written by Zita Nurok and published in South African Journal "Jewish Affairs", Rosh Hashana 2010 Edition.
Brass candlesticks sparkle on the Shabbat table in our dining room. I see my reflection in the rounded part at the bottom, and I look up at the glowing light that bursts out like a newly blossomed golden flower when Mama lights the tall white candles. We sing the Friday night prayers together, just as she did with her mother when they were living in South Africa.
“Tell me the story of the candlesticks, Mama,” I ask her. The logs in the fireplace crackle, and the white snow quietly drifts past the window. Once again she begins our story with the familiar words….
‘More than eighty years ago my mother arrived in South Africa from Lithuania. Cousins Sam and Joseph had invited her to live with them. ‘Life is easier here in South Africa,’ they wrote. ‘People find gold in gold mines, and we call this the Golden Land. It’s easy to find a new life here in Johannesburg. Come. We will send you a ticket.’
And so when she was just a teenager, my mother your Grandma Rivke left the cobbled streets of Riteve in Lithuania where she was born, and the forests with blackberries growing on bushes, where she walked with her best friend Goldie on Shabbat. The forest that was thick with trees was a place where they could let their imaginations be free. She left their small wooden house surrounded by fruit trees and flowerbeds, and the small synagogue where she and her mama and sister prayed with other people from the town on Shabbat. It was only a short distance from her house to the Yureh River. She and her sister would sit on its banks reading books, or they’d watch the women who came from the town to wash their clothes. My mother left behind her cousins, and also her sister and mama, believing that they would one day join her in South Africa.
In a small wooden trunk, Grandma Rivke carried a gift from her mama - these brass candlesticks that you see here on the table, Mandy. They had belonged to her family forever. ‘Find a special place for them when you get to your new home in South Africa, my Rivkele,’ her mama told her as they sobbed and held each other close. Would they ever be together again? When?
All the roads to the large cities surrounding Riteve were dust tracks, and so when she left, she traveled first by horse and cart to the nearest town, and then by train to a city called Hamburg where she boarded a ship on her way to the new land. She would be on the seas for three difficult weeks. People became ill on the rough and long journey, but they were comforted by close friendships that were formed as they shared their sadness to leave their homes but also their excitement about the future.
Waves splashed against the South African rocks and rippled onto the white sandy beaches of Cape Town. My mother always told us how she couldn’t wait to skip in the soft sand with her bare toes, but at the same time she felt afraid and homesick.
Grandma Rivke and two friends from the boat traveled by train over rivers and mountains, across a desert, through towns and villages, until they reached the bustling city of Johannesburg, where other Jewish people had settled. And there she lived with her cousins Sam and Joseph.
My mother saw many different faces in Johannesburg. She told me how she just smiled politely when people spoke to her, or she nodded her head and shrugged her shoulders. Then she replied in Lithuanian or Yiddish. Learning English would be a difficult task, and she never lost her Yiddish accent even while I was growing up.
Grandma Rivke sent letters to her home, telling how she unpacked the brass candlesticks lying between her cotton skirts and lace petticoats, and how she placed them on the sideboard in cousin Sam’s home.
And to her sister she wrote ‘Every Friday morning I polish our precious candlesticks with a paste made of water and ashes from the coal stove, until I see my reflection between the ashes, just as we did at home. It is my wish beloved sister, that one day both our faces will shine from this treasure as the ashes light up our smiling eyes.’
But her mama and sister never wrote back, and neither did Goldie her best friend. For frightful times had fallen over Europe and the rest of the world. War broke out and she never knew which of her letters reached Riteve. After the war she found out that her entire family had been killed together with millions of Jewish people. Lithuanian Jewry had been wiped out. All had died in the ashes of the Holocaust.
Now when she looked at the candlesticks, she knew that this part of her old home would remain with her forever. She wondered about her town. Did horses still clip-clop along the cobbled streets? What about the river where she and her friends splashed and played? Did it still run with fresh, clear water? Did blackberries still grow on the bushes in the forest?
