On the fourth day of Hanukkah, a young man with payos stopped me on 34th Street and asked the question that I try not to think too hard about. "Are you Jewish?"
He wasn’t asking when the last time I went to synagogue was, or if I’d eaten sausage on my pizza the night before, or if I had a favorite biblical character. But still I was always reluctant to define myself. "Yes," I said hesitantly.
"You need a menorah?" he asked.
"I do," I said, even though I had recently bought my own snazzy black one at Target.
His was a bare bones hannukiyah made mostly of cardboard with jelly donuts and dreidels as decorations and gold-painted bendable candle holders. I took the menorah and the candles from him.
As a person who is generally more comfortable being outside than inside, I struggle with seasonal depression. I make vows to be productive in December while the world is celebrating holidays that no longer seem to involve me. But just knowing that the days are cold, dark, and short makes it hard for me to follow through with anything.
The pandemic has only intensified these feelings. I started a novel at the beginning of the pandemic, but struggle with finding motivation to write. It's hard under normal circumstances, but the loneliness of the pandemic has made it worse. The holidays offer no joy, just a solid reminder that many of the people I've loved are no longer in this world, or no longer in my world, which can feel almost as bad.
It wasn’t always like this. With a Jewish mother and a father who grew up Catholic, I was one of the fortunate bunch who was raised celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas. I had many friends who were strictly Jewish and didn’t appreciate the way Hanukkah was seen as the scraggly bush in the valley of towering Christmas trees. I considered myself lucky that I got both. But by the age of ten, when the things I wanted became more difficult to put in a box, the holidays began to lose their glow. As my family continued to shrink, the lights dimmed with it.
Once gifts from my parents stopped being part of the equation, I stopped paying attention to Hanukkah. But the winter of 2016 was a particularly bad winter for me. Trump had just been elected and the hope of a future with the man I loved burned out that same week. I saw only darkness, clouds, and long nights of hopeless grieving—until one day, I received a cat menorah in the mail from my Irish atheist father. When it seemed like nothing else could save me, I ran out to Rite Aid to buy candles. Was I really going to sing those old foreign words, all by myself in my apartment? There were worse ideas.
I was living in LA at the time, and liked to stalk the sunset, wandering the Hollywood studio district until the last flicker of purple took the spotlight off the Hollywood sign. But on the first night of Hanukkah, I had something to do after my walk. I lit the candles. And I realized how much joy this ritual brought me. The light had become the gift.
Four years later, we are skating slowly through the end of a mind-bogglingly terrible year with the hope of light just beyond the horizon. Yesterday, on Andrew Cuomo's press conference, I watched the first New Yorker take the long-awaited vaccine. Trump has been evicted. And I am one of the New Yorkers who took advantage of the regional exodus to find a rent-stabilized apartment way below market rate. Perhaps now I would finally get back to my novel.
As I brought home my new menorah, I had an idea.
I have been trying to focus myself by using the Pomodoro method while writing, which involves setting a timer for 25 minutes and working without stopping to establish a flow. I looked at my new menorah and thought: what about Meryl's Menorah Method? I would put eight candles in the menorah and light one at a time, and wouldn’t stop working until all eight candles were extinguished. So, instead of looking at my phone to check how much time I had left and accidentally getting stuck on Instagram, I could leave my phone in the other room and look up at the candles instead. The added bonus was the beauty of the dancing flame and the soothing scent of the burning wax. Was this sacrilege or my budding brilliance?
It's the sixth day of Hanukkah and Day Two of the Menorah Method. On Day One, I got through three candles (not eight). Each takes about 45 minutes, longer than the Pomodoro setting on my app. But I'll work up to eight. And I'm looking forward to the end of Hanukkah when candles go on sale and I can stock up. I'd like to think Judah and all the Maccabees would be impressed that I’m finding new light in their struggle. When I finish my book, I’ll thank the guy who gave me the menorah on 34th Street for supplying me with my own Hanukkah miracle.
Meryl Branch-McTiernan has published creative nonfiction in Chaleur Magazine. Two of her monologues were published in the 2015 collection Men’s Comedic Monologues That Are Actually Funny. She’s blogged for HuffPo Women and is a professional ghostwriter of nonfiction books. Currently she’s pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Stony Brook. A native New Yorker, she’s received a BS in Television, Radio, and Film from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.