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Menorah Shopping in Texas


Menorah Shopping in Texas


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The Perils of Menorah Shopping in Texas

by Robyn Honig

The November of his senior year of college, I set out to find my friend Russell a Hanukkah present. This gift had to be special because he expected to teach in either Chicago or Dallas the following year, far from his friends in Austin and his family in Houston. The most meaningful and practical gift I could imagine was a small menorah, something that he could use for years, including that particular year, as long as I gave it to him early.

At the time of my Hanukkah-gift excursion, I was home from graduate school and eager to go shopping, figuring I would swing by the mall after I found Russell's present. But first, I had to figure out where to find a menorah. This was not an easy task in our part of Houston. Our neighborhood had eleven churches, and the nearest synagogue was 40 minutes away, near the Jewish neighborhood. I really wanted to avoid an 80-minute, round-trip drive, so I called my grandmother, an experienced shopper who lived less than a mile from our house.

"Try the party store near Champions. They've got a good spread," she said.

The Champions neighborhood, relatively more Jewish than ours, was only 15 minutes away, a short drive by Houston standards, so I hopped into the car, and soon I was heading north on the seven-lane highway. At that point, I started to notice the cars and the flags: the beginning of the so-called War on Terrorism resulted in a flag fad, and people began sticking adhesive flags to their bumpers, their back windows, their side windows, and even their car trunks. My favorite, however, was when they wielded their flags diplomat-style, on plastic sticks near each side mirror. Diplomats are purportedly some of the most educated and culturally aware, and amidst the overzealous display of patriotism, I wondered how many of those flag-flying drivers fit the true diplomatic description.

After a few wrong turns, I found the party store. Walking in the door, I was greeted and quickly engulfed into a world of red and green. Saxophone-heavy, syncopated Christmas music floated among the Holiday--ahem, Christmas--paper plates and the Seasonal plastic cups. I soon found a clerk and asked him where I could find the Hanukkah items. The clerk checked with his manager and led me through the aisles to the farthest corner of the store. Despite the remote location, I was impressed. I saw Hanukkah plates and Hanukkah cups, Hanukkah napkin rings, Hanukkah banners, traditional Hanukkah toys and candy, and designer Hanukkah candles.

I examined each shelf sticker, finally finding an indicator of an affordable, brass menorah. But there was no menorah in sight, so I asked the clerk where I could find one.

"A what?" he asked.

"You know, it holds the Hanukkah candles. Look," I said, pointing to the menorah sticker.

The clerk searched every nearby shelf and every storage shelf above the Hanukkah merchandise, but he found no menorah. He spoke again with the manager, who informed us that the store had not received any menorahs. And Hanukkah was fast approaching.

"Do you know where I could find a menorah?" I asked. The manager suggested the craft store down the street.

I walked into the craft store and was greeted by Christmas lights, wreaths, and a music-box version of "Jingle Bells." Approaching the first visible clerk, I asked whether the store carried any menorahs.

"Menorahs?" he asked.

"Yeah, for Hanukkah," I replied, the upward pitch of my voice making the statement sound more like a question.

"I don't think we have any Hanukkah stuff here," he said, leading me toward a group of clerks and managers. The clerk directed his attention to the others. "We don't have any Hanukkah stuff here, do we?"

"No," came the resounding answer.

Again, I sought the clerks' advice.

"Do you know where I can find a menorah?" I pleaded.

A well-meaning clerk wearing a conspicuous, gold cross around her neck came to the rescue.

"Have you tried the Christian bookstore?" she drawled.

My brows furrowed at the thought of finding a menorah in a Christian bookstore. On the other hand, I reasoned, I once knew a woman who belonged to a Christian sect whose members kept Jewish customs and attended Jewish synagogues.

"The Christian bookstore? Are you sure?"

"Yes, the Christian bookstore might have some. Or how about a bridal shop?"

"A bridal shop?" I incredulously asked. I nearly gave the woman the benefit of the doubt when it came to the Christian bookstore, but only the most absurd bridal shops would consider selling menorahs.

"Sure. A bridal shop. Jewish women have menorahs at their weddings."

"No, they don't!" I exclaimed in shock. I had never been to a Jewish wedding, but I was positive that menorahs are not included in the ceremony. A brief conversation confirmed my suspicion that this woman could not identify a menorah in a line-up of candelabras. I thanked her for her time and exited the store.

Just before I exited the shopping center, I spotted a large, houseware store. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I parked the car and approached the automatic, sliding doors. Taped to one of the doors was a sign that read, "Hanukkah is 11 days away!" I smiled to myself as I walked directly to the customer service desk.

"Where can I find the menorahs?" I asked the Hispanic woman behind the counter.

"Oh, he'll show you," she said, pointing toward a smiling Persian man, who led me to a four-foot tall, four-sided island of shelves near the front of the store. Three of the four sides held several styles of menorahs, designer Hanukkah candles, Hanukkah plates, and Hanukkah candies and toys. (The fourth side held Christmas lights.)

I enthusiastically thanked the clerk and the customer service representative, who joined us at the Hanukkah display. Both of the employees seemed familiar with the cultural aspects of Hanukkah, which greatly impressed me considering my previous encounter at the craft store. For Russell, I found an attractive, affordable, brass menorah. Unsure of where to buy the small, multicolored candles that my family traditionally used, I purchased a five-dollar box of designer Hanukkah candles in blue and white.

At five o'clock, I left the store, pleased with my purchase. Although I had no desire to shop at the mall as I initially planned, the exhilaration of finally finding a menorah certainly compensated. When I arrived home, I showed my mother the menorah and the candles.

"How much do our usual candles cost?" I asked her.

"Oh, about 99 cents," she replied.

Designer Hanukkah candles are expensive, considering their expendability. Fortunately, we had an extra box of cheap, multicolored Hanukkah candles at home. Russell needed cheap candles. Finals Week and the first days of Hanukkah coincided that year, so Russell would have to spend them at school. The Division of Housing was concerned about fire hazards and forbade students from burning candles in their dorm rooms for any reason, meaning that Russell would have to light his menorah outside and stay with it until the candles completely burned. The cheap candles were shorter and thinner than the designer candles and would burn much faster.

That night, my mother and I went to return the designer candles. The houseware store where I bought them was part of a large chain, and conveniently for us, another link was just outside our church-laden neighborhood. As I handed over the candles, I asked the customer service representative, who wore a Santa Claus-style hat, if the store carried any other Hanukkah goods, just out of curiosity. She sent another employee to the back of the store. A few minutes later, the employee returned with the only Hanukkah item in the store--a box of flat, chocolate squares, each adorned with a Hanukkah symbol.

I returned to Austin the next day and presented Russell with his Hanukkah gift that night. Several nights later, I joined him at the picnic table outside his dorm, and we said the prayers as he lit the first night's candles.

Robyn Honig is a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.

from the December 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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