‘One for Each Night’

‘One for Each Night’

Memoirist Joanna Rakoff writes about her childhood in Rockland County

Joanna Rakoff, and the anthology that includes her story.
Joanna Rakoff, and the anthology that includes her story.

As its title implies, “One for Each Night: The Greatest Chanukah Stories of All Time” is an anthology — though, since it includes more than 20 stories, poems, and reminiscences about the Festival of Lights, it’s actually almost three for each night.

The pieces are uniformly excellent, not surprising given the reputations of the authors, many well known within the Jewish literary world: Elie Wiesel, Chaim Potok, and Theodore Herzl, for example.

But a few stand out. That includes “Dolls of the World” by the writer and memoirist Joanna Rakoff; it’s an essay that would be at home in a collection of prize-winning secular stories.

Ms. Rakoff, 51, is from Rockland County. She was born in Nyack and grew up in Pomona; she was a young adult, living in her grandmother’s Lower East Side apartment, when her parents decided to move to California to join family there. Her mother — whose name Ms. Rakoff never reveals, nor does she make her father’s name public — wanted to pass along “a lifetime’s worth of anniversary presents, birthday presents, and Mother’s Day presents.”

Much of it ended up in storage. And those offerings proved a mixed blessing, for some are a Proustian “Remembrance of Things Past.” Including family secrets.

Ms. Rakoff did not go to Hebrew school. Her mother explained that you have to join a synagogue to go to Hebrew school, and she didn’t like any in the area. This one was too materialistic. That one was like going to church. And a third was located too close to a chasidic neighborhood.

“We had really big Passover seders,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Cambridge, Mass. “My parents would expand our already large dining room table, and we would have maybe 30, 40 people there. And that was sort of our main Jewish holiday that we gathered for.

“We sometimes traveled, and I remember going to Rosh Hashanah services with my cousins in Palo Alto,” but for some reason — “maybe it had to do with the commercialization” — Chanukah was different.

Yes, candles were lit, sans blessings, on a menorah kept in the kitchen; Joanna’s job was to screw in a bulb on the menorah displayed by the living room window.

When Joanna was in the third grade, her mother noticed her moping around the house as the holidays approached and assumed it was a result of the omnipresent Jew in Christmasland dilemma. But she was wrong.

“What I wanted was a Chanukah as redolent— as informed by — ingrained unself-conscious tradition as the March girls’ Christmas” in “Little Women,” Ms. Rakoff writes.

That same year, her irresponsible sister Amy — 18 years her senior — came to celebrate Chanukah. It was a rare visit, and magnified in importance because she was bringing home a new and acceptable fiancé, a Jewish X-ray technician from Bricktown, unlike her first husband, who was wiped from family memory.

It was that year that Joanna received her eight Dolls of the World presents. She got a different one each night. And it was the year she asked her visiting sister about the three pastel drawings on top of a bookcase. They were portraits. Of whom?

Young Joanna is with her mother.

Joanna was stunned to discover the portraits were of her older sister and two siblings — a brother, Mark, and a sister, Anita — she never knew existed. They’d died in an auto accident with Amy at the wheel.

Fast forward two decades. A year after they’d moved to Palo Alto, her parents returned for a visit that turned out to be fraught with disappointment. Amy, mom discovers, has neglected to make payments to the storage facility where the bulk of the Rakoffs’ possessions had been stored. So everything had been auctioned off.

During that visit, Joanna confronts her mom about the dolls. She writes: “I was supposed to be the strong child, the mature child, the wise child. I was the child of their old age, the child who would take care of everything, who would right all my sister’s wrongs, and replicate every joy of those I was conceived to replace. I was the child who never asked for anything. But I wanted my dolls, but you accidentally gave them to her just like the butterfly sheet.”

Yet all the pain was unnecessary. As Ms. Rakoff learns, her mom had given her the dolls. They were carefully wrapped in an unopened box in a closet. She pulls them out. As she writes: “Hello, I said to them. Hello, I said. You’re still here, I said. You’re home.”

And so the essay ends.

Ms. Rakoff is best known as the author of “My Salinger Year,” a memoir about the time she spent as an assistant at the literary agency that also represented the reclusive author. It was eventually turned into a film.

