My first memory of lighting Shabbat candles was when I was in first grade. We had a weekly Shabbat party that met in the common area in between the kindergarten, first, second and third grades in my suburban Hebrew day school. Every week Morah Yona and Mrs. Burn would pass out little challah rolls from an oversized brown paper bakery bag, and I loved getting one. I loved watching the teachers pull the challah roll out of the bag…it was the biggest brown bag I ever saw! It was about as tall as six-year-old me!
But the part I coveted was getting selected to be the Shabbat Ima, and my time finally came. Part of the allure was wearing the yellow kerchief and apron. But I imagine that another attractive element was that I got to light Shabbat candles in school just like I did with my own mommy at home on Friday nights. My mother told me that I loved Shabbat from an early age. It was around this time when I was Shabbat Ima in the late 1970s that I learned the main refrains of L’cha Dodi. While my mother always lit candles at home on Friday nights and was the driving force behind my parents’ choice to send me and my siblings to day school, she told me she realized she needed to change her tune when I asked what we were having for Shabbat dinner and little more than tuna sandwiches were planned. So, from a very young age, Friday night Shabbat dinner was a standard in our kosher house. I don’t really recall a time when we didn’t have Friday night dinner. My mother lit candles, we sang Shalom Aleichem, and my father or brother often made Kiddish whereafter we enjoyed my mother’s delicious home cooking of dishes such as cashew chicken, broiled baby lamb chops, or baked chicken cutlets. My own love for Shabbat was constant growing up, and many times I enjoyed spending Shabbat afternoons at friends’ houses after shul or going to various Shabbatons and seminars through school.
But back to Shabbat candles.
In researching this topic and how it relates to me personally, I asked my mother, Gail Medjuck Loonin, more about her connection to Shabbat candles. She, too, grew up lighting candles with her mother, Mayme (Mushka) Hodes Medjuck of blessed memory, as a young girl in Syracuse, New York. The line goes directly back, as both of my mother’s grandmothers lit Shabbat candles. I happen to share their name, רחל מלכה, as they were cousins. My namesake, my Alter Bubbie, Ruchel Malka Medjuck, was known among the family as an “angel on earth.” She was as shein as they get, I have been told.
When my mother was first married and living in White Plains, New York, she said she was the only one among her newly married friends who lit candles on Friday night. This was 1967. I don’t think my mother’s friends were particularly rebels or countercultural as this was the height of the summer of love and hippy culture; they were just secular and more culturally Jewish. I think few of them kept kosher homes. But my mother knew that there was more to it than just eating bagels and lox. Not only did she light candles on Friday night, but my mother knew to light them at appropriate time. And while I do not recall much usage of Yiddish expressions between me and my mother, I have distinct memories of when my Grandma would come visit from Syracuse and she would say to my mother, “Come on, Gay, it’s time to bentch licht.” My mother carried on the tradition of lighting candles because to her it just was part of having a Jewish home; it was just like an ocean that was flowing in her veins. To her, It was heimish, normal, and just what’s done.
My mother’s parents’ two families were both connected to their Yiddishkeit and resisted much assimilation through the 20th century. Part of this could be a result of my grandfather Archie Medjuck of blessed memory having grown up in a shtetl-like environment in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. But as mentioned my grandparents were cousins through their mothers and both families stayed close to their heritage by maintaining kosher homes and standards of kashrut outside their homes for their entire lives. My grandfather always wore a kippa at home and bentched after he ate. At this time many girls were not given Jewish educations (first, with my grandmother in the 1920s and later with my mother and her sisters in the 40s and 50s despite that my aunt attended cheder in Glace Bay and later Hebrew school at their local Young Israel synagogue. ). But, by and large my mother felt that her Jewish education was minimal.
What did carry through was Shabbat candles and keeping kosher, and these have proven more so valuable. Because we lit candles on Friday night I had the awareness that this is what Jewish women do. She always included me in it, and we would wear handkerchiefs over our heads because that’s what my grandmother did. We received the New York Times at home when I was in elementary school, and I loved seeing the weekly ad at the bottom of the front page which stated “attention Jewish women and girls, candle lighting is at 6:11 PM this week.” We lived close enough to NYC that when I compared it to the local candle lighting time I found on our shul calendar hanging in the laundry room it was only a minute or two different. How wonderful it was when, a few years ago, I had the distinct honor to meet the singular person who was responsible for placing these ads in the paper through the 1980s!
Now, having been married for 15 years and lighting Shabbat candles consistently for way more than that, I, too, light Shabbat candles. I use 2 ceramic candlesticks I received as a bat mitzvah gift, supplementing with additional candles, one for each of my beautiful children. It is such a joy to light with my daughter Nistar , who received her very own candlestick as a 3 year-old birthday gift. The physical light the candles bring in is unparalleled, and the feeling in our house is one we describe as “cozy.” But it’s more than that: Jewish home with candles burning on Friday night has the potential to be a space of comfort security and warmth. Life is busier than ever with every new month as our technology keeps speeding faster and faster, and I often think towards what some wise women have advised me, time and again over the years: which is to light on time. My own mother always lit on time growing up , and yet I find that life with a busy household where there’s always another spill to wipe up, truck to put away , fork to set, sometimes causes me to keep packing in more and more things, and I get dangerously closer and closer to that candle lighting time before I am ready. It is hard to light on time and get it all done. But I try to remind myself that the original Ruchel Malka most definitely had none of the modern conveniences that are part of my life, yet I would imagine that was good about lighting b’zman. My own daughter is often waiting for me. Showered and dressed– and I hope that I can improve in this aspect of bringing in Shabbat. If it means that my iPhone is left on unnecessarily in a drawer for 25 hours I think I can live.
When I light Shabbat candles I love thinking of a line from a famous song where it says, “And the light is growing brighter now.”