Monday, August 31, 2009

Hanukkah Stories

Scotland has committed a craven and crass act by freeing Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the Libyan intelligence operative who is the only person convicted of a crime in connection with the December 21, 1988 terrorist attack that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The Scottish and British governments expect to profit from establishing commercial ties with a grateful Libyan government but such appeasement of terrorism inevitably will exact a high cost in innocent blood.

The Pan Am Flight 103 bombing killed 270 people, including 25 year old David Dornstein, a staff member for CAJE (Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education). CAJE sponsors an annual contest for the best original short story on a Jewish theme by a writer between the ages of 18 and 35. I submitted the following story for the 1996 contest

"Grandpa, tell me another story."

"It's getting late, Daniel."

"But, Grandpa, you said that you would tell stories until the last candle finished burning."

Abe Lemuel looked at the old menorah in the windowsill. One candle flickered intermittently. Abe chuckled. "All right, you win. Do you know why we light those candles?"

Daniel shook his head.

"More than two thousand years ago the Syrian-Greeks tried to destroy the Jewish people. The Syrian-Greeks had a powerful army and the Jews were a tiny nation. But a brave Jewish priest named Mattathias told the Jews to not be afraid. He and his sons put together a small army. The Syrian-Greeks had more soldiers, better weapons and better training. But Mattathias and his followers had tremendous faith in God. When Mattathias died his son Judah became the leader of the Jews. He was called Judah Maccabee--Judah the Hammer. Judah outsmarted the Syrian-Greek generals and led the Jewish people to victory. The Jews were free for the first time in hundreds of years but they could not celebrate yet: the Syrian-Greeks had desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and there was only enough oil left to light the candles in the Temple's menorah for one day--but a miracle happened and the oil lasted for eight days. That is why we light Hanukkah candles for eight days, Daniel."

"Wow, Grandpa! That was a great story."

Before Abe could answer, a sarcastic voice said, "Yeah, great."

Abe looked up and saw his son-in-law standing in the doorway. "I didn't expect you back so soon, Ari."

"Yeah, well, plans change. And, for the last time, my name is Eric."

"Dad, Grandpa just told me--"

"Yeah, I heard. Get your stuff. We're going back home."

"But Dad, you said I could stay all weekend--"

"Yeah, well, like I said, plans change."

Daniel stomped out of the room. Eric Brown glared at his father-in-law. "I don't know why you insist on telling him those silly, outmoded fairy tales."

Abe shook his head sadly. He spoke firmly but did not raise his voice. "And I don't know why you changed your name, Ari Berkowitz--or how you convinced my only daughter that Sadie is an old fashioned name and that the eternal faith of our forefathers is somehow outdated. Your father and grandfather were pious men. If they would see what you have become--"

"But that's precisely the point. My parents and grandparents aren't here--and neither are my brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. The only family I have is the one I've made for myself in America. I refuse to fill my son's head with false stories of our supposedly glorious history. I will not shackle my son's future to a bunch of ancient myths and archaic rituals."

Daniel walked dejectedly into the living room, dragging his backpack behind him. "Cheer up, son. I got tickets for the Knicks' game tomorrow--best seats in the Garden."

"Grandpa and I were going to go to shul tomorrow."

"Shul? Since when would you rather go to synagogue than a ball game?"

Daniel shrugged. "I've never been to shul. Grandpa said it would be fun."

"Your grandfather's a sickly old man," Eric answered angrily. "He doesn't remember what it's like to be a kid."

"Grandpa and I have a lot of fun," Daniel replied defensively.

"Do not take that tone with me, young man. Go wait for me in the hallway."

As soon as Daniel walked out, Eric jabbed a finger into Abe's chest. "You're turning my own son against me! This is the last time I'll bring Daniel over here!" Eric left the apartment, slamming the door behind him. Daniel looked up at his father and burst into tears. "Come on, Daniel. We're going to have a lot of fun tomorrow. You'll see."


"It's time to get up, honey." Daniel heard his mother's soft, sweet voice and he slowly woke up. Memories raced through his head: flickering candles, his grandfather's vivid stories, his father's angry voice, waves and waves of tears.

"I'm not getting up," Daniel said defiantly.

Susan Brown stepped into Daniel's bedroom so that he husband would not hear. "Daniel, your father went to a lot of trouble to get those tickets."