This story was originally commissioned for another Chanukah anthology, reprinted by Tablet magazine and republished here, in “One for Each Night.” Yet the story struck me as an unlikely candidate for this type of collection. Elie Wiesel’s article about Chanukah in a concentration camp was more uplifting. And yet I was inexplicably drawn to “Dolls” several times, seeing not the holiday light but sadness.

At one point in the story, Ms. Rackoff asks her mom about a platter she discovered among the transferred belongings. The platter commemorated the five years her mother had spent as president of the sisterhood at Sons of Israel in Nyack. It was where her deceased brother had been bar mitzvah. But after the accident, they couldn’t stay. “It was too painful for them,” Joanna tells me. Memories were everywhere.

When we spoke on the phone, I asked Ms. Rakoff if writing this story had been a form of therapy. She said no. Quickly.

“There was no therapeutic aspect,” she said. “I definitely don’t think of writing as therapy in any way. I was asked to write an essay about Chanukah and given no guidelines. I have been thinking a lot about the events that have transpired in my family, specifically when my parents moved to California and packed up about 40 or 50 years’ worth of belongings. I was also thinking about the way in which certain objects can hold a charge for people, a kind of very intense, emotional significance. I was not trying to come to some sort of understanding of myself.”

In her essay, Ms. Rakoff recalls that around the time she was in the eighth grade, almost everyone in her largely Jewish public school went off to Hebrew school, leaving her virtually alone on the bus home.

I asked if she felt jealous of her friends. “I would not describe it as jealousy,” she said. She was bullied by the Jewish students in her school — they bullied her more than they bullied the non-Jews, she said. She believes her classmates “didn’t understand why I was the only Jewish kid — and I mean that literally — who did not go to Hebrew school or did not belong to a synagogue. I think they were more vicious to me because they didn’t understand why I wasn’t more like them.

“So on the one hand, I felt like why did my parents do this to me? If they had just sent me to Hebrew school, I would’ve had a different relationship with this group. I would fit in. I wouldn’t be this outcast. I felt like it kind of marked me as some kind of weirdo.”

But there was another aspect as well. She did go to Jewish summer camps — the now defunct Camp Edward Isaacs and Tel Yehudah, “where we had services and did Jewish things. I began to feel there was the beauty and value in religion, and sort of being a practicing Jew, that would give me more clarity about who I am.

“So in answer to your question, I didn’t feel jealous, but I did feel as though something was missing. And I did feel sort of angry at my parents who made that choice for me. I wish they’d made a different choice.”

Ms. Rakoff did make a different choice. She has three children. Her family joined a synagogue, and her youngest daughter actually attends two different Hebrew schools, one culturally and one more religiously oriented, “by her choice.” Her two elder children both started but then stopped going to Hebrew school “for complex reasons,” but her eldest, who spent three years as a counselor at one of the Jewish camps his mother had gone to, is now in Israel on a gap year, where he will shortly celebrate his bar mitzvah at the Kotel.

Since Ms. Rakoff wrote the essay over a decade ago, she discovered that some of what she believed was wrong. She wasn’t 8 when she learned about her siblings, but a couple of years older. And Amy hadn’t gone into a coma following the accident.

“In fact, she wasn’t really injured at all,” Ms. Rakoff said. “And this was just the kind of a lie that somehow my mother had developed to explain things, or, I don’t know, make me feel better about what happened. It’s unclear to me why.”

I asked if she believed in inherited trauma and received a resounding yes. In fact, Ms. Rakoff said, it is the subject of her next book, “The Fifth Passenger,” the idea for which “sort of related to this essay.

“I definitely believe I did [inherit trauma] based on the research that I’ve done,” she said. “It seems that trauma experienced by a mother during pregnancy can cause neural pathways to shift in the brain.”

Our conversation is drawing to a close, so I circled back to the beginning, but I rephrase the question: Do you feel different now?

She tells me this is a subject she has “written about a number of times from different angles, and I’m writing a book about it, so obviously it is a subject of tremendous importance and urgency to me.”

Did you feel changed after you wrote it, I asked.

“I would say that I feel changed primarily in the way I feel changed after writing anything I’ve worked on for a long time.

“Did I feel different? Therapeutically, no. But I did feel like I had engaged with some mysteries in my family, tried to think them through to the best of my ability with the knowledge I had at the time. So that definitely is something that makes you feel a little bit different, just engaging in things you normally shy away from thinking about because they’re very difficult and have no easy answer.”