The Chanukah Candles Challenge

by Dvora Treisman (Figueres, Spain)

In 2001 I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area with my cat and husband to live in Barcelona, his hometown. After a couple of years we moved to Tarragona, then further south to L’Ametlla de Mar, and then we divorced. At that point I moved to Figueres near the French border, the birthplace of Salvador Dalí. For all those first few years, I would go to the kosher shop of a synagogue in Barcelona to buy Chanukah candles. One year I made the trip, an hour by train from Tarragona, to find that they were sold out. I made do with votive candles. The next year I found that Chabad-Lubavitch had set up in the center of Barcelona, so I headed over to their shop to get my candles. One year a friend who came to visit brought me two boxes, so I was set for a while.

It was 2012 and once again I was on my yearly quest to find Chanukah candles. This was not like California where any supermarket would have them sitting on the kosher foods shelf next to the gefilte fish. I was now living in Figueres where, I am sure, I am one of only two Americans and the only Jewish person. I knew of the two places that sold them in Barcelona, but Barcelona was two hours away by train.

Girona, being only about 30 minutes away, seemed like a better bet. In medieval times, Girona’s Jewish community was an important center of Jewish mysticism. There are no Jews left, but there is a Jewish museum in the middle of the historic district. This is what was, in the middle ages and before the Expulsion, the Jewish ghetto, the area just bordering the cathedral. The museum has a shop with books, mezuzzahs, menorahs, and chanukiot, and would surely have the candles.

The entrance to the museum didn’t look how I remembered it from my visit twelve years before. When I entered, the spacious reception area was empty, except for the two young women sitting at the reception desk. Neither looked up as I approached, so I said “Bon Dia” and that roused one of them.

When I had visited before, the museum was called the Center Bonastuc Ça Porta. Bonastuc Ça Porta is one name used to refer to the famous rabbi, philosopher, and kabbalist of Girona, Moisès ben Nahman, also known as Nachmanides, also known as Ramban. Kabbalah uses ciphers among other methods in its mystical interpretations of the Bible. Maybe that accounts for why this rabbi had so many names. I asked if this was the place where the famous rabbi used to live. Apparently I had that all wrong. This was the Jewish Museum, the young lady informed me. It’s not a house, it’s a museum. It seemed she didn’t suffer fools.

Clearly this woman was not interested in welcoming me into whatever there was on offer, rabbi’s house or not. So I asked where the shop was and headed in there hoping to find more tolerance and, more importantly, candles.

The shop looked just as I remembered it. It has a dark, old fashioned bookshop feel, overflowing with books, and other curiosities, among them many menorahs and chanukiot. I asked the man if he had any candles for the chanukiot. No, he didn’t. I asked if he could direct me to where I might buy some. No, he had no idea. Probably nowhere in Girona, he told me. I don’t think it ever occurred to him that those decorations he was selling have a use, and he evidently had no interest in what someone might do with the candelabras if they bought one.

At that point, I felt disgusted with this Jewish museum that doesn’t welcome visitors and the Jewish shop that doesn’t stock candles for the menorahs it sells. It was time to move on.

I had met Jaye through my blog and we became friends. She was a New Yorker living in France near the border and we sometimes would get together up there or down here in Figueres. This time I took the train up, she hopped on at her station, and we went together to Perpignan. Her agenda was to go to an Asian grocery to pick up some ingredients, and mine was to find the kosher shop where I planned to buy those elusive Chanukah candles.

When we arrived in Perpignan we went first to the address I had found for the kosher shop. I was a little doubtful because when I looked up the address on Google maps street view, it showed a car repair shop. But I had some vague hope of a Chanukah miracle.

It really was a car repair shop. So on we went to do other things, saving the Asian grocery for last. Once there, while Jaye was collecting her cooking supplies, I began browsing around. I was enjoying myself going up and down every aisle when all of a sudden, zap! There were packets of candles that, although they didn’t have Hebrew on the packaging and didn’t come in mixed colors, seemed to be the same size as Manischewitz candles.

My Chanukah candles that year were all white, they were made in Thailand, and they fit my chanukiah perfectly. Two friends in California had offered to send me candles, but no need. I travelled two hours to a city in France and, in an Asian grocery, found the perfect candles that were made in Thailand. For modern times, modern miracles.

Dvora Treisman was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Los Angeles.  She moved to Berkeley in 1971 with her first husband where he attended graduate school at UC Berkeley and she found a job there in administration.  Years after their divorce, she married again — a Catalan from Barcelona whom she met while salsa dancing at the Candlelight Ballroom, and in 1999, at age 52, she, her cat, and her new husband went to live in his hometown.  This essay is excerpted from her recently published book No Regrets: A Life in Catalonia.  It can be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, other online retailers, and can be ordered from your favorite bookshophttps://www.amazon.com/No-Regrets-Catalonia-Dvora-Treisman/dp/B0BM3SWN93/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2YWBQOOKV14B1&keywords=no+regrets+a+life+in+catalonia&qid=1670865953&s=books&sprefix=no+regrets%2Cstripbooks%2C170&sr=1-1

She is also the editor of the book Ken Nirim: Reflections and Stories, a Collaborative Project of Former Members of Hashomer Hatzair in Los Angeles, available from Blurb. https://www.blurb.com/b/11400592-ken-nirim-reflections-and-stories

And she has a blog called Beyond The Pale:  https://beyondthepale-dvora.blogspot.com/

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Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing

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