It’s a rainy Friday afternoon at my country house on the beautiful, still natural Upper Delaware River, and I’m preparing the Shabbos candlesticks. I open a new box of fresh, pearly white candles and place two into my old brass candlesticks. The candlesticks are not particularly beautiful or elegant; they are somewhat graceful, somewhat clunky. Because they seem old and worn you might think they were handed down to me by my grandmother — they certainly look the part. Alas, that’s not the case.
My parents were intellectuals who held a generally disinterested, somewhat negative view about religion — though they were pleased and proud, in their way, to be Jewish. They believed strongly in what you might call basic Jewish values.
The only reason we were given any sort of formal Jewish education (at the new Reform temple in the manicured, post-war suburb of Boston where we were raised during the 1950s) was, as my mother liked to explain in her droll fashion, that I had begun talking about wanting to become a nun when I grew up. (Such an idea could only have occurred to me because of the Irish Catholic au pair we had one summer who talked earnestly about becoming a nun.)
So off to Sunday school I went — every Sunday — never ceasing to complain. One Sunday my class learned how to light and bless the Sabbath candles. I came home and proudly showed my mother how it was done. She didn’t say much but that was the last time Sabbath candles were lit in our home. The idea was allowed to die quietly from neglect.
My parents eventually divorced and around 1970 my father paid a visit to an old family friend — “Aunt Grace” — my mother’s best friend from Radcliffe who had recently been widowed. Her husband, Bernie, had died suddenly. Eventually they married and were together for about 25 years until my dad died in 1995.
Grace (she was no longer “Aunt”) had a somewhat similar background to my parents’, coming also from an old Jewish American family. And she shared my parents’ intellectual, generally cool-to-religion views. However, she had been happily married to Bernie and as a loving gesture toward him, I was somewhat surprised to learn, she had regularly lit Sabbath candles on Friday evenings, using his mother’s old brass candlesticks.
Grace and I had a very warm relationship; when she died in 2000, she bequeathed her Sabbath candlesticks to me, as I had, in the meantime, found renewed interest in Judaism and came to value many of the traditions, including lighting Sabbath candles. And so it is those old, worn-brass candlesticks from Grace that I light on Friday evenings.
Now I find myself wondering, where did these candlesticks come from? I never met Bernie’s mother. I just barely remember Bernie himself. But I have the feeling that these candlesticks came from the “old country”; they just have that look and feel about them — heavy, time-burnished brass, modest and old. I like to think that someone might have tucked them into a valise, sometime in the 1800s, for that long, arduous journey from Eastern Europe to this new and wondrous land.
Of course before Bernie’s mother there would have been Bernie’s grandmother. What was she like? And where did she live — in America — or possibly Europe? And before her? Who knows?
I’m reading a wonderful book — Eta Wrobel’s “My Life, My Way” — about how she survived as a partisan in the woods of Poland during The War. Wrobel describes vividly her family’s warm, traditional way of life before The War, mentioning at one point the family’s precious brass, Sabbath candlesticks. Were my candlesticks once part of a loving family’s Sabbath observance, back in the old country?
And so I value them. And I value that the women who came before me valued these candlesticks — perhaps enough to place them in a valise over 100 years ago and lug them all the way to the New World, Die Medina Goldena. And that makes them special, an artifact of a good Jewish life — a vanished life — something to be cherished and treasured.
I should probably add, though, that in searching eBay recently to see what I could learn about “old, brass, Sabbath candlesticks,” based on the photos of what’s available I now realize that these candlesticks might just as easily be American, c. 1920. That would take them back as far as Bernie’s mother, around the time when young Bernie was a growing lad in Chicago.
Ah, well. Good enough.
Joan Rosenfelt is a writer living in Sullivan County, N.Y.