Pressing My Own Olives For Oil
I thought Grandmother Teitelbaum was
Grandmother T-i-d-a-l B-o-m-b,
was always expecting,
not only Generic Catastrophe,
but its specifics.
If Grandmother Teitelbaum’s lips and fingers
ever stopped moving,
cataclysm would come again upon
not just my immediate relatives
but all Jews left in the world.
At my first Hanukkah at Aunt Esther’s,
lo, Grandmother Teitelbaum walked slowly forth
each of the nine nights
to appropriate the lighting of the menorah candles,
offering not blessings but admonitions.
Her eyes bored into my soul as she lit the candle
that would light the others in turn:
“Press your own olives for oil.”
My eyes triple-bugged the second night
when Grandmother Teitelbaum declared,
“Never let an elephant crush you.”
I wore her on my sleeve from that moment.
She unfolded my destiny—as I knew instantly—
in her remaining Hanukkah pronouncements:
“Oil, not war, is the miracle to be glorified.”
“Eat latkes and pretend to like them.”
“Luck is required to get the Gimmel,
but nobody likes a ‘Gimme!’ boy or girl.”
“Mordecai is encrypted in the ‘Maoz Tzur.’”
“Be a shamus.”
“Study until you can say what happened to
Yonatan’s fellow heroes of Hanukkah.”
“Attend the difference between
riding a beam of light
and being a beam of light.”
The Hanukkah celebration in our household
includes my telling the tale of Grandmother Teitelbaum,
replete with a game of dreidel.
Our children know the dreidel’s four Hebrew letters
(though I emphasize Gimmel
and their reference to the “great miracle”:
not just Judah the Maccabee
leading the Jews to victory against the Greeks
and re-taking the Temple,
but the minim of sacred oil that lasted
the eight days required to make more.
I have always insisted
that we play for latkes,
and there has never been a problem
with having a “poor winner.”
I became a shamus,
seeking to solve ancient mysteries
and those of Grandmother Teitelbaum,
though she, I like to think,
was playing on the shamus or “servant candle”
that lights the other branches of the menorah
and is of a different height to avoid confusion.
The first letters of the stanzas of “Maoz Tzur,”
the Hanukkah song you may know as
“Rocky Fortress,” spell out “Mordecai.”
While I have never solved the mystery
of the fates of all the Hanukkah heroes,
I can tell you that their brother Yonatan
was crushed by a war elephant,
doubtless the original of the one to which
Grandmother Teitelbaum referred.
I have tried to ride the beam of light
sent forth by Grandmother Teitelbaum
during that Festival of Light.
I have tried to be a beam of light.
I attend the difference even as I
press my own poor olives for oil.