In Plain Language: Hanukka present

An original short story.

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
The winds of Hanukka always bring change. Ushering in the cold brisk air, they announce that winter has come in earnest.
Upon the winds there comes an ancient journeyman, a traveler of time and space who circles the globe and appears as quickly as a windstorm, as capriciously as the gust that blows your hat down the street. It is Elijah, the rider of the fiery chariot, the messenger of hope who faithfully records the world’s ebb and flow. In a thousand places over the millennia, Elijah suddenly appears, as if from nowhere.
Perhaps as the elusive 10th in the minyan; or the honored guest at a brit mila or the Passover Seder – wherever he appears, in whatever guise or mission, he reminds us that certain values and ideals are as eternal as the wind that bears him along.
Elijah gazes about as he walks the streets of a small town – a fine town, with paved streets and a dozen inns where a weary traveler might rest his soul, if he had the money to pay for it.
But Elijah has no coins; in fact, he has no pockets at all in his long white robe that scrapes the ground, making sweeping tracks in the snow as he walks. In one hand he carries an old burlap sack, filled with memories; in the other he holds a staff.
Tonight is the fourth night of Hanukka. As Elijah walks through the town, he observes hanukkiot burning in the windows, families gathered about the candles, the smell of latkes and sufganiot floating through the air. Elijah is proud to see the tradition carried on, yet something is amiss. For as he looks for a place to spend the night, out of the rain and snow, he is met with icy stares and cold shoulders. The townsfolk, busy celebrating Hanukka with their own families, have little time for a stranger. Some politely answer the door, but declare their tables full and their spare rooms occupied. They send him continually “down the road,” where some other kind soul might carry the burden of another guest for the night.
Elijah trudges on, seeking shelter and some respite from his wandering. He heads to the poorer section of the city, where the fine brick houses turn into r amshackle shanties, where the paved streets end and the dirty cobblestone roads begin. Here, among those who know the bitterness of hunger and loneliness, the prophet is sure to find a kindred soul.
Elijah spies a little cottage, no more than a clapboard shack leaning drunkenly to one side. “Can anyone live in such a closet?!” Elijah ponders. He knocks, and an elderly couple, dressed in torn clothes, emerge. Their faces are lined with age, but a bright smile masks their exhaustion.
“Good evening, friend!” they begin, and Elijah knows instantly he will have a place to escape the biting wind. The husband and wife invite him into their meager home, decorated only with a rickety table and chairs, and a large cot in one corner. The husband places a few branches in the fireplace and lights a fire. A pot of soup is placed over the fire, a few carrots and onions simmering in water, with salt and pepper added for body. “God has been good to us this Hanukka, and we have a few vegetables still left from the garden. They aren’t much, but we will share them with you.” The woman takes out a half-loaf of bread, and a piece of herring. “When you eat with guests, any meal becomes a feast!” she beams.
As Elijah partakes of the banquet, a young girl walks in, carrying a pitcher of water and a little tub of margarine.
“This is our daughter,” says the husband proudly.
“And where have you been tonight, my dear?” says the prophet.
“I work for a family in the middle of town,” replies the girl. “I wash their floors, and keep their place clean. In return, they give me their old clothes, and their leftover food. That is how I received this little cruse of margarine.”
“But that is not for eating!” interrupts her father. “That is for our hanukkia. In fact, it is time to kindle the lights, now that all of us are together.” Elijah, taking a hurried look about the room, does not see a hanukkia, but his host soon answers his unspoken question. “When you do not have many possessions, you must use ingenuity and imagination,” he says. He takes out a plate with hollowed- out potato shells, scoops a bit of the margarine into them and inserts some strands of thin, flax wicks. “How grand! We are four tonight, and each of us will have honor of lighting one light in the hanukkia.”
Pronouncing the blessings together, they kindle their little potato lights. The honor of the newest candle is given to the distinguished guest. The oil burns with a clear, clean glow, its bluish tip rising above the window sill to where it might be seen by those passing.
After singing a bit, the family discusses the miracle of the oil, the courage of the Maccabees and the importance of keeping one’s soul pure. The flickering flame reminds them of life’s frailty, but also the glory that will blaze when the Messiah comes.
When the last bit of oil disappears, the couple pleads, “Please, sir, do not leave; please stay the night with us!” When Elijah awakens, there is a bowl of hot meal waiting for him, and an apple in his bag.
“You have given me many gifts this Hanukka,” says Elijah. “In return, I declare that on this fourth day of Hanukka, you shall have four wishes of your choice.”
The couple and their daughter look at each other in amazement. While they did not befriend the prophet for a reward, they would never deny anyone the opportunity of giving. And so they accept the prophet’s offer. Choosing their wishes is not a simple task, but in the end, after much thought, the family’s good nature dictates just what they should select.