"I don't care. I wanted to go to shul with Grandpa."

"Honey, you can go next week."

"I wanted to go this week." Daniel's voice was just loud enough to get his father's attention.

"Look what your father's done!" Eric knocked the breakfast dishes off of the kitchen table with a powerful sweep of his arm. "You told me you wanted to get away from your father's outmoded ideas but now he's poisoned our son's mind."

Daniel began crying and pulled the covers over his head. Susan rushed into the kitchen and put her finger to her mouth. "Shh! Your shouting and carrying on are only making things worse. No matter what we think of my father's beliefs, I don't want to turn our son against his only living grandparent."

Eric threw his hands in the air. "What do you want me to do?"

"Let Daniel go to shul." Susan lowered her voice conspiratorially. "What can it hurt? He'll go, he'll be bored out of his mind and that will be the end of it."

"All right, but before I take him to see his grandfather I'm going to tell him some real history."

The Browns went back to Daniel's room. Daniel was still buried beneath the covers, sobbing uncontrollably. Eric looked at Susan but she nodded at him as if to say, you caused this mess, so you fix it. "Come on, son. Get dressed. I'll take you to the synagogue."

Daniel answered without lowering the covers. "It's too late now. By the time we get there services will be over."

Susan saw the rising tide of anger on Eric's face and shook her head. Eric took a deep breath. "Yeah, you're probably right." Eric looked at Susan and repeated the words that she mouthed to him. "And, uh, I'm really sorry about that. You can go to services next week. How would you like to spend this afternoon at Grandpa's apartment? He should be home from shul by the time we can get over there."

Daniel jumped up and rubbed his eyes. "Thanks, Dad!"

Daniel moved like a whirlwind, throwing on his clothes and rushing through his breakfast. "Wow, you got ready fast, son." Eric forced a smile. "You really like visiting your grandfather, don't you?"

"Yeah," Daniel answered warily, afraid that his father was having second thoughts about taking him to see his grandfather. Eric put his arm around Daniel's shoulders as they walked to the car. "I want to talk to you about that, son."

The car ride to his grandfather's apartment building seemed to last forever. Eric told his son of unimaginable horrors--gas chambers, piles and piles of corpses, crematoria. "Can you believe in such a God as this?" he bellowed over and over. "Your grandfather speaks of heroes and glory and God's love for the Jewish people. He is teaching you Jewish fairy tales, not Jewish history!" At last they arrived and Daniel ran up the steps two at a time. Abe had seen the car pull up and he stood in his doorway smiling when Daniel reached the top of the stairwell. "This is a pleasant surprise!" Abe then noticed the somber look on Daniel's face. "What's wrong, Daniel?"

"Grandpa, Dad says that your stories are fairy tales, that God does not really exist. He says that the Jews have always separated themselves from others and that's why everyone hates us. I told him that he was wrong but--"

"But now he told you what happened in Europe."

Daniel nodded his head. "The Nazis killed his whole family. Dad told me that there is no God, that the worst blasphemy of all is to say that God exists and allowed the Holocaust to happen."

"Let's go inside, Daniel. Then we can talk about this." Abe turned around slowly and struggled to walk into the apartment. Daniel offered his left arm for support and Abe silently accepted the assistance.

"Are you okay, Grandpa?" Daniel asked nervously, because Abe usually stubbornly waved off help.

"I'm fine, Daniel, just a little worn out from walking to and from shul."

"Next week you can lean on me."

Abe smiled as he eased into his favorite chair. "Thank you, Daniel."

Daniel sat on the floor in front of his grandfather. Had his grandfather always looked that old, that vulnerable?

"Daniel, I understand your father's pain, believe me. My wife, your grandmother of blessed memory, was killed by those Nazi butchers. Your mother and I only narrowly escaped death. After such tragedies it is only natural to question God, to be angry at God. Do you remember why our Patriarch Jacob was renamed Israel?"

"Because he wrestled with God and man and prevailed."

"Very good, Daniel. We Jews wrestle with God, but, ultimately, we believe in Him and His Law. That is our strength. No enemy can ever truly defeat us so long as we hold firm in that belief. Our sages say that there is a Jewish neshama--a Jewish soul--in every Jew, no matter how far he strays from his people."

"Does my Dad have a Jewish soul?"

