by Rachel Friedlander
It’s always interesting to watch the range of expressions that flash across a person’s face when they hear that I am a “Messianic Jew.” Sometimes, I try to clarify: “I’m Jewish, and a Christian.” This doesn’t seem to help. They wonder if I’m a mutt, some strange crossbreed of two animals that shouldn’t reproduce. That is usually how the conversation begins.
A couple of years ago, some days after school had been let out for Christmas break, four of my college friends tried to appease their curiosity. Stephanie, my roommate at the time, had grown up in a Christian home, but didn’t practice her beliefs. Danielle also had some experience with religious ceremonies, as she was raised Catholic. The other two, Renee and Josh, were atheists. They all wanted to understand my seemingly oxymoronic, mixed-breed lifestyle. So they chose to come to my family’s celebration of Hanukkah.
Letting friends into the eccentric world of my family is always a gamble, like having someone taste-test your signature dish for the first time. My mother guided them into the dining room and began the introductions. Somewhere after I introduced my father, David, my brother Arin, his wife Erin (we have to distinguish by calling them Boy Arin and Girl Erin) and their son, Isaac, my friends began to look skeptical. It was around the time I came to my two other brothers, Mark and Ezra, that I thought they were going to ask which of my relatives was named Jesus.
After they climbed the many branches of our family tree, the celebration began. Things started tamely enough, with my father singing some prayers in Hebrew from the Siddur as we gathered around the hanukkiah (many incorrectly refer to it as a menorah). It being the last evening of the eight-night celebration, every one of the branches held a spindly candle. As my father continued the prayer, we each lit a wick.
I saw my friends’ eyes, wide in the candlelight, the four of them standing close together behind my brothers. Josh is short but well-built, with wide shoulders. He wore a band T-shirt, skinny jeans, and a silver lip ring that glinted in the candlelight. Beside him was my father. He towered above Josh, wearing a full beard and a plaid dress shirt, tucked into jeans. His body was bowed over the prayer book, leaning towards the dancing flames. Rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, he read from the Siddur, “Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam...”
We listened to my father’s voice, falling and rising in the sweet, guttural melody, my family joining in after all the candles were lit. When he lowered the book, everyone, both friends and family, stood in a moment of stupor, staring at the tiny flames of remembrance in awe. Normally, this is where a Hanukkah celebration would end. But my family is different.
Somehow, generations ago, we developed a tradition. My father again lifted his Siddur, sweeping into the first note of this prayer with unrivaled gusto. His voice boomed through the house as he began to march. Mark ran to grab the conga drum, Ezra the maracas, my family grabbing musical instruments from shelves and cupboards and running to follow my father. My mother opened the kitchen cabinets and began shoving pots and pans and large utensils into the hands of our guests. This is the priceless moment: they look at their hands, holding these strange objects, and wonder in what brutal, sacrificial practice they must participate.
They carefully followed the line that had formed behind my singing father, which had by now become a parade of noise. We sounded like an untrained junior high band, melding the sounds of South Africa and Jamaica, with a hint of Emeril Lagasse’s kitchen. My father’s voice, however loud, could barely be heard over our musical accompaniment.
As if this weren’t enough of a bustle, tradition also claims that the best position is directly behind my father, which both acknowledged my father as the head of the house and confused our guests. As he led us in a winding path around every room on the first floor, reminiscent of the hardest level of Snake, my family fought for this position. It was every man for himself.
My friends watched in mild horror as we shut the door in the face of our followers, pulled out chairs to block their path, or turned off lights to blind their way. We continued our drumming, tambourine waving, and maracas shaking as we fought our way to the front, my guests humbly tapping their pot covers together.
I think it was about the time my mother dragged a chair in front of Danielle, or when I jabbed Renee in the back with my maracas, that they began to clang their pots and pans together with a little more passion. Maybe Josh began to see the similarities between this tradition and some of the many concerts he attends. This mosh pit simply included tambourines, kitchen utensils and Jews.
By our fourth or fifth circuit around the entirety of the first floor, it was hard to tell the difference between the hosts and the guests. I think a few chairs even moved without the help of Friedlander hands. The parade now moved in uniform disorder, with every member displaying their combination of both musical and WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment] skills. I couldn’t have been more proud.
When my father led us back to the dining room, where the mosh-pit parade had first begun, he circled around our large dinner table. This was the telltale sign that the dance was nearing its end. As my father’s notes became slightly more prolonged, Mark used his foot to whip a chair out from the table, securing the conga drum between his knees as he sat down. My family halted and stationed themselves around the table, giant smiles plastered over our weary faces.
All instruments paused for a moment and my father hit the last note. Then, all at once, we waved our tambourines and shook our maracas as hard as we could, Mark beginning the longest, fastest drum roll I’ve ever heard. My father faded out long before our instruments, gasping for air as we woke up the neighbors with our finale.
Maybe my brother Mark would develop arthritis from those drum rolls, and maybe I couldn’t hear anything for a while afterward. But as we all waved, shook, and clanged by the brightly lit hanukkiah and sent the flames into a frenzy, I couldn’t help but think that this blending together created the perfect mix. Perhaps my friends hadn’t expected a conversation about my seemingly confusing beliefs to be answered in a night of dancing, but scanning across their faces at the end of the night, I saw a new expression upon their faces. It wasn’t one of scrunched-up confusion, but of a happiness and contentment that can only come from the Hanukkah parade.