For Jewish mothers, the candlesticks that graced their homes and welcomed Shabbat in Eastern European shtetls had a special significance. It was with these candlesticks that Jewish women had their moment with God.
That moment took place on Friday nights, when Jewish matriarchs bent over the candlesticks, moved their hands in a circle following ancient custom, and entered into a unique moment when they invoked the blessing of God for their families. Jewish men had their physical attachments to Judaism: their talises, tephillen, and yarmulkes. For women, it was only candlesticks that were their physical link with their faith.
From 1880 to 1920, millions of Jews left Russia, where a hard life was made even harder under the brutality of the czar. These Jews packed their belongings and started on the long journey to America. Always included in their bags and suitcases were the candlesticks that had been the light of tradition in their shtetl homes.
When they reached America, immigrant Jews started a new life, quite often in large, crowded cities so different from the wooden houses and muddy streets of their homelands. The dark, dirty tenements of New York’s Lower East Side and Boston’s North End were the footholds of their new life in America.
The setting in their new homes was as different as the language and culture. Shtetl tradition was tested by the public education their children received and the culture of city streets. But one thing remained from their past lives that evoked memories of close-knit Jewish life: the candlesticks.
Today, some Jewish homes are fortunate to have these candlesticks from the “old country.” If they still hold candles that light Shabbat, do the children of the family know about this precious link with the past? Do they know how their great-grandmothers carried them, sometimes on their backs, to America because they represented an important part of their lives that they would not forsake?
In the candlestick’s light, tell the story of past generations to your children so the ancient symbolism is carried on.
Herb Belkin is a historian who writes and lectures on the epic events in the Jewish world over the last 200 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.