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
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
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
"A bridal shop?" I incredulously asked. I nearly gave the
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
"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
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
That night, my mother and I went to return the designer
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
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
Robyn Honig is a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.
from the December 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine