Hanukkah Stories Burn Bright At The Towers

Lucy Gellman | December 23rd, 2019

Hanukkah Stories Burn Bright At The Towers

Hanukkah  |  The Hill  |  Tower One/Tower East  |  Arts, Culture & Community


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Sylvia Rifkin: There is light. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

In her 98 years on earth, Sylvia Rifkin has built almost a century of Hanukkah memories. Sunday, she added one more: a live performance of the Hanukkah story, set to a menorah protected by a fish tank.

Rifkin is a resident at Tower One/Tower East, an assisted living facility at the lip of New Haven’s Hill neighborhood. Sunday evening, she gathered with close to 50 residents to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights that begins on the 25th day of Kislev in the Jewish lunar calendar.

Visiting from the Congregation Chabad Lubavitch, Rabbi Gershon Borenstein and his seven children played parts in the story. His wife, Etika Borenstein, praised it as creating meaningful connection among the residents and their family, including three sons who visit each Friday before sundown.

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Hanukkah celebrates the second-century victory of Judah the Maccabee and his band of Jewish soldiers against the larger Seleucid army. It is a relatively minor Jewish holiday, but rose to prominence in the U.S. in the late nineteenth century thanks to a couple of reform rabbis and the inevitable machinations of capitalism.

It’s a complicated history too—a jubilant chronicle of the fight against assimilation with a subtext of punishing more secular, Hellenized Jews for abandoning their rituals with violent and coercive force. As the story tells it, the Maccabees reclaimed and rededicated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, searching for oil to relight the menorah. In the aftermath of destruction, they found only a trace amount remaining.

But instead of lasting for just one day, it fueled the menorah for eight, bringing both literal and symbolic light to the religious lives that the Seleucids tried to snuff out. In commemoration of that miracle, Jews light a menorah for eight nights, using a ninth candle to light the others. Oil-fried foods, particularly potato latkes and jelly-filled donuts called sufganiyot (or gorgeous, honey-drizzled bimuelos in the Sephardic tradition), are customary.

Sunday, Borenstein ushered in Hanukkah with traditional blessings, setting a menorah in a fish tank to protect it from the wind as it burned outside (due to fire code, flames are not kosher inside The Towers).

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As his sons worked to steady it outside, he lit an electric menorah inside and launched into the Hanukkah story, pulling out props that included a furry shtreimel, miniature torah scroll, and cooking utensils that doubled as shields. “Jewish food is the best weapon,” he joked at one point to a smattering of laughs.

As the story unfolded, residents looked on, clapping, laughing, and occasionally cheering or gasping along. When Borenstein’s young son began to spin like a dreidel, a few residents near the front fretted aloud that he might get dizzy if he kept going.

For Rifkin, it is a way of extending the sense of family that the holiday has come to symbolize. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, she was raised by two immigrants from Kiev, in what is now Ukraine. As Rifkin recalled, her mom “wanted to become this American,” banishing several old world customs and languages from their home.  She loved America's version of Hanukkah, and would give her kids a small token each day of the celebration.

They were never large—an apple or orange—but Rifkin treasured them. As she grew up, Hanukkah became a celebration of family and the small, meaningful gift of being together.

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On Saturday—the longest night of the year—she celebrated Hanukkah a day early with 35 members of her family in West Hartford, conjuring almost a century of Hanukkah memories as she watched flames dance in the darkness. Sunday, she recalled the moment each family member line up their personal menorahs in a window, and struck matches together.

“All the menorahs are lit at the same time,” she said. “So there is light.”

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That was also true for Herbert Mermelstein and Carole Weinstein, who joined in the conversation as they nibbled on sufganiyot dusted with powdered sugar.

Wearing a menorah-shaped hat (down to nine tiny flames that flickered on and off), Mermelstein recalled growing up in Ohio in a strict, kosher household, where Hanukkah became a chance to celebrate with rare, glittering fresh gelt and a house that was full of food.

As he spoke, he explained that he wears the hat as an homage to his great grandson, who drew a similar version in class a few years ago, and so impressed his teacher that she made one for him to wear. Now 94, he celebrates with fellow residents at The Towers. Each year, he said, he looks at the calendar hoping it’s not close enough to Christmas to feel like a competitive stand-in.

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Weinstein, who is 81, said that the meaning of the holiday has changed for her as she has gotten older. Raised in Bridgeport, she grew up speaking and learning Yiddish with the Workmen’s Circle (Der Arbeter Ring), a group of American Jews focused on social justice well before the term “woke” was ever a thing. ("We thought they were all communists!" Mermelstein quipped).

From her childhood, she was accustomed to singing “oy Khanike oy Khanike,” a Yiddish version of “Chanukah Oh Chanukah” that has lyrics celebrating the light and joy of the celebration (“a lustiker a freylicher”). She said that she still holds on to that each year, just as she has held on to her Yiddish.  

“As a kid, I was in it for the gifts,” she said. “But now it’s the light.”