Late November 2013. Chanukah was early that year and didn’t coincide with the Christmas holidays.
I was nearing a final decision about moving out of my parents’ home and finding an apartment of my own. I struggled with the decision still.
I struggled with what it meant – would I abandon all religion? would I be Modern Orthodox? would I find a place in Washington Heights? on the Upper West Side? could I afford any of that? what would happen if I found a place in a neighborhood without an Orthodox population? did I want roommates? could I afford to live without roommates? And the big one – how on earth would I break the news to my parents that I, 25 and unmarried, would be moving out of their home but not moving into my husband’s home? that I, a single girl, would be striking out on my own and making a life for myself that did not include plans for a family or a bayis ne’eman b’yisrael?
And amidst all this worry and struggle, my first semester of grad school was coming to a close. I struggled with final papers, but I also reveled in them. I sank into the work as an escape from the worry and struggle of my personal and religious life. Here, in academia, I knew who I was and what I wanted. I derived joy from the work – this intense struggle brought satisfaction and comfort, not knotted stomachs and headaches and shortness of breath.
My favorite class of that semester – Introduction to Medieval Studies – met on Tuesday evenings. My final paper for that class was about the portrayal of childhood and adolescence in two medieval romances. I looked at both Middle English and Anglo-Norman versions of the Horn story and of the Havelok story. I didn’t know it then, but that paper would later become part of my dissertation.
The class ran from 6:30-8:30. My father usually lit the menorah at 6:30. L’chatchilah, in the best option, one is supposed to light as soon as it’s fully dark. But my father would get home from work at 6, and he would prepare the wicks and oil, and then we would gather round while he lit.
There was no way I could be at both menorah-lighting and in class at the same time.
I was mildly excited about the seeming inevitability of my having to light the menorah for myself. I would go to school, get home at about 9:30, and light my own menorah for the first time in almost twenty years.
When I told my father about this, he expressed disappointment – Chanukah licht is a family occasion, and while it was obvious that I had no other option, it was disappointing to him that I was even in such a position. It was clear that my academic life, which was already strange in the ultra-Orthodox community, was going to constantly interfere with my religious observance.
I suppressed a pang of worry – if this is his reaction to me fulfilling the mitzvah on my own, slightly later (which my brothers had done numerous times when they were traveling and got home later in the evening) – what would his reaction be when I told him I was moving out?
I had a panic attack during class that night. I sat at the table, next to two classmates who had become my friends. I tried to focus on the professor’s lecture, tried to participate and answer when she solicited feedback and opinions. But my mind was overtaken by a roaring soundlessness, by a feeling of “getmeoutofheregetmeoutofhere.” I stopped breathing, my vision darkened, my fingers dug into my palms.
I forced myself to regain enough control over my body to get up and leave the room. I walked blindly, vision still darkened and blurred, to the restroom. It was empty.
I leaned against the wall, bent forward and pressed my palms to my thighs, gathered the fabric of my skirt in my hands. My breath still came in shallow gasps. I forced myself to stop breathing for a moment, and then took a deep breath in.
On the exhale, the tears began. I sobbed, I clenched my fists around the fabric of my skirt and ignored the little voice that, while all this was happening, still managed to remind me, “you know, your hands will get sweaty and your skirt will have two dark-grey stains when you go back to class.” I told it to shut up, and sobbed some more.
I was still choking. I reached up with one hand and yanked at the neckline of my shell, pulled it down to expose my collarbone, felt the back of the elastic neckline digging into my skin, stretched my neck into the pain of it.
Head up, neck elongated, throat closing despite my now-exposed neckline, I let the tears run down the side of my face.
That voice told me again that my mascara would be running and leaving black marks down my face. I told it to shut up again.
After what felt like an eternity but was actually about five minutes, I took a few deep breaths, smoothed down my now-wrinkled skirt, dried my face. Took a look in the mirror – I didn’t even look like I was crying. I took another deep breath and headed back to class.
On the train ride home, I thought about what I would be doing soon – I would be lighting my own menorah! I began to get excited again. I began to think about the emotion and intention and devotion I would put into the ritual.
My father greeted me from a chair in front of his menorah when I got home.
“Good, you’re home,” he said, and stood up in front of his unlit menorah.
My heart sank.
He had waited three hours for me to get home.
I hung up my coat and stood near my mother and sisters, watching while my father recited the brachos and lit the menorah.