It was dusk on a December day in 1990—just a few nights before the first night of Hanukkah—when my mother stepped off a city bus and headed for our home in Hollywood with three bags full of Hanukkah goodies.
A striking woman in her early 40s with sharp, Semitic features and dark, tight curls, my mother had spent the day shopping in the city's predominantly Jewish Fairfax District. She relied on public transportation to get around in L.A.'s tangled urban sprawl after our one car had broken down the previous year; on her limited income as a single mother and violinist, it would have cost too much to fix it.
Her gift-shopping journey had a particular urgency because she wanted to make sure to send a care package to me in time for Hanukkah. I was alone and rather socially isolated at a liberal arts women's college in Oakland, and packages from home meant the world to me.
My parents' divorce had been a painfully chaotic one, and the years that followed produced a kind of severe personal and familial disintegration. My mother and I struggled, constantly, to try to come to some kind of understanding of each other's pains and miseries. Luckily for the family, my mother eventually turned to our Jewish heritage as a way of mellowing the seemingly constant turmoil of our family life.
We started by observing Shabbat together each Friday night, bonding over challah and candlelight, and then moved to observing Jewish holidays, shopping for kosher baked goods, and diving into our own, respective Jewish mystical and historical studies. It brought the three of us together—me, the punk-rock, dreadlocked eldest daughter; my more conservative but equally feisty younger sister; and our artistic mother—into a more cohesive unit. Over Shabbat blessings and a shared spiritual foundation, we grew to understand a great deal about each other, even while our individual lives were usually headed in altogether different directions.
On that day in 1990, my mom remembers that she was particularly pleased with her find of two beautiful key chains with the ancient hamsa (hand) symbols, used by both Jews and Muslims—particularly women—as amulets to protect wearers from harm.
"They were going to protect you—two young women—from the dangers in the world," my mom recalls.
My mother had also bought Star of David cupcakes from our favorite kosher bakery. With gifts and baked goods for the eight nights of Hanukkah packed into two bulging bags and a LeSportsac purse, she stepped off the bus and headed north.
Initially, my mom remembers, she felt very much at peace walking toward the house in the waning light of late afternoon. And then, abruptly, she was filled with a sense of danger and dread. "There was nobody in sight," she remembers, "but I knew something was about to happen."
From nowhere, the Hanukkah mugger appeared and started running toward her. At over 6 feet tall, the lanky fellow had a clear physical advantage over my mother's small, 5-foot-4-inch frame. In a matter of a few seconds, he reached her and forcefully pushed her to the ground. The mugger grabbed her duffel bag and pulled so hard that one of the handles broke. But she wouldn't let go.
My mom remembers that she wanted so badly to fight him off with her hands ("I wanted to slug him!"), but she couldn't, lest he run off with one of her Hanukkah bags.
Between ferocious kicks at her attacker, she started to think about the Maccabees. Hanukkah celebrates the ultimate triumph of Jewish freedom fighters—nicknamed the Maccabees—against the Syrian-Greek conquerors. From 169 to 166 B.C.E., the Maccabees—an army of pious believers who rejected the brutal assimilationist policies of the Hellenists—waged guerrilla warfare against Antiochus' forces. Eventually, the Maccabees retook Jerusalem, the Syrian-Greek army fled, and the victors began the task of rededicating the Second Temple. The Hanukkah miracle to which Jews refer had to do with the fact that a single cruse of pure oil—enough only for one day—lasted eight days in the restored Temple.
The Maccabees are celebrated not only as military victors but as people who allowed their spirit to triumph over oppression and forced assimilation. Appropriately, one of the holy readings for the holiday includes this passage from the prophet Zechariah: "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Eternal One."
From the ground, kicking at the mugger, my mother felt that kind of spirit inside her. She tapped into it, she says, "feeling so proud to be fighting for my daughters and the amulets I wanted to give to them."
Somehow, my mother managed to push him away long enough to get back to her feet. She started swinging the bags at him wildly, making contact with his face and chest. Eventually, the mugger lost his nerve, turned tail, and started to move away from her.
But my mother was pissed off. She started running after him. For the first time since the attack began, she actually started yelling. But she wasn't yelling for help; she was actually threatening him with serious bodily harm. The man glanced back and—as my mother recalls—looked afraid for his life.
Once she got home, my mom's first priority was making sure that all the baked goods had survived intact. "Some of the frosting on the cupcakes was a little smashed," she remembers. But everything else had made it through perfectly, and she went about packing up the baked goods and presents and sending them to me in time for the first night of Hanukkah.
I had never been so happy to receive a package in my entire life. I stared at the slightly smashed cupcakes in awe. And when I unwrapped my beautiful little key chain, I held it for several minutes. I closed my hand around it, squeezed it, and felt a kind of warmth emanating from it.
I felt happy and blessed—then, as now—to know that my mom cared this much for her two daughters, and that we had been through so much together, and that our love had only grown stronger, not weaker, over the years.
And that, in a moment of Maccabee-inspired bravery, my mom faced down the Hanukkah mugger for the sake of her two kids.
Here's to Hanukkah miracles, both big and small.