“Would you like a Sabbath lamp that used to belong to your grandfather?”
“Heavens yes!” I replied to my aunt, calling from Seattle.
Why me? flitted through my head, but I knew the answer. My aunt’s one child was no longer Jewish. I was the “religious fanatic” of the family. That meant that we lit Shabbat candles, recited Kiddush, and sent our son, the only child old enough for school, to Hillel Academy. My aunt didn’t know – and maybe we didn’t either, yet – that we were on our way to keeping kosher.
The 19th century Sabbath lamp proved to be almost identical to one my husband and I had admired in the Milwaukee Public Museum. Its tapered, fluted vessel held enough oil to light a room far into the night. Originally the oil had flowed into arms that radiated horizontally to form an eight-pointed star. Hooked to the center point was a drip catcher. By the time I received it, a thick electrical cord almost obscured the square-linked chain on which it hung, and round light bulbs had replaced the wicks.
When my mother saw the lamp hanging in our Milwaukee living room, she recognized it instantly despite the updated plastic wiring and thin, flame-like bulbs.
“When I was a child, this used to hang in an alcove off the living room,” she told me. “Before dinner on Fridays, Dad would saunter over and click on the light.”
Knowing that Friday had been just another night for her privileged, Reform family, I was intrigued. I asked my grandmother, then in her lively, opinionated nineties, to verify Mom’s little-girl recollection. “No such thing!” She remembered the lamp, but the Friday-night detail had escaped either her notice or her memory.
My grandfather, whom I knew only as a photograph on my grandmother’s dresser, must have been a forward-thinking man to electrify this lamp in the early 1900s. Yet, judging by my mother’s account, he had clung to a piece of the tradition that had motivated his family to carry the lamp across the ocean in the mid-1800s from Bavaria to the far western shores of the new world.
This family heirloom became important to my family’s growing Sabbath observance. As each child grew tall enough to reach the switch, turning it on before Shabbat became his or her special job.
Now, each week I click on the Shabbat lamp before holding a match to my white candles. Past merges with present as I circle the flames with my hands to draw their light and serenity into my soul. I say the blessing, then pray silently for the people I love.
Four decades after I first unwrapped it, the Sabbath lamp glows long after my candles have burned out. Someday, it will light a child or grandchild’s home, a symbol of this recovered tradition that will, I hope, continue to my grandchildren’s grandchildren and beyond.
--Rochester, New York