When I was a kid, buying Hanukkah candles was a family affair. We would pile into my mother’s minivan and head to the nearest synagogue 20 minutes away, where the annual Hanukkah bazaar was held. There, we bought boxes of brightly colored candles, stocking up for some future year where we miss the bazaar, or someone gets sick, or an entire box accidentally falls from the top shelf of the pantry and shatters every candle inside. Before online shopping, our synagogue was the only place to reliably get candles.
And then I moved to Boston. In the flurry of boxes and new jobs, December crept up on me like a cold ghost, and the morning before the first night of Hanukkah, I panicked. I had packed my family’s old brass menorah, but I’d neglected to bring a box of candles. Now, I would have to find a synagogue, look up when their respective bazaar was held and somehow travel there with my still-limited knowledge of the city. Sweating, I ducked into CVS for a moment, and there, right on the edge of the holiday aisle, was an entire display of Hanukkah candles, dreidels, gelt and even mini menorahs.
I was stunned. Everyone else seemed to be milling around as if this was a normal occurrence, but it was a huge culture shock for me. In a city of very few Jewish families where I grew up, it was unheard of for even the smallest instances of Judaism to appear. My high school put up 11 Christmas trees and cut out a slapdash paper menorah to tape to the wall. We recognize you, the curling edges seemed to say as I walked past every day, but we don’t respect you.
In Boston, Judaism is everywhere. Brookline Booksmith sports a beautiful Hanukkah display at the front of the store every year. The bread-slicers at Star Market are labeled “pareve” and “dairy.” Restaurants boast their kosher certifications on their front doors. I suppose I’d imagined that Judaism wasn’t hidden in cities outside of my own, but the fact that it existed so casually was beautiful. There was no struggle to acquire necessities for holidays, no need to travel far for a synagogue that fit my needs. Everything was right there, and it was lovely.
The culture shock of finding oneself represented for the first time doesn’t really go away. I’ve lived in Boston for more than two years now, but I’m still hyper-aware of hints of Judaism when they spring up and am surprised when I head home to Ohio and find none. Regardless, the change in culture has made embracing my own Judaism much easier. Now, I’m surrounded by other Jewish people and experience a complete Jewish life. I was only aware of what I was lacking when I found it in my new home, even if it was just the ease of drugstore Hanukkah candles.