Every Thursday my mama pedaled her bicycle along the busy streets of Johannesburg to the shops to buy supplies for Shabbat. ‘What can I sell you today Missus?’ Manuel the Portuguese owner of the fish shop asked with his heavy accent.
‘I’ll have a pound of kingklip please,’ she had learned to say. She paid quickly, placed the package in the basket at the back of her bicycle, said goodbye shyly, and hurried on to the delicatessen down the road.
‘Good morning Rivkele,’ Mr. Cohen always said with his strong Yiddish accent. ‘You came for your herring again, I know.’ She felt comfortable in this shop. Perhaps she could even work here one day when she could speak English more easily.
After two years Grandma Rivke met and married my father your Grandpa Solomon. He too came from Lithuania, but from a bigger town than Grandma’s. He was a teacher, a quiet and a gentle man. Together they built a small simple home. The brass candlesticks stood on the dining room table, on a silver tray with grapes molded in silver around the rim. It had belonged to Grandpa’s family almost a hundred years ago. Every Friday morning Grandma Rivke polished the tray and the candlesticks with one of Grandpa’s old socks dipped in a paste made of water and ashes from the coal stove in their kitchen. Slowly through those ashes her reflection appeared and now she saw the happy face of a new bride in her own home. She placed the tall white candles in the holders, ready for Shabbat.
Your grandma baked hallot, and she covered them with a hallah cover she’d made. It was embroidered with the Hebrew letters of the Shabbat and holiday blessings, using silken thread of green, red blue, and gold, that she had brought with her from Lithuania. She told how Grandpa proudly turned the cover to the back. ‘See how talented my wife is, you can’t tell the front from the back. She has gifted fingers.’ And everyone would look in wonder. Then Grandpa said the blessings for the wine and the hallah. He drank from a silver wine cup with a curled edge, and a round smooth handle that fitted snugly in the palm of his hand. It too had belonged to his family many years ago.
As you know Mandy both your uncles and I were born in South Africa. When I was old enough my mama showed me how to polish the tray and the silver cup with special silver cleaner, and the candlesticks with brass cleaner now, and a soft cloth. No longer did we use ashes such as those we used from the fires that had died out long ago. Now our stove was electric. ‘Shine them until you see your brown curly hair, and your beautiful face, my Sarah,’ she said dreamily. Together we placed the tall white candles in the holders, ready for Shabbat or for a holiday.
My home was especially filled with delicious smells at festive times. For Rosh Hashana your grandma baked round braided hallot with plump raisins for a round sweet year. ‘Mmmm…’ Grandpa Solomon would say. ‘Surely the smell will go up to heaven!’ On Shavuot cheese blintzes fresh off the hot, buttery pan would melt in our mouths while he reminded us of the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. And always the candlesticks sparkled and the lights danced.
Your father and I married, and you and your brother were born in South Africa. We all immigrated to the United States when you Mandy were two years old. Yes, we too left behind family and friends, joyful celebrations when babies were born, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and anniversaries. We left behind waves splashing against the rocks where the Atlantic and the Indian oceans meet off the coast of Cape Town where your father was born.
In my suitcase I carried a special gift from my mama, your Grandma Rivke. ‘Find a special place for them in your new home in America, my Sarahle,’ she said to me just as her mother had told her when she left Riteve. We cried and hugged. ‘Don’t cry, my child,’ your grandma said in Yiddish. ‘Your father and I will visit you soon. Yes, we’ll travel in a Jumbo Jet that will take a shorter time to get to you than the time it took us to get to this country by boat.’
As my mother once again ends her story I think about the town where we live now. The streets are not cobbled, and there is no forest to run in with friends. There are no large family celebrations, for our families are scattered in different countries. Many of our cousins and friends who left South Africa as we did in search of a different life, now live in Israel, Canada, Australia, and the United States, just as the Jews who could left Lithuania many years ago.
Now I polish the tall brass candlesticks to get them ready for Shabbat or holidays with friends. Our treasure stands on the dining room table sparkling under dancing candlelight as we sing the Friday night prayers together. I see my happy reflection in the rounded part at the bottom. One day those candlesticks will belong to me.