Florida Keys News
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Kindling a light across the generations

The menorah that Key Largo's Susan Gordon lights during Hanukkah has been lopsided for at least half a century, its music box no longer works and its brass has long since lost its shine.

But to Gordon, this ritual Hanukkah lamp is still as beautiful as it was in 1914, when her grandmother Rose Skolnick, with her two small children in tow, brought it in a satchel from Russia to the United States, along with just a smattering of other worldly possessions.

"She could only take the most important items," Gordon, 56, said last week.

Hanukkah begins at sundown Saturday, Dec. 8, and lasts for eight nights. The holiday commemorates the 164 BCE victory of Judah Maccabi and his small Jewish army over the Syrian empire, ruled by the mighty King Antiochis.

According to Jewish tradition, in victory, the Maccabians entered the Temple in Jerusalem and sought to rekindle the eternal flame, but they found only enough oil for one day. That one day supply, however, lasted eight days, time enough for more oil to be secured.

The lighting of the menorah recalls that biblical miracle. But as many Jews will tell you, Hanukkah, much like other Jewish holidays, is as much about tradition and continuity as it is about anything else. "From generation to generation" is a common Jewish refrain. And rituals, like the menorah lighting, are what link eras together.

For Gordon, the lighting of the menorah that once belonged to her "Bubbe Rose" is a reminder of her girlhood in Massachusetts. In those days, she, her siblings Barry and Barbara, her grandmother, who passed away in 1980, and her parents Simon and Lillian, both of whom died two years ago, lit that very same menorah.

"It gives me a feeling of the importance of belonging to a family and families having traditions," Gordon said.

But the menorah also takes her back farther, to early 20th century Czarist Russia, where Jews were routinely persecuted and were sometimes subject to murderous rampages known as pogroms. It was from there that some 2 million Jews, including Rose Skolnick, immigrated to the United States between 1881 and 1914.

Skolnick, who was 23 at the time of her move to America, lived in a small village in what is now modern-day Belarus, but was then part of Russia's Pale of Settlement. The Pale, which was established by Czar Catherine II in 1791, was where most Russian Jews were forced by decree to live. Even there, they were obligated to pay double taxes and were forbidden to lease land or pursue higher education. Beginning in 1882 the rules got stricter still, with Jews from the Pale ordered into urban areas and away from the countryside.

In 1914, when Skolnick boarded a ship for Ellis Island, Russia and the rest of Europe were on the brink of World War I. Meanwhile, Skolnick's husband, Chaim Beryl Skolnick, was in the Russian cavalry, Gordon said, and was unable to depart just yet. The Bolshevik revolution, which led to the end of the Pale of Settlement, was three years off.

"It just wasn't safe for Jews at that time," Gordon said.

So her "Bubbe Rose" left with her children, two siblings and those few items. But she made sure to take her menorah as well as the candlesticks her family used each Friday evening to bring in the sabbath.

Gordon said she'll remember that story as she kindles the Hanukkah lights this week.

"Judaism is kept alive by passing ritual items from generation to generation," she said. "But for me, understanding where these actually come from, what was going on in Russia early last century and why my grandmother had to flee the country, makes it more meaningful. She had to flee for her safety and the safety and well-being of future generations."


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