Hanukkah in Vilnius: Shining A Light through the Darkness
Updated: Mar 3
Make no mistake: I have had a very Jewish week here in Lithuania.
It began in search of Hanukkah candles for my grandma's menorah that is - believe it or not - my most prized possession in this whole country. I spent my formative years crowded around this menorah with my cousins, aunts, uncles, and Grandma, singing the traditional holiday blessings for our Festival of Lights. Needless to say, I have years' worth of warm memories connected to this heirloom. But while this menorah traveled over oceans and seas to get to me, I never packed Hanukkah candles, because... well, I figured I'd find some as the holiday got closer. And I was really setting myself up for a scavenger hunt, because these candles are unique: thin, smaller than tapered candles, but larger than birthday candles.
But, I should have known they would appear exactly when I needed them.
I'd procrastinated on finding them (oops.), so by the time I'd started looking, my usual go-to spots were closed for Shabbat (the Sabbath). I decided to get creative and buy tapered candles for the first night, but halve and shape them to my beloved menorah. (Okay, my husband suggested this and offered to shape them for me, because he's an actual mentsch.) But, I held out in my heart for a solution that would honor my grandma - although I'm sure she'd have been amused by my Frankenstein design. (I mean, I am in Eastern Europe - a potato could have sufficed!)
And then, I received a random call from someone I had met two months earlier during Sukkot, a fall festival I'd also happened my way into. (I seem to have a knack for these things.) Knowing she was one of the members of Chabad, a Jewish outreach program, I wished her a "Chag Sameach" - "Happy Holidays" - and asked her where I could find candles for the holiday that started - gulp - that evening. Not only did she offer me candles, but also a small menorah and gelt (chocolate coins). I was overwhelmed with gratitude for her kindness, and definitely made a point to send a wink back up to my ancestors.
So, a huge thank you to the Jewish community of Vilnius, including my friends who suggested where to get candles. I've spent every night this week making a blessing over the menorah - including my favorite prayer on the first night - and I can barely express how beautiful it feels to continue this tradition in, well, my homeland of Eastern Europe. I've had the opportunity to share the holiday with a Lithuanian who had never experienced it, view the large menorah in downtown Vilnius, host a sweet Litvak friend for Hanukkah and Shabbat. Last year, my husband and I took a trip out to Big Bend National Park during the holiday and he custom-built me a wooden menorah for the holiday. (Again: mentsch.) It was such a nomadic gesture, bringing my tradition deep into the heart of the wilderness. And here today, I feel the same - except this wilderness is now taking hold and growing roots, a much deeper breath.
As Hanukkah comes to a close this evening, I can't help but think my grandma - and all of my ancestors - are smiling at my current coordinates. I'm not your typical Jew, but some things just stay with you and light your way through the darkness...
Chag Sameach and viso gero! Until next time!