“For our first gift, we would like a bigger house,” they say, “with many bedrooms for guests, and a large kitchen, so we all can eat together. And lots of windows, all over the house, so we can see the sky and the rain and our neighbors coming by. For our second wish, we decide that if we are going to live in such a stately home, and entertain many guests and visitors, we have to look presentable. And so we would like fine clothes, the kind that would befit the master and mistress of such a dwelling.
Our third wish is for wealth. After all, we’ll need to keep up the house, and buy much food and drink for our many guests. And think of the charity we could give!” Elijah lifted his staff into the air, stretching it to the heavens and swinging it around, faster and faster, until it swirled the air about. Suddenly the wind began to blow around the little cottage, shaking it to its foundations. It seemed to lift the walls right off the ground, and the good family closed their eyes out of fear and trembling. When they looked out again, they stood in the midst of a mansion, with white marble floors and gold-inlaid ceilings, with embroidered tapestries that draped the walls. They looked down at themselves and there they stood in the most royal of trappings. The old rags were gone; in their place were silk robes, leather breeches, dresses and shoes and coats of every color. Around the neck of each family member was a sparkling necklace of pearl or silver. Suddenly, as they watched, trance-like, the room began to fill with gold. Soon they were standing knee-deep in the shiny stuff, running their fingers through the coins, growing dizzy from imagining all that their newfound riches could buy.
Then Elijah spoke: “You have chosen three grand wishes. But as for your fourth and final wish, I shall return one year from now to hear your request.” Elijah tapped his staff on the floor several times, and what appeared to be a chariot all of fire descended. In an instant, he was gone.
The family surveyed their blessings, admiring everything around them.
They walked the length and breadth of their palace in their regal new outfits and they filled their home with servants, guests and parties without end.
A year passed and Elijah returned exactly as he promised. He walked up to the door of the mansion and knocked several times, but there was no sound from within. And so Elijah used some of the prerogatives at his disposal and slipped airily into the house, finally locating the family huddled around a small table in the servants’ quarters.
Dressed in their splendid clothes they nevertheless looked downtrodden, almost as if they were trapped within their velvet and furs. At the sight of Elijah, they bolted from their seats.
“Thank God you are here,” they cried, “we prayed you had not forgotten us!” “And how has your year been?” asked Elijah.
A sadness seemed to envelop the family as they recounted all that had transpired since they last saw the prophet.
“At first it was a dream come true. Everything we desired, or imagined, we came to possess.
“There was nothing the world could deny us. Or so we thought. This is a magnificent house you granted us. But after months of revelry and indulgence, we came to a bitter realization. None of our old and dear friends, who had meant so much to us, came to visit us anymore.
They were too embarrassed to be seen here, in their old clothes, coming from such poor hovels and shacks. They just didn’t feel as if they fit in with the new people who were our constant guests.
“And our new friends? Well, they were hardly the treasures we thought they’d be. All they seemed to care about was having a good time, about accumulating things and comparing their things to our things. Most were superficial and shallow, and didn’t care a whit about us as people. They came just to browse through our lives, like fancy shoppers at an exclusive shop.
“And these clothes! They’re elegant and handsome, yes, but there is no end to them! We must match every outfit just so, spending hours choosing just the right hat to go with just the right bow. And we must never wear the same outfit twice, for then we would be the subject of ridicule at the parties. How we long to wear our old clothes, so simple and comfortable, and not be on parade each time we emerge from our dressing room.”
“And what of the wealth you now own?” said Elijah.
“The money bought us beautiful objects, and a great deal of expensive food, which has fattened us up considerably,” said the husband, as he patted his ample stomach. “But the money also brought a certain curse with it, too. Once the word spread that we had all this wealth, there was never a moment’s peace for us. Every cause in town appealed to us for help. We were pulled in a thousand different directions, until we begged for time to be alone. We never had time for the things we loved so much before, the singing, the story-telling, the sitting at leisure to read and share with one another.
We stopped being a family. The money bought us fame and prestige, but we paid dearly for it in serenity and simple pleasure. Like most people, we were blinded by the gold’s luster, to where we couldn’t see what was important and what was not.”
Elijah smiled a wise little smile. “It seems that you have gained an additional wish this past year; you learned something very few ever learn. But tell me, have you decided upon your fourth wish? It is still coming to you, and I am here to grant it.”
“We have long ago decided what our fourth wish would be,” they said in unison.
“We wish to be happy.”
Without a word, Elijah lifted up his magnificent staff and began to strike about the sky. The ground trembled and a dense smoke filled the air. When the haze cleared, the family looked about them. Gone was the palace; in its place was the little shack with the cracked walls. Looking down at themselves, they saw that the fancy clothes had disappeared. Nowhere to be seen were the mountains of gold; only the broken-down little table and chairs remained.
Yet in the air was a feeling of relief that only comes when you have gone home again.
Elijah tapped his rod upon the cold floor and looked deep into the eyes of his friends. “Your fourth wish has been granted,” he said, “and my mission is now at an end.”
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and member of the Ra’anana City Council; [email protected]