The Human Spirit: Rescued candlesticks

A Jerusalem woman lights and blesses from her collection of cast-offs.

shabbat candles 88 (photo credit: )
shabbat candles 88
(photo credit: )
On Pessah, we think a lot about how best to pass on our traditions to the next generation, chastened by apocryphal stories of Jewish immigrants from good homes who rashly threw their tefillin in the sea on the way to America. Conversely, I've never heard of a family - not even socialists or Communists - who jettisoned Mama's candlesticks. Just the opposite. Immigrants reverently preserved those brass candlesticks, no matter how little space and how little money they had. Nonetheless, sometimes sadly no one is left to light. What happens then to the family's candlesticks? Brondi Katz Levine likes to rescue such candlesticks. Okay, she's sentimental. Every forsaken antique candlestick makes her wonder about the Jewish women - strangers - who lit it long ago. In her Jerusalem living room, Levine lights 12 candles each Friday night, all originally from Eastern Europe. They are the striking centerpiece of her home. HER OWN FAMILY hails from Eastern Europe, too, but Levine grew up in Mountain Dale, NY, a farming hamlet in the Catskills Borscht Belt. Back in the early 1950s, they were among the few observant Jews who lived year - round in Mountain Dale. When Levine was just a baby, an elderly and childless Jewish woman in Mountain Dale extracted a promise from her mother to find a good home after her death for her beloved family candlesticks, carried in steerage from Galicia. It took more than two decades to keep that pledge. When Levine's three older siblings married, each bride chose a pair of new silver candlesticks. Only when Levine herself was engaged did she surprise her parents by requesting candlesticks made of brass. She liked the humble, easily molded mix of copper and zinc that had become so popular in Eastern Europe that there was hardly a Jewish household without them. Her mother offered to buy her a new set or she could have a pair that had been in safekeeping in their home for over 20 years. Most brass candlesticks in Russia and Poland followed a simple design, with wide square bases and rounded stems. Some were once silver-plated copies of the silver candlesticks on which they were based and which were far beyond the resources of the shtetl family. Nearly all were made prior to World War I, so today they're nearly 100 years old, spanning generations. And so, after her wedding, Levine began lighting the old brass candlesticks each week. "I liked the idea that even though I didn't know the owner," said Levine, "these candlesticks had been loved and blessed by generations of other Jewish women. I felt their presence when I lit my candles." AS EACH of her five children was born (including her triplets) Levine thought more of the added value of lighting old candlesticks to honor the past as she celebrated the future. She and her husband Richard searched for vintage brass Shabbat candlesticks. When they found a pair from Warsaw near Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda, the antique dealer insisted she take a pair home with her for a test light before they paid. "Only after you say the Shabbat blessing on them will you know if they suit you," he advised her. The candlestick collection grew. Friends and relatives contributed neglected candlesticks for Levine to return to Shabbat service. Last year, Levine was taking part in an evening of psalm recitation for a woman friend who was mortally ill. On a high shelf in a local synagogue, she noticed a pair of abandoned European brass candlesticks that would complement her others. "Some woman, maybe more than one woman, had poured her heart out over those candlesticks," she said. "Who had left them here? Why weren't they being lit?" No one knew to whom they belonged, but the synagogue warden was reluctant to let her buy them. Levine persevered, finding a go-between who arranged the purchase. She learned later that her contribution had paid synagogue's back bills for electricity and literally kept their lights burning. Now she had 12, the number of the biblical tribes. Some are singles. No two sets are exactly the same. One of the candlesticks, truth be told, is a little wobbly. Another looks a little green. But all the defects magically disappear the instant the candles are lit. Twelve tall bronze candlesticks with a mirror multiplying their light behind them. Nearly a bonfire. During Pessah, we light candles three different times, ushering in the joy and peace of the holiday and Shabbat. For Brondi Levine, that means lighting 36 candles, the legendary number of righteous in the world. She will say the traditional blessing and add her own for each member of the family and for all those forgotten mothers and sisters of Israel represented by her candlesticks. She hopes their long-ago tears shed in happiness and joy will serve as booster engines to carry her prayers to the heavens. As we light our own candles, let us be mindful of all those who came before us, so that we may inspire the generations who will inherit our own candlesticks in the future. If your family has a holiday tradition or story that you'd like to share, please contact