the first one. She looked like a model who could walk on a Paris runway. I looked like I had a million kids (I actually had 8) and was a bit schlumpy, like she predicted.
We spent the day comparing notes on our lives. She took off from her practice for a few years to raise her daughters. She had a full time nanny and housekeeper. She went to the gym every day (I could tell) and kept her figure. Our husbands chatted with one another and we all had a lovely day. She left with the promise that we would stay in touch.
That was six years ago. I tried making plans for her to come on Purim. She reciprocated with invites on Sundays. I couldn’t attend, as my sons went to school on Sundays and needed me home when they returned.
We have not spoken since then.
I often wonder why. Why am I reluctant to reach out again? Is it because, as she said all those years ago, I am observant and she is not? Are we are too different to have a friendship? The fact that I can’t answer that makes me realize that I do not know if she was right.
My friend and I live with divergent priorities. I strive to instill religious values into my children and hope that they follow them. I am sure she has a value system that she wants her children to follow. I endeavor to have a close and loving relationship with my husband, and I am sure she wants that too. Are we really that dissimilar?
Maybe I will try again this Chanukah. I can’t seem to fathom putting this relationship forever to rest. But I can’t seem to revive it from its coma either.
Maybe that is why G-d has kept the memory of the menorah visit in my head, to make me realize that every Jew is worth the effort to reach out to. She is so much more than just a Jewish friend from my past. She if the future of her own Jewish dynasty, and I hope she knows that.
In two days it will be the fifth night of Chanukah, a night when we light more candles than are unlit, a night where light overpowers darkness. I think it is the right night to pick up my phone and reconnect, once again, and let her know that she is missed.
Batsheva Isaac is a mother of eight from Los Angeles. She spends most days working in the education field and feeding her family. In her downtime, she writes.