This evening at dinner I was sitting at the table, eating dinner with Abraham. My thoughts turned to earlier that day, during his naptime, when I had finally started to write about my vicarious Holocaust trauma, a trauma I am only recognizing the force of now, but which began in adolescence (so many well meaning young adult novels, so many movies, so many vivid portrayals of horror) and has become more intrusive since 2016. (It seems that the global rise in nationalism will do that to a person – a recent Atlantic article reports how a survivor of the Bosnian genocide started having nightmares and insomnia again, explaining that Trump’s speeches sound just like Serbian speeches in the early ‘90s). Through God knows what dark pathways of thought, I suddenly vividly remembered the room at Yad Vashem full only of of photographs and candles, memorializing the 1 million Jewish children who were killed. Feeling the by-now familiar spiral of terrible images creep into my mind’s eye, I brought myself firmly back to the present, to my 17 month old boy happily playing with his water cup after finishing his meal of rice and lamb slow-cooked with apples and Brussels sprouts. (Thank you Yotam).
I wiped Abraham’s face and hands with a wet cloth, and put him on the floor to play while I cleared the table. Abraham turned immediately to our built-in cabinet in the dining room, stuck his chubby hand into the middle drawer and pulled out a dishtowel. Then he struggled to climb onto my dining room chair (an exciting and frightening new skill), succeeded, and carefully tried to put the towel on the table. At first I thought he wanted to wipe down the table, since he likes to help with all kinds of household tasks he sees us do. But then I saw him trying to get it to stay put, in one place, and I had a flash of understanding. Not quite daring to believe it yet, I spread out the towel on the table. Satisfied, he reached his arms to be picked up, then turned deliberately towards the higher shelves of the built-in. My guess was proving true, and I was stunned: When I opened the glass door, he reached straight for the silver Shabbat candles sticks, then reached to the table again (still in my arms) and placed each one carefully standing on the cloth. We returned to the built-in for his little silver Kiddush cup, which he stood up carefully next to the candlesticks.
It is not unusual for Abraham to want me to sing the candle lighting blessing (he signals this by clapping and then covering his face with his hands, and will ask for it whenever he sees a candle or picture of a candle), but this was the first time he clearly had the idea to set the Shabbat table, and took all the steps to make sure it happened.
Finished with his work, he sat on my lap while I sang the candle blessing quietly. “Baruch atah Adoshem, Elokeinu…” While I sang, Abraham covered his eyes too, and we peeked at each other smiling through our fingers. There were no candles in the candlesticks, this being a Thursday evening. But the light shone in the room as brightly as a million candles. I felt him telling me, in as many ways as his 17 month old self could: “Mama, I am here. Mama, the light never went out – see, it’s in me! Mama, God is with us no matter what has happened or happens.” Hugging his warm healthy body, I cried in sorrow for all the lost children of the world, and in gratitude for the thriving ones. I cried in wonder at my son’s Jewish soul and his intuition, and I cried in awe of the strength of the invisible strings that connect us all.