December 1958 brings a fierce coldness that is nothing like anything you, my mother, have ever known. Snow touches the nape of your neck, and the chill of it makes you feel lonelier. You see your breath hanging in the air and you believe you will never be warm again. As you walk to your subway stop in Brooklyn, you conjure the Malecón – Havana’s esplanade along the water. Sabrosa – a delicious savoriness was in the salted air. In Brooklyn, it is the first of many times you try to transplant the warmth of your querida Cuba to a freezing American city.
The darkness of the bone-chilling winter frightens you. You are afraid of the dark –afraid of the phantoms populating your small room, phantoms that are people still alive in Havana. You see your parents, brother, sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins – all of them figure into the memories that come rushing to you in the middle of the night.
It seems it is always the middle of the night for you in America. You travel in dark, endless subway tunnels. Someone tells you to clutch your purse on the train, and you sit up stiff and fearful on the subway car’s rattan bench. You miss the pastel colors that stand out in Havana, particularly in the midday sun. Your hometown is infused with light. New York, on the other hand, is the punishing color of lead. Even at midday, it looks like a painting that has been left out in the rain.
Cuba is tipping into revolution, a social experiment that will go very wrong for your family. There is nothing left for you there. You are 22 years old and, shockingly, your father permits you to go alone to New York – a girl who hardly rides the bus alone in Havana. Distant cousins of his will rent a room to you. They will take care of you, your father promises.
You apply to the United Nations for work as an interpreter. When your application is rejected, you convince yourself that your dream of working for the UN is merely on hold. You speak perfect schoolgirl English, after all. You understand French but resent the language because it lords over Spanish as the language of diplomacy.
You tell yourself that typing invoices at the watch factory is temporary. Nevertheless, you make fast friends with the Hungarian girls who work on the assembly line. They have run away from their own revolution gone awry in Budapest. That was 1956, and they have two years of experience over you in your new city. On Fridays, they bring in homemade pastries that you eat and eat, and for the first time in your life, you are overweight.
You are adrift. Your sister is engaged; her wedding is on hold until you, the firstborn daughter, marry. Then come the days when the sun sets earlier and earlier, slowly draping your world in darkness. You wish that one of the Hungarian girls in the factory was Jewish. Hanukkah is coming, and you so want to light the menorah with someone. You scrimp and save and occasionally skip dinner to buy a hanukiyah.
You walk into a Judaica store and see a menorah; the beauty of its simplicity strikes you. The menorah is a golden bronze set on a dark green stand. The effect of the two colors is pretty. And green is your favorite color. Your eyes are a beautiful green that brightens by the ocean or deepens against your dark hair. You run your fingers over the four candleholders on either side of the large Star of David – eight in all for the eight days of Hanukkah. The shamash, the caretaker candle that will light the others, sits atop the all-encompassing Star, inspiring you to pray. This declarative Jewishness, never expressed in Cuba, is a miracle to you.
The woman who sells you the menorah asks where you are from. When you tell her you are from Cuba, she can’t believe that Jews live on your jewel of an island. She further doubts you are Jewish when you answer no, you do not speak Yiddish. You are a proud speaker of Ladino – a Judeo-Spanish your people have kept alive for centuries. She thinks you are a marrana – and hesitates before finally selling the menorah to you. When you light your new menorah, you will feel the shamash’s flame standing guard over you.
New York is the first place where your Jewishness is called into question, and you are angry. You are like Adam and Eve, the first man and woman when they initially experienced the early onset of the winter days. You are sure this darkness, this weather, is God’s punishment for sins you can’t remember committing. The world is reverting to the chaos of creation, and you try to stave off the encroaching turmoil each night as you light another Hanukkah candle. But the winter solstice was God’s restorative gift to Adam and Eve, a phenomenon you will not notice when it arrives the week after you light the last Hanukah candle.
Instead, pneumonia will leave you gasping for breath. The Hungarian girls from the watch factory bring you soup and bread. You don’t ask them if their offerings are kosher – you are desperate for nourishment, for their love. You lose the deposit you put down to take classes at Brooklyn College. You originally think that if you cannot be an interpreter, maybe you can earn a degree to teach.
Another midrash or story about Adam (and Eve too) is an inversion of your first year in America. At one point in his life, Adam’s world was so bright he could see beyond the generations of Noah and Sinai straight through to his descendants. How wonderful if you had had the same power. In 1958, you do not know that you will be married and expecting me, your first child, in two years. I am born a few days after the winter solstice. You name me Judith – Yehudit in Hebrew, the name of the woman who slipped out of her widow’s weeds to seduce a Greek general. She plied him with liquor until he was drunk, and then she beheaded him. You do not see the connection between my name and the Hanukkah story. Though, I am sure to this day, you wish for me Judith’s bravery, her fierceness, her survival instincts.
Winter is soon coming again. Daylight will evaporate early. You are an elderly woman, and I am your silver-haired, middle-aged daughter. Our memories fall around us like the snow of your first winter. I rescue your menorah from the frenzied move out of the family home you lived in for 50 years. I don’t have the heart to scrape off the wax on it, symbolic as it is of the pile-up of your years in America. I bring your menorah to you in the nursing home and tell you that I will light it once again.
This essay first appeared on JewishBoston- November 16, 2021 https://www.jewishboston.com/read/my-immigrant-mothers-first-menorah-in-america/