The First Chanukah Without Her

Maya Novak-Herzog
11 min readDec 14, 2021
Art by my incredible friend Amanda Flores

“We love God because He gave her to us. And we are angry at God because He took her away.”

That is what the rabbi told us before the funeral as we, the family, sat in the cold, all marble lobby, waiting to see the body.

I was surprised she brought up anger –– and anger at God, no less. I had braced myself for more flowery words, about it being her time and everything happening for a reason, etc., etc., etc.

Despite the rabbi’s generosity of understanding, I didn’t feel angry; I felt numb. I thought I would be having a spiritual experience by now, or at least on the verge of a breakdown. I’d flown in from Chicago with two hours notice to hold my grandma’s hand while she died. I hadn’t slept in 96 hours. I hadn’t eaten. Oh, and also, my period was two weeks late. Didn’t I deserve to sob? To shake? To projectile vomit all over this deeeeeeply understanding, excruuuuuciatingly generous female rabbi? Where was my swan song? My come-to-God, writhing on the floor, spiritual climax? It was pitifully anti-climatic.

The rabbi had flowery words, too, of course. She told us how magical it was that we were all there for Bubbe: her three children, six grandchildren, one daughter’s husband, another’s ex-husband, and Bubbe’s live-in caretaker, all there for the keriah. It sounded sweet, but I couldn’t help but chuckle, seeing as to the fight we’d had about who was and wasn’t allowed to come view the body. It was only supposed to be the nuclear family — or, at least exclusive to her biological lineage. Some argued the body wasn’t supposed to be viewed at all, as per Halakha:

What we view is the ghost of a man, not the man. It is sheer mockery to parade before this ghost to say, “Goodbye,” or to take one last look by which to remember him. This is not the person, but a death mask, even if prettied up artificially. When we display our dead, we exhibit not their loves and fears and hopes, their characters and their concerns, but their physical shapes in their most prostrate condition

But we all wanted to come.

So there we were in the room: her daughters, their husbands and ex-husbands, her caretaker, and all six of her grandchildren. No one was crying. That is until we were led to the observation room and got to see her one last time. I’d held her hand while she died, when her body changed, when she’d turned a sickly yellow. I was there that night as the blood drained from her face and she turned stone-cold until any reminder that she once was living had faded away. Now, she was prepared: her death mask. In her most prostrate condition, we approached her and sobbed.

Not me, though. I kept it wound up in its little ball. The relief of spiritual climax nothing more than a pipe dream.

We Jews love to talk about the Americanization of Chanukah — Chanukah isn’t in the Torah, the gift-giving is merely to mimic Christmas, and something, something Chanukah Bush. All of these critiques are true but no longer matter because my Bubbe loved Chanukah. I’d watch her put her arm fist first in a vat of boiling canola oil to flip a latke. She’d stand in the kitchen all night with a skillet on each burner, and each skillet lined up with latkes in the process of crisping — they had to be crispy. She’d sneak gelt from her pocket into her mouth while she was cooking and then deny it when you’d ask her how it tasted.

That was, of course, before. Before the year that she got so sick that the floor couldn’t hold her. For years we kept telling each other she was losing it, but our threshold for what that meant kept getting higher. Then she got trapped in her house for a year, and when we saw her for the first time afterward, she was really gone. She stopped calling. At first, I thought she was mad at me. Then I learned she didn’t know how to work the landline anymore.

She sat on the couch and watched the news all day. You could change the channel six times, and she wouldn’t blink. You could ask for her name, but she didn’t know. She was always in pain. I came and visited her five times that year. It was distracting to go home that much, but I knew I needed to say goodbye. And goodbye. And goodbye. And goodbye. GOODBYE. There were never enough of them until the last time, and I knew it was really the last.

But that was after. After my mom and I moved to middle-of-nowhere Colorado, far away from family. My mom would host these big Chanukah parties. She would cover the house in chocolate gelt and menorahs and blue streamers. She would fry up enough latkes for everyone to have a dozen if they wanted. We would spin dreidels. She would make me retell the Chanukah story with her every year, costumes and all. I’d make shields out of cardboard and get to play it up as the Maccabees. She, of course, got to be Antiochus.

Well, no one in middle-of-nowhere Colorado is Jewish. We’d invite over all our goy friends who would try not to giggle at the funny-sounding Hebrew prayers. These parties felt less like a celebration and more like a learning experience. Here, let us Jews show you how it’s done.

But my mother loved her role as both party host and the Giver of Wisdom. Plus, there was no other option. Chanukah had to be celebrated whether we lived in 46.5% Catholic Pagosa Springs or not. We were Jews, Goddamnit.

Bubbe’s deep and complex connection to Judaism was part of her will to life. She didn’t keep Kosher or Shabbos, but the blood of her ancestors ripped through her and characterized the meaning of her life. One time, when I was feeling particularly stubborn, I asked her, “Bubbe, why is it so important for you to be Jewish after all?” She told me, “I was born a Jew. I was beaten up like a Jew. And I decided, if I had kids, I want them to be Jews. And if they don’t want to be Jews, they can go.”

So being Jewish was very important to me too. And I’d always believed in God.

After college, my very Jewish boyfriend and I tried our hand at hosting a Chanukah party. It was our first time hosting and we made latkes from a box and borrowed a Menorah from my aunt. When the sun went down, I gathered everyone in the living room and begged my boyfriend to tell the Chanukah story like my mom always did. We were in West Hollywood then, tons of Jews to invite, but our friend group was mostly non-religious. Here again, we became funny friends guiding our learners into a mystery ritual. It was embarrassing to say the prayers in the words they didn’t understand. My boyfriend told the story while laughing: a funny joke, a washed-up ritual. We were very drunk, anyway.

That night, in bed, I asked him: “Why don’t we ever talk about God?”

This Chanukah, there is no one to tell the story to. No one to laugh with. I make a Menorah out of tea light candles and have to look up the prayers on Chabad.org. The prayers sound even sillier in an empty room: lighting the candles way after the sun has already set… I’m sure this isn’t what God had in mind. There is no Bubbe to call and say Chag Sameach. She is not out in the vast November air making latkes somewhere. She is nowhere, and I am in the Chicago suburbs, with the fifth largest Jewish population in the USA, crying and reading prayers out loud to a glowing computer screen.

Bubbe didn’t understand the PhD thing, and this was before her dementia swallowed her whole. During my first year of the program, she’d call me up and tell me, “You can still do something else, you know. There’s still time to try something different.” She didn’t understand why I was going to be in school for the foreseeable future. 5+ years was too many. Plus, no one in my family had ever gotten their PhD before. I think she would have been more comfortable if I had gone down the lawyer path like my own mother. Besides, Chicago was so far away. When she still could, she’d call me up and ask why I wasn’t visiting her. She couldn’t remember that I was in a different city. She thought I was ignoring her.

But I want to be very clear about something: for my entire life, my grandmother was intensely proud of me. It is not something I’ve ever taken lightly. She just wanted me to know, always and forever, that I could do something else if I wanted to: that I wasn’t stuck or trapped. What a beautiful lesson, what a wonderful gift. I am very grateful for that.

There was a level of familial intimacy once she got sick that I had never been able to experience with Bubbe before. She softened. Her heart opened up. Towards the end, Bubbe never stopped crying. When you would come to visit her, she would cry. When you would show her photos of her grandkids, she would cry. She would cry at the sight of her baby doll, and her wheelchair, and the mirror. Oh, what a gift! I saw directly from the tears in her eyes the legacy she had given me unwrapping itself: my own lifelong inability to hold back tears, the depths of my own sadness that haunted me always, the unyielding nature of my emotions… I cry every day and now Bubbe is joining me. We cried together. We held hands. She took naps on my chest. We cuddled. I loved her endlessly. All barriers were broken down. We saw each other through our tears. She was my best friend.

I believe that in the end, she was finally able to feel the depths of what she had experienced in her long, tremendous life. And as a gift to us, she often felt those feelings when we were around. Her stories are everywhere still; I can feel them here now.

Circa 1998

I got the call that she was about to die as I was leaving therapy. We’d spent the hour talking about things that were soon to be much less important.