Abe answered without hesitation. "Of course--but he conceals it with his anger and bitterness. You must make sure that you never do that. Let me show you something. Please bring my siddur to me."

Daniel walked across the room and carefully picked up the prayerbook from its resting place on the bookshelf. He handed it to his grandfather.

Abe quickly found the desired page. "Daniel, read the first line of this prayer--first in Hebrew, then the English translation."

"'Yisgadal v'yiskadash shmai raba': Magnified and sanctified be His great name.'"

"Now read the heading at the top of this page."

"'Mourners' Kaddish.'"

"Think about that, Daniel. In Judaism, when one of our loved ones dies, we praise God's greatness. This is done to reaffirm and express our great faith in God. If we responded by cursing God we would become angry, bitter and, ultimately, alienated from God and man alike. Someday your faith will be tested, Daniel--and how you respond will define you as a Jew and as a human being."

"This is all very confusing, Grandpa."

"In time things will become clearer to you, Daniel. You are very bright and your Jewish soul yearns for Jewish knowledge and Jewish experiences. That brings me to this." Abe pulled a slip of paper out of his shirt pocket. "I forgot to give this to you yesterday."

Daniel looked at it and then shrugged at his grandfather. "I don't understand."

"I want you to contact this rabbi. He's a good friend of mine and he will continue to teach you about Judaism when I am, uh, no longer available."

"What are you talking about?"

"Daniel, I'm not a young man--"

"You're not going to die!"

"Don't be silly, Daniel. Death is a natural part of the life cycle. Don't get my wrong, though, I plan to be here for you for a long time. But someday you will need a new teacher, a new mentor."

"I don't know what I'd do without you, Grandpa."

"Don't say that, Daniel. Savor our time together, learn from it--but know that it will end, but that your life, your growth, will continue after that."


"Daniel, you're going to Sabbath services with your grandfather almost every week now. We don't live in a shtetl, we live in America. Why can't you be a normal kid?" Eric could not believe that driving Daniel to his grandfather's apartment had become a regular ritual. He and Susan had been certain that, given a free choice, Daniel would eventually reject religious observance. If he now refused to take Daniel to visit his grandfather he would surely alienate his son forever. I have no choice but to let this passing phase play itself out, Eric thought. Someday that boy will understand that there is no deity that cares about the everyday lives of human beings.

His father's cold words stung Daniel but his grandfather told him that this bluntness was Eric's way of dealing with overwhelming feelings of fear, loss and abandonment. "Answer your father's taunts with love, not anger, and he eventually will see the correctness of your chosen path," Daniel's grandfather emphasized.

"Why don't you join us, Dad? Maybe you would enjoy coming to synagogue."

"God was silent during my family's hour of need and I have nothing to say to him now."

"Why don't you at least come upstairs, Dad? You haven't even spoken to Grandpa in months."

"I don't have anything to say to him, either." Eric's knuckles whitened as he clenched the steering wheel.

"Dad, this isn't right. You've not only cut yourself off from Grandpa, but you've put up a wall between Mom and her father."

"Your mother doesn't want anything to do with this religious nonsense. That's why she married me in the first place, to get out of his house and away from his old-fashioned ways." Eric pulled the car into the parking lot and stopped by the entrance.

"In your heart you know this isn't right, Dad. At least come upstairs, spend a few minutes with Grandpa."

"Okay, fine." Eric impatiently swerved into the nearest parking spot and turned the car off. "Let's go upstairs and get this over with."

Eric led the way up the staircase. "I don't know why I let you talk me into this, son. This is just a waste of time."

Eric knocked on the door. "Abe, are you here? Abe, I'm here with your prize pupil." Eric waited for a response, then knocked a little harder. "He's probably sleeping. Well, the door's open. Let's go in and--"

"Dad, look! Grandpa must have slipped on something!"

Abe Lemuel was sprawled on his back on the living room floor, his head resting against the bottom of his bookcase. Eric knelt down. "There's no pulse, son. He's dead." Abe's precious siddur lay just a few inches from his right hand. "You see what kind of world this is, Daniel?" Eric picked up the book and gestured wildly toward the sky. "You see how much good prayer does? Now do you feel like praising God? Do you feel like telling God how great He is, son?"

Daniel choked backed his tears and answered without hesitation: "Yisgadal v'yiskadash..."

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