My daughter and I sat on the cold stone steps of the old courthouse in downtown Brooklyn yesterday afternoon eating sandwiches after a doctor’s appointment. As we chatted, I surveyed the landscape of the plaza below from the top stair, and I noticed a Mitzvah Tank parked there, one of the big rigs driven around town by members of the Chabad-Lubavitch community. There is at least one Mitzvah Tank parked somewhere throughout the year in New York City, but during Hanukkah you see them all over the place, and Orthodox men lean out the window and shout to passersby, “Are you Jewish?,” hoping to give a menorah to anyone who may have strayed from tradition. Doing so is a mitzvah – a good deed commanded by G-d. Staring at the tank and the giant menorah next to it, it dawned on me that my daughter’s friend who was coming over to spend the night would be missing the evening’s Hanukkah celebration because his mother had to work. I wondered if I could do something about that.
“Do you want to go get some candles from the Mitzvah Tank?” I asked my daughter as we descended the courthouse steps. She’s always game for any kind of adventure, so we set out toward the big truck. It was still a little before 5, but it was already getting dark. “Are you closing up?,” I asked the cheerful young man walking toward me. He smiled and held out a box. “Nope!,” he said. “I’m here to give you candles.”
“Great, thank you!,” I replied, both surprised and pleased that nobody had asked me if I was Jewish, because I didn’t want to be turned away. My daughter’s friend is Jewish on his mother’s side, so I was prepared to explain the legitimacy of my request for this little boy who wasn’t even with us yet, about how I was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to preserve his nightly tradition, but fortunately I didn’t have to. I wasn’t met with any judgement or curiosity, just open arms.
“They’re gonna light the big menorah in a few minutes! Stay!” the tank rep urged me, but I told him we had to pick someone up. As we walked away he called after me, “It’s the 6th night!” I guess he could tell I was about to wing my own version of Hanukkah, but I loved that it didn’t bother him. He was just so happy to do a mitzvah. In his tank.
When my daughter and I got off the train near home, I asked if we should go pick up a small gift. Little presents are part of Hanukkah, and if we were going to do it, we might as well do it right. “Yeah!” she said, always eager to make someone smile. We walked in the local office supply store and got a dreidel and some tiny presents. Our makeshift Hannukah was really coming together now, somehow effortlessly. When we made it back to school to pick up her friend who was waiting there, I nudged him to quickly get his things. “Let’s get goin’!” I bellowed in the voice I use when I’m channeling my father’s energy. “We’re gonna do Hanukkah tonight!” He looked at me all cross-eyed the way kids do and said, “Huh?” I said, “We got a menorah and a dreidel. We’re gonna do it.”
“Do you guys celebrate Hanukkah?,” he asked, confused. “No,” I said. “We’re doing it for you!”
I’d say his face lit up like a Christmas tree when I said that, but I don’t want to mix my metaphors (or screw up my similes). I don’t think I’ve seen a frown turn upside down in such a delightful way before. This is a kid who gets dejected sometimes, especially when he has to be away from his mom, and I watched his whole body and soul perk up in one swift movement. I was so pleased by how special this one-of-a-kind celebration made him feel.
On the walk home, we talked about what order to do everything in, and how we could Google the parts of the ritual we didn’t know. I asked friends on Facebook for pointers, but I didn’t really need them. Most of the directions I needed were right there on the box handed to me at the tank.
I set the menorah out while the kids focused on dividing up the chocolate coins my daughter got from her Sinterklaas celebration with her dad to use as dreidel gelt. I lit the Shamash, and the kids used it to light the other six candles, 3 each, from right to left. Then I read the prayers in the phonetic Hebrew on the back of the candle box. I’m familiar with how to pronounce the opening lines thanks to our college production of “Falsettos,” and the rest I made up. Both kids got a small present, played dreidel, and when the candles were almost melted, we blew them out and that was that. It was so easy and fun, I can’t imagine not having done it. When a Jewish friend of mine heard I blew out the candles, she told me I wasn’t supposed to do that, but said, “I love the birthday-likeness.” Gentiles! What do we know? I thought the wax was gonna melt everywhere. That’s why I put a paper towel under the menorah.
As I folded up the cardboard box the menorah came in to recycle it at the end of the night, I saw on the side the following text:
The festival of Chanukah symbolizes the universal message for the need of religious tolerance and the power of light to prevail over darkness. By lighting these Chanukah candles or by encouraging family members or friends to light, or similarly, encouraging all people to do a kind act or good deed, this sends a powerful stream of G-dly light into this world. May these good deeds bring about the rebuilding of the Temple speedily in our days, where once again the menorah will be lit.
It’s not lost on me that the Mitzvah Tank guy’s mitzvah allowed me to do a mitzvah for a little boy who filled with light as a result. His mother was so astonished that we managed to put such a quick ragtag Hanukkah together, but it just happened. I saw the light and I followed it. Here’s to that.
Main photo credit: Flickr user Ron Almog