Reb Cantor discovers that some families, like Chelm’s Gold family, light eight candles on the first night of Chanukah. (photo by Dov Harrington from commons.wikimedia.org)
“I’m sick of Chanukah,” Reb Cantor, the merchant of Chelm, muttered. His wife, Shoshanna, looked up with surprise. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Did I say that aloud?” Reb Cantor paused and frowned. “But now that you ask…. I’m tired of Jewish holidays. I’m tired of non-Jewish holidays. I’m done with giving and getting. I’m bored with lighting candles and saying the same blessings over and over and over again. I’m finished with wondering when Chanukah is, and I’m exhausted by all the conversation about whether it’s early or late. And I am so fed up with latkes and greasy food. If I never see another potato pancake in my life it won’t be too soon.”
“But Chanukah’s a tradition,” Shoshanna said. “It’s a mitzvah! And is it so wrong to celebrate one of the few battles the Jews actually won?”
“I don’t care anymore,” Reb Cantor answered. Shoshanna Cantor nodded and sighed. Her husband, Isaac, had always been prone to depression and, as the winter days got longer, his moods often got darker. Usually, she wouldn’t worry, but Chanukah hadn’t even started yet, and listening to him kvetch for a whole eight-day week would be too much to take.
“Well, there’s a one benefit.” She smiled. “If you’re not eating latkes, you’ll probably lose some weight.”
Then she rubbed his big belly and kissed his balding forehead.
Reb Cantor tried to be grumpy about this too, but he couldn’t help himself and snorted a laugh.
The door of the Cantor house slammed. It was late in the afternoon of the first evening of Chanukah, and Reb Cantor was furious. He was ready to rant and rage and stomp. Not only did he hate potato latkes, he hated the way Shoshanna fried them in advance and then left them to warm in the oven until they became greasy and soggy. He sniffed the air and … there was nothing … no rancid oil or stale potato scent.
“Shoshanna!” he bellowed just as his wife appeared. “What….”
“Don’t take off your coat,” she said as she put on a wrap. “We’re not having dinner at home.”
“I’m not going to the Chelm Chanukah party!” Reb Cantor barked. “Mrs. Chaipul’s latkes always make me queasy.”
“It’s not till tomorrow night anyway,” she said. “Come with me.”
Then she walked out. He had no choice but to follow.
It wasn’t far to the Gold house. The poor cobbler lived with his many children in a home that had been completely rebuilt after it had accidentally won the sukkah contest several years before.
Shoshanna knocked on the door, and then went in. Clearly, they were expected.
Reb Cantor frowned and stomped his feet on the stoop in frustration.
A quiet voice asked, “What are you doing?”
Reb Cantor looked down at Reb Gold’s youngest daughter, Fegi, who seemed a little frightened.
“Nothing,” the merchant said, softening his voice. “I’m just making sure my boots are clean before I come inside.”
“Oh,” the little girl said. “Mama makes us take them off so we don’t track mud or scratch the floors.” She beckoned to a stack of shelves on the wall that were filled with shoes and boots.
Reb Cantor forced a smile, and sat on a bench.
“What’s that amazing smell?” he asked.
“Latkes!” the girl said with delight. “Mama’s making them and everybody’s gobbling them as fast as they come out of the pan.”
“You eat before the candles are lit?” the merchant said.
“Papa says that since Chanukah is so late this year and there are so many people to feed that we should eat while the oil’s hot.”
“So, they’re not warmed-over and limp?”
“They’re hot and crispy!” Fegi grinned. “With delicate, lacy edges.”
Reb Cantor’s mouth watered, despite his attempts to be angry and upset.
He padded his stocking feet into the kitchen full of the Gold family, large and small.
“Here, eat this,” Esther Gold said, popping a tiny warm latke into his mouth before he could say a word. “We wouldn’t want it to get cold.”
Reb Cantor couldn’t speak because of the savory explosions in his mouth.
“You’re just in time for the blessings,” Joshua Gold said.
The room fell silent. Even the oil stopped sizzling.
Soon it was filled with the song of the blessings. Each child harmonized and, as soon as he had chewed and swallowed the delicious bite, Reb Cantor couldn’t help himself and joined in.
Each of the Gold children and both their parents lit a candle until eight lights and the shammos were burning brightly. The sun had set and there was no other light in the room but the glow from the stove and the tall tapers in the middle of the long table.
“Why does your family light eight candles on the first night of Chanukah?” Reb Cantor asked.
“Chanukah celebrates a miracle,” Reb Gold said. “And my family is a miracle. That we are together is a blessing. That we have a house and food and enough money to buy so many candles is a blessing. Chanukah is a golden holiday. The latkes are golden. The light from the candles is golden. And this is the Gold house. We are so fortunate it would be a shame not to celebrate that.”
Reb Cantor looked at his wife, who was smiling at him. He did his best to hold back his tears.
“Besides,” Fegi said brightly. “If we only lit one candle it would be dark.”
Everyone laughed. Latkes were made, dreidels were spun, and the cold dark night was made warm and bright.
Mark Binder is the author of the award-winning Life in Chelm series, which includes A Chanukah Present, The Brothers Schlemiel and Matzah Mishugas. His latest book is Cinderella Spinderella. A professional storyteller, he regularly performs at synagogues, Jewish community centres and the National Yiddish Book Centre.