I cannot help but compare how differently my daughter and I learned to light the Shabbat candles. My daughter has seen the candles her entire life, in full view in our home, at relatives’ and at friends’ houses. For her they are a commonplace occurrence. My experience on the other hand was very different. I was born very far from here. My Australian passport, of which I am very proud, used to say place of birth: SUN. My place of birth, The Soviet Union, now simply no longer exists.
We used to live in Kiev, and when we would take the one-hour flight or the overnight train to visit our family in Lvov, I would witness my great- grandmother, every Friday we were there, in a flurry of activity. The day would start with her cooking the evening meal. Once her kitchen duties were under control, she would then gather her cleaning utensils and head towards the very back room of my grandparents’ home, that they shared with my great-grandmother. That room was the furthest away from the front door; this was strategically important. However, its very large windows faced onto the street had to be managed. As a result, these windows had not only curtains but very thick black-out drapes as well. The large room with soaring ceilings served as my grandparents’ bedroom and my grandfather’s study. My great-grandmother busied herself in there for quite some time as she cleaned it from top to bottom. By the time she was finished, the parquetry floors gleamed and dark French polished furniture sparkled. Every speck of dust had been banished and every perfume bottle, picture frame and knick-knack was dusted and in its assigned place.
As she worked to make the room spotless, I kept her company by playing with the crystal perfume bottles on my grandmother’s dressing table, which fascinated me. Apart from giving me unsolicited tips on how to become a good balabusta, my great-grandmother would occasionally look up from her task and lock me in her gaze. Her normally cheerful sky-blue eyes clouded over and took on great intensity. She would repeat that something very significant was going to be happening here in this room, which took a lot of her time and effort before it was deemed to be ready.
Once satisfied with the state of the back room, she cast her attention on herself. She took an unhurried bath, washed her waist-length silver hair and with great care and attention first braided her hair and then fastened it into a tight, neat bun. She then did something quite unusual; she put on her best dress for that season and then covered it up with a well-worn housecoat and stained apron. By the time she had finished these activities, the best part of the day was gone and the rest of the family would start arriving from their various places of work.
My great-grandmother was very short, even by my childhood standards. She was usually very kind and softly spoken, quick to smile and in general was a warm and comforting presence. All these gentle qualities make it even more puzzling to try to understand how she managed to have the whole family under her control. There was no mistaking it; on Friday, she was in charge and every member of the family had a role to play, to offer cover and to protect her secret. It was the secret of the back room. Not all family members were willing participants; there was much resistance and ridicule, but despite all this, she persevered.
Closest to the front entrance was the dining table. At sunset, all members of our family would assemble at the table and be ready, on hand, to greet any visitors. In those days, not all homes in the Soviet Union had telephones; it was a common, regular occurrence to drop in on friends and family on the way home from work. Early evening was a very sociable time; family and friends would stop by to share or swap produce, news or generally just to keep in touch. The family was on standby to greet any guests, offer cups of tea and entertain anyone who might come along, effectively blocking them from walking further into our home.
At sunset, satisfied that everyone was at the table, she would make her way to the back room. One of my earliest childhood memories is of her calling me to come along with her. Once in the room, she would draw the black-out drapes and remove from her pocket the most amazing and beautiful piece of white lace I had ever seen. She moved through the room with purpose and precision, covering her head with the white lace I longed to examine, taking off her apron and housecoat. She would then retrieve a pair of candlesticks and two stumpy white candles from the desk draw and set them up on the desk.
By the light of my grandfather’s desk lamp, we would stand side by side, she in her best dress, the hair she had so carefully arranged now covered by white lace, and we would look at the candles as she lit the match, and then each candle in turn. She would wave her hands three times over the flames before covering her eyes. Then, in a strained voice full of emotion, which decades later I would recognise as grief, she quietly sang a prayer as she swayed. She taught me how to do it too; at that time, I did not have a name for it, and did not know that it was a prayer. I was never to talk about it, ever. I could never admit to having seen her do it, no matter who asked, whether it was a member of the extended family, a family friend, or stranger. I was never to admit to knowing what to do if ever presented with candles. It was a big secret: our secret, and we could all get into a lot of trouble with the police if it was exposed. It was imperative that I remembered two things very clearly; how to light the candles at sunset on Friday, and also that this very event never happened. These two things were impressed upon me and were of equal importance.
If anyone would drop in unexpectedly to our home on a Friday during this time, they would have felt special and very much welcomed. They were met with cheerful loud voices and exclamations of how wonderful it was to see them, all the while alerting the diminutive yet determined matriarch in the back room that we were not alone.
She would take a moment to look at the burning candles; she would wipe away a tear or two, kiss me on the forehead and say “A git Shabbos.” She would then retrace her steps; the housecoat would be rebuttoned, the apron would be tied over it, and the beautiful piece of white lace would be gently folded into a triangle and tucked away, deep inside her pocket, out of my reach. She would then stand by the door waiting, ready to emerge with a smile on her face to serve the evening meal. A family member would open the door for her from the other side, only when it was safe for her to exit from the room without the flickering light of the candles being detected by any visitor. At that point the door was firmly closed behind her. The room was out of bounds and the door was only reopened much later in the evening, and only when it was far too late to be reasonably expecting any more visitors.
It occurs to me that she had been doing this for decades under the Communist Regime before I was born. It astounds me that a woman who was so small in stature and so gentle by nature had the entire family in hand to act as her accomplices. When I light the candles, with my daughter—whose middle name is Esther—by my side, I always remember my great-grandmother, Esther Leah, and I think of the long, long line of survivors we are all from.