“She is almost gone,” my mother told me while I was still walking to my car. I sat down on the concrete of my parking space. I couldn’t believe the timing.

For three days, I pondered whether or not to go home. She was in a liminal state. She was breathing but she wasn’t awake. Hospice was there to pump fluid out of her lunges every few hours. They said sometimes people stay in this state for a whole month. No one knows. They die when they’re ready. But when would Bubbe be ready? She was a fighter. They didn’t have an estimate.

On the third day, I bought a plane ticket. I knew I had to see her before she went.

I got there in the afternoon. My mom, my aunts, my cousins, and the Hospice nurses hadn’t left her bedside in three days, watching over her body and waiting for her to die. We sat around her and sang and prayed and told her stories. Everyone wanted me to talk to her, right in her ear, but I didn’t know what to say. I was nervous.

“Tell her about your new boyfriend,” my aunt said.

“He’s not Jewish,” I told her.

“Never mind, don’t tell her,” she responded. And I laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and I didn’t tell her. She wouldn’t have liked that.

That night, the smell was too strong to stay in the room with her. No one else seemed to smell it but I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t be in that room anymore. I went next door to my mom’s apartment and fell asleep.

She died that evening. My cousin called me three times to get it to go through the Do Not Disturb setting. I saw his name on my phone and knew it was time. “Get your mom,” he said.

“Mom,” I wailed in that tiny apartment, in my half slumber. I burst into her room and shook her. “It’s time to go. It’s time.”

We ran barefoot and half-naked to the house next door. Stormed up the stairs. We were 90 seconds too late. She had already been pronounced dead, but her hand was still warm. I held it all night as it grew gradually colder and turned to ice. The chill of her hand and the smell are what I’ll never forget. Have you smelled someone’s death before? She was everyone and nowhere all at once.

We waited for hours with her body for the people from the cemetery to come. “She’s in this room, I can feel it.” My aunt told me. But I couldn’t feel her anywhere. She just wasn’t there anymore. Where did she go?

“She’s with God now,” someone said. But that didn’t seem right either.

When they finally came, they folded her up into a white sheet. They asked permission before they covered her head. Then, just like that, she was gone from the house she hadn’t left for almost fifty years. She was gone, she was gone, she was gone.

The morning of the funeral, I went to coffee with my father (the daughter’s ex-husband in this story). We told stories about Bubbe’s past. We fantasized about my impending future.

“When will I be ready to have kids?” I asked him over an eight-dollar Los Angles latte. The question had never seemed so important. Bubbe would never meet them.

“I dunno.” He responded unphased. “What I do know is that my mission in life is to be a grandparent.” We cried over those bank-robbing lattes. That was Bubbe’s mission too.

Later, we drove to the funeral. By then, I hadn’t slept in four days. No one had. We sat in that all marble lobby and waited for instructions, surgical masks dangling precariously below our noses. I never thought I’d be that person but my grandma was dead. Nothing seemed to matter.

I was surprised when a woman walked in and introduced herself as the rabbi. A female rabbi was fitting for my Bubbe’s funeral: I should have known. That’s when she said her line. Did she say that at everyone’s funerals? “We love God because He gave her to us. And we are angry at God because He took her away.”

I wanted to be angry with God. I wanted to feel. I thought I would be having a spiritual experience by now, or at least on the verge of a breakdown. Didn’t I deserve to sob? To shake? To projectile vomit all over this deeeeeeply understanding, excruuuuuciatingly generous female rabbi? Where was my swan song? My come-to-God, writhing on the floor, spiritual climax? It was pitifully anti-climatic.

Jason Isbell says, “No one dies with dignity. We just try to ignore the elephant somehow.” When we walked into the room with the casket and the pews, there was no more elephant. There was nothing. She wasn’t cold or yellow. She didn’t smell. They’d cleaned her up: her loves, her fears, and all her hopes. They’d wiped away her character and concern and placed her in a casket.

I was there in the room –– we were all there but she wasn’t.

I want to be angry at God, but the truth is darker than that: I am ambivalent.

Cipora Novak 1933–2021

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