Terry Barr is a professor of English at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC, where he has taught Modern Literature, Film,
and Jewish Studies for the past 23 years. His work has been published in the American Literary Review, the Journal of
Popular Film and TV, Southern Jewish History, Studies in Popular Culture, and in the edition, "Half-Life: Jew-Ish Tales from
Interfaith Homes". He lives in Greenville, SC with his wife, two daughters, and three cats.
When my wife, so very subtly, told her extended family that I am Jewish, the menorahs started raining down on our house.
We now have six menorahs — six more than I ever had growing up in the small town of Bessemer, Alabama, fifteen miles
southwest of Birmingham — and I suppose it’s not a bad item to collect. More meaningful than the comic books, stamps, and
baseball cards that filled my childhood bedroom. For our first menorah, my wife and I selected a blue ceramic piece, the individual
candle holders forming a wailing wall that now shows the inevitable scars of former flames scaling the crevices — scaling as if they
needed to see exactly which liberator awaited them on the other side.
The other five menorahs were all gifts from my wife’s family, most of them I’m sure, purchased from the close-out tables of
various Marshall’s or TJ Maxx’s. Gold-plated; train-shaped; mock-velvet painted; even an electronically-lit three-foot tall drapery,
its eight-pronged beacon spread like a peacock’s tail.
Every woman in my wife’s immediate family has donated to our cause, although I’m not really sure what our cause is. I never
asked for the menorahs, was fine with our ceramic blue. And while I am relatively new to Jewish holidays, I don’t think it’s
customary to light six or eight menorahs for Chanukah, although I do see how a new one every night might keep things fresh.
What I’m saying is, you don’t see people buying multiple Christmas trees for their Christian friends. Still, it’s good to be so
supported; this is what family does, although I will admit to feeling somewhat peculiar when I consider that neither my Jewish
father nor my stereotypically Jewish grandmother ever contributed to my collection: ever matched my in-laws’ menorah-gifting.
So while I have no idea what was going on in my in-laws’ minds — my wife simply shrugs and says, “They just love you!” — I
proudly display their gifts as each holiday season rolls around. Things got even stranger when my mother-in-law gave me a
menorah two years in a row, and while I wondered whether she thought menorahs are traditional Chanukah gifts, I later learned
that there was more to this story — that, as in all things, this extremely gentle, polite but determined woman has her reasons.
My wife’s oldest sister, on the other hand, simply loves to give, and it is her menorah gift that I love most. Kilned from clay, eight
rabbis join hands and reach to the sky, in joy, in wonder, in thanks for their Chanukah liberation. Their hands open for the
candles; their joined arms symbolize the solidarity that kept them alive, these golem-Maccabees. A one-of-a-kind piece, now
scorched with twelve years of flame and embedded with blue-red-yellow-white candle wax, its meaning and resonance have buried
themselves in us. My sister-in-law can be a real pain-in-the-ass; she is also the person you’d most want around in a time of crisis.
And she knows that art tells us most deeply who we are.
Through this gift she expressed her love in a way that I’ve rarely felt.
It was only years later, however, that I was made to wonder whether she was expressing something else.
At this year’s Chanukah celebration, we’re in for a surprise. We’re all sitting around our dining table — that 8-foot long, French-
antique pine country table that I wanted ever since watching Antonia’s Line, a Danish film that celebrates family and feasting and…
identity. My in-laws are all gathered with us on this night, and so in addition to the cheese latkes — my daughters’ favorites — we’
re also serving a Persian dish: Chicken and Zeresht polo with the golden-orange saffron rice and ruby berries similar to cranberries
but which you can’t find naturally in America. As we pass the homemade yogurt, obtained from the local Arabic market, and wait
for the chai to finish steeping, my sister-in-law pauses loudly and proclaims: “You won’t believe what I found out this week.”
We could barely guess, didn’t have time to think, though, I imagined that another Persian relative had arrived from a distant
shore. Instead, she declares: “Mom just told me that BOTH of her parents were Jewish.”
The room goes still; the rabbis in the corner, still reaching for the sky, smile.
No one asks, “What?” We all simply turn to my mother-in-law who is looking around the room as if some new presence has
And then she tries, but fails, to smother a giggle.
My sister-in-law says, “And when I asked her, ‘Mom, why haven’t you told me this before,’ you know what she said?”
Another pause, but as if on cue, my mother-in-law answers, “Because nobody ever asked me!”
Thinking back on it now, I guess that’s true. The rumor was that one of her parents, or maybe a grandparent, was Jewish. My wife
didn’t even know this until ten years ago, and it seemed to me that she didn’t really care when she DID find out. Perhaps she
simply wanted to remain in her Persian dreams, her clear past. Perhaps she didn’t want her family images cluttered and confused
by one of a ruffled but wizened old man, complete with sidelocks (peyiss), unruly gray-black beard, long black robe and dusty
But I, of course, am ecstatic with this discovery. I say to my mother-in-law, “But you could have told me… you know how
interested I would have been!”
“You didn’t ask me!” she repeats, as if this is truly some kind of answer.
And so I turn to my wife as this new realization sinks in: “Your Mom is Jewish!”
But her expression hasn’t changed. We can all see the surprise that still fills her sister’s half-Jewish being, but for my wife, it is as
if nothing can really disturb her sense of self any more.
“Who wants tea” is all she says.
“Wait a minute,” I hold her down. “Don’t you see, not only are you half-Jewish, like me, but according to orthodox law, you’re
even MORE Jewish than I am.”
She settles back into her place. Meanwhile, our two daughters are watching us, expecting what?
Moments pass, and then she looks at me.
And then she smiles, her whole face, not just the mouth-corners that would indicate that it’s only a “for-show” smile. And I can
see her black, lustrous Persian eyes shining, amused by me, us, this tapestry of life.
And then we’re all laughing, my daughters too, though I imagine that none of us can say exactly why.
Then I think of all the menorahs, even the electric one that my wife’s Khaleh sent, and I ask my mother-in-law if her siblings know
“My first brother, the one who was sick, knew, but he didn’t care what anybody was. He accepted all. But my other brother, the
doctor, and my sister, they don’t like it. They don’t want to know this.”
I think, “But your sister gave ME a menorah.”
I say, “How did you find out?”
“When I was ten, I walked into a room. There, my mother and my aunt were talking. But when they saw me, they just got quiet,
and suddenly I knew. And then, we moved to another town, and all the time I was afraid that everyone would ask and would know
who we were. So I stayed quiet. And no one said anything.”
And she’s right. No one did say anything. Until that week, and then that night, the miracle of Chanukah.