It’s Chanukah again, folks. And, yes, that’s the way we spell it in our household. The chanukiot have a temporary home by the pond in Hampstead Heath, alongside Golders Green Station, and pride of place on our mantelpiece. My daughter is bleating for doughnuts, gelt and every Moxie doll she sees on television. My husband has urged that I don’t set fire to the kitchen this year by leaving the candles burning at a right angle next to the Sunday papers.
Chanukah is always a joyous festival. I remember as a young actress on my first job with the Royal Shakespeare Company, it was the first Jewish festival to occur when I was away from family.
Living in a cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon, coming from a traditional background and having been brought up to observe the High holy days with family gusto and vigour, it came as a bit of shock to discover that not one person in the vicinity was even aware what Chanukah was, let alone interested. I couldn’t move for Shakespeare memorabilia and Christmas trees that December.
But I wanted to honour my childhood memories, so I bought eight little night lights that I decided to light nightly in my dressing room. Just looking at those candles stirred happy memories.
On that first night, missing my family and loved ones, wondering what this career held for a Nice Jewish Girl, I suddenly remembered that I wasn’t alone. There was one rather well-known Jewish actor in the company. Surely he would have an affiliation, a sense of kinship, to the Festival of Dedication?
Oh,’ said the actor, ‘is it Ch… anukah already?’
“Happy Chanukah”, I shouted outside his dressing-room on the way out of the theatre that night. His door opened. He blinked at me in confusion. “Sorry?” “Er, happy Chanukah”, I repeated. “It’s the first night of Chanukah tonight”.
“Oh,” he replied, “is it Ch…anukah already?” Ch...anukah, he pronounced it, Ch…anukah, in a really clipped English accent.
That Ch…anukah said it all. In this industry, one could be a Jew. But not too Jew…ish.
Over the years, I have made strong connections with other Jewish actor pals who reminisce about fasting for 25 hours through two evening shows and a matinee on Yom Kippur , who sneak a bit of Shavuot cheesecake that’s been sent by their mum, on to the film set, or who quietly recite the Shema in the wings on Rosh Hashanah as they are about to go on stage.
These days, Chanukah is a lot more visible than I remember it as a child. You’d never see a chanukiah on the streets of London in the 1970s.
Indeed, no longer are there puzzled looks from non-Jewish acquaintances and colleagues when Chanukah is mentioned or explained.
We had that entire episode of Friends dedicated to Ross’s desire for his son to celebrate Chanukah rather than Santa.
These days Diwali, Chanukah and Ramadan are part of the cultural fabric and consciousness — and that’s a minor miracle in itself.