Liza and I received an invitation in the mail late last week to a Hanukkah party in Dallas, Texas. Even though we moved to Newton 21 years ago, we remain on the list of invitees. Every year, from 1986-1996, my children, my wife, and I would attend. It was a big, and always expanding group of adults and kids from Temple Emanuel in Dallas, the temple where my wife had her first pulpit position. The food was consistently great. There was always music and general fun. And the piece de resistance was always a Hanukkah piñata for the kids – this is Texas, after all. I have nothing but warm memories of those parties and the hosts who were always so genuinely gracious and kind.
This year’s invitation was a picture of a Hanukkah candle lighting from a recent party. Nina, the hostess, is in the foreground. Around her are a number of young children and a few adults. I recognize no one else.
So much time has passed since I attended their Hanukkah party: 22 years, in fact. In that time, so much has changed for all of us who are still on the party mailing list. Some of our kids are married. Some of our parents are dead. Some of us have grandkids. Some of us have been successful in our chosen professions. Some of us have been through tragedy and anguish.
I don’t think I’ve spoken a word to Nina and Bob, the hosts of the party, since 1996-7. Are they retired? I can’t imagine, but maybe they are. Are their daughters all married or single? Do they have grandkids? Are they healthy?
It’s obvious that we are no longer friends. At least, we’re not friends as the term is commonly understood. Whatever connection we had – and it was a really good and strong connection – has faded to a blur, as happens for so many of us who have moved around a bit.
So why, if that is the case, did I feel this wave of nostalgia wash over me like a warm bath of love when I opened the invitation? Why didn’t it go right to recycling with a comment like, “That’s nice”? Why is the invitation still sitting on the kitchen counter? Because time collapses when face to face with experiences of love and God and community. Even though we do not talk, the love from those years still exists.
I so appreciate this invitation, because it shows thoughtfulness and kindness. It means at some point when Nina printed out the address labels, she looked at our name and thought of us, if only for as long as it takes to stuff an envelope. I certainly think of Nina and Bob and their daughters as I look at the picture on the invite. I am transported back to the years we attended. I remember my son, Jonah, wildly swinging the piñata bat. I remember my daughter, Sara, swinging on the swing in the backyard. And I remember the sense of community we shared. The camaraderie of voices joined in Hanukkah prayers and then a rousing Rock of Ages, and the warm, fuzzy feeling of connection and love and family ties.
Such moments, such memories, do not ever disappear. They reinforce our shared feelings of connectedness. They give our lives a kind of direction, a sense of meaning and agency. Sure, it’s fine to be with one’s own family for any given celebration. But the sense of unity, of sharing something sacred and timeless with others can bring us peace of mind that we can only obtain when in relationship with others. That’s why gathering just for the sake of gathering is so important in our tradition. That’s why in Hebrew, the word for synagogue is beyt Knesset, house of gathering. This is what Jews do, all over the world. And we love to share it with anyone who wants to absorb the glow of the candles and the beauty of being in community, in connection.
Our years of Dallas Hanukkah celebrations remain not only as good memories fraught with nostalgia for yesteryear, but also as cherished experiences of Jewish life lived fully and in concert with others. Perhaps that’s our most important task at TBA: to build positive memories of Jewish meaning within community. The ritual or the activity is, in a way, secondary to the profound feeling we derive from gathering with purpose. In such a context we can learn what it actually means to be-here-now. And that is a priceless Hanukkah gift for which I will be thankful for the rest of my life. Come build some memories.