I loved Friday nights. My middle sister Hannah and I would sit in the kitchen sparkling clean, as my mother placed a scarf over her head, lit the four candles and intoned the Sabbath blessing. She always lit the candles in the brass candlesticks first. They were the ones she’d bought with her own money long before she got married. The silver ones were a present from my father’s wealthier parents and not nearly as precious.
Except in the depths of winter, when the Sabbath came in too early for there to be time between the end of school and the beginning of the Sabbath, my mother would take Hannah and me up the road to Goulston Street baths. She would buy just one second class ticket and bathe my sister and me together. We would then wait on the polished wooden bench in the corridor outside, while she called for more hot water and had her bath. The attendants bustled past in their immaculate white overalls, holding their badge of office – the big brass key that controlled the flow of water into the big porcelain baths. It was only in the First Class baths that you had your own taps and could control your own bath water.
My mother didn’t wash our hair in the bath. She was sure that walking the couple of hundred yards home to our tenement in Wentworth Dwellings would result in a cold or worse. She’d wash our hair over the sink when we got home, heating kettles of water on the stove.
When my father got home from synagogue he would lift the embroidered cloth covering the ‘challah’, say the ‘brochas’ for wine and bread and pass around the ‘kiddush’ cup for a sip each and a piece of the poppy sprinkled bread. Supper was always cold fried fish, potato salad and home-made ‘chrane’ – a fiery mixture of grated beetroot and horseradish. We tried to make it last as long as possible. Nothing like grating horseradish root to make your eyes stream.
After supper, we all had something to say as we sat around the table. We sisters had to take turns. When I thought no-one was looking, I would pick some warm wax drips from the candles and roll them in my fingers under the tablecloth. If she caught me, my older sister, Rebecca. would smack my hand and hiss ‘They’re the Shabbas candles. Mustn’t touch.’
The only bad thing about Friday night is that I had to go to bed in the dark – it was forbidden to carry out any work on the Sabbath – switching on a light was considered work. I would pray not to have to go to the loo in the dark. The long clanking chain made me think of ghosts hauling their shackles behind them and I’d scuttle there and back as fast as I could.
Hannah went to bed early too. She would offer to tell me a story. It was always a ghost story, that nearly frightened the life out of me. Then she would say that her name was Cynthia Levy and that she had trapped my sister, who I loved dearly, in the light bulb. Unless I id everything she ordered me to do, she would whip Hannah until she bled. It meant me doing things like switching the light on and off – though it was forbidden– and crawling under my bed amongst all the dust bunnies. I’d finally be allowed to creep under my parana – Hannah now saved from the light bulb.
In spite of ‘Cynthia Levy’ I still miss those magical Friday nights.