By Malkie Hirsch
Chanukah was never that joyful time in our house.
When I was nine years old, I remember hearing a phone ring in the middle of the night. I heard shuffling and then saw a form walk past my room. Curiosity piqued, I scrambled down the bunkbed steps and called out to my father, who was slowly descending the staircase with a heaviness in his step and a plastic cleaners’ bag slung over his shoulder.
He turned around, and when I saw his face I knew whatever had happened wasn’t good. He told me that his father, my Zaide, passed away suddenly and he was going to Israel for the levayah. There was planning to be done; he had to arrange things with his siblings and his mother for the last-minute trip to my grandfather’s final resting place in Beit Shemesh.
I distinctly remember the feeling of processing too much information at once, of not knowing anyone up until this point in our family who had died, and certainly no one who had died in this manner, with no warning, no significant illness preceding his death. I then thought that it was impossible for his death to occur on such a joyous holiday, on the 6th night of Chanukah.
How could this be?
Would Chanukah ever be a happy time for our family again?
For many years it wasn’t. The principal of Shulamith would hold a mitzvah incentive between Sukkos and Chanukah and how as the weeks progressed, the excitement of Chanukah nearing week after week would light a fire (no pun intended) under the students. I may have been the only girl in the school who wanted to freeze time, because I didn’t want to relive the pain of losing my grandfather at such at young age. All the love that my grandfather had surrounding him — the family get-togethers we had, the parties and good times we shared — were all gone. Instead of anticipation and happiness for one of the fun holidays we have in the Jewish religion, we had a yahrzeit seudah, my father leaving us to go to Israel to be with his father, feelings of dread and sadness.
It wasn’t fair. I wanted what everyone else was lucky to still have.
I wanted the good times, the gift-giving, the happy family parties full of love and excitement, and, at the age of nine, all that was behind me.
As I look back at pictures from last year’s Chanukah, a similar feeling from my 9-year-old self envelops me.
The feeling of not knowing how good it was until it was snatched away. The feeling of being robbed of happiness that I deserve, that I so desperately want in my life and in the lives of my young children. The feeling of dread and uncertainty of how we’ll get through a holiday that is loved by many, just not by us. Not this year.
Last year, on the last night of Chanukah, I looked around my living room as Moshe lit the menorah with our sons and baby Rosie. It got dark early, as it does in the winter months, and I saw what Moshe and I had created in the time we spent as a couple — five beautiful kids, our four sons and baby girl, living in a comfortable house in Woodmere. The kids were lighting their candles, Dovid was singing the berachos, and Nissy held Rosie. As I watched, my heart swelled with pride, with thanks to G-d Who made this all possible.
With my phone, I ran outside in the freezing cold and snapped a picture, my precious moment frozen in time. The happy expressions of the kids, Moshe’s mouth open mid-song, Rosie looking at the fully lit menorah with childlike wonder, Nissy proudly holding his sister, and Dovid looking at me with an amused expression as his quirky mother snapped a picture from the outside of the house on the final night of the holiday of lights.
It would have been just another picture in my phone if not for the earth-shattering loss we’ve been through. It would have been one of many pictures I most likely would never look at again. I keep going back to that picture, zooming up as close as possible to my kids’ faces, to the unadulterated joy on their faces, the knowledge and comfort that in that picture, they didn’t have any idea of what was to come. They were still little kids with the basic wants and needs of little kids. Instead of the current need to have their father come back to where he belongs.
Where he should be. With us.
The feeling my father had 30 years ago when his father suddenly passed is the same feeling my kids grapple with on a daily basis, which is magnified with each passing yontif. My father was a married man with four children when his father passed, and I know it affected him and continues to influence and even inspire him every day of his life. All the happiness, joy, and successes in life he wanted to share, the grandchildren my grandfather was never able to meet. Imagine the impact of that loss for a 34-year-old man. And then imagine how it can affect an 11-year-old boy.
As Dovid lights his father’s menorah for the first year of many, G-d willing, I see many more emotions than just that of joy pass over his face.
I see sadness because I know he hears his father singing the berachos and songs the way only Moshe used to sing them. That can never be replicated.
I see worry that one day he won’t remember his father the same way he remembers him today and I know that that’s where I have to step in. To remind the kids how special their father was and how, had he had the choice, he would have done everything in his power to remain here with us and never leave.
Lastly, I see hope that maybe in the years to come, this void inside of us will be filled with new positivity, new love, and new family traditions for many future Chanukahs to come.
Malkie’s husband, Moshe, a’h, passed away in March at the age of 40. She has been sharing her thoughts and emotions with readers on her Instagram page @Kissthekoshercook. We are privileged to share her writings and reflections with our readership. May Moshe’s memory be a blessing for Malkie and her beautiful family.