Ordinary holiday in Chelm
Reb Cantor and Rabbi Yohon Abrahms paused at the top of the hill to watch the sun spread its warm red rays in a growing embrace across the Black Forest. (photo by Rainer Lück via commons.wikimedia.org)
It was an ordinary Chanukah in the village of Chelm, which was strange. Depending on who you talk to, Chelm is called a village of fools or of wise people, and there’s always something going wrong. This year, however … it was quiet.
Chanukah was neither early nor late. The weather was good – not too cold and not too hot. There was enough food so no one was hungry, and the lands surrounding Chelm were at peace; the Cossacks were far away. And, for once, no one got into an argument over whether the Americans should spell the holiday with an “H” or a “Ch.”
On the first night of Chanukah, families gathered and lit their candles according to the traditions of Hillel or Shammai, depending on whether they felt like building up to a big finish or starting off bright and getting more relaxed as each day passed.
“Something is going to happen,” worried Reb Cantor the merchant, as he huffed and puffed his way up Sunrise Hill for his morning exercise with Rabbi Yohon Abrahms, the schoolteacher.
“Something always happens,” said the young rabbi.
“Something bad,” said Reb Cantor. “It’s too quiet.”
“Not when you’re breathing so hard,” said Rabbi Yohon Abrahms.
They paused at the top of the hill to watch the sun spread its warm red rays in a growing embrace across the Black Forest.
“I’m still concerned,” said Reb Cantor.
“You wouldn’t be you if you weren’t,” said the young rabbi.
“I’ll race you to Mrs. Chaipul’s restaurant.”
“But you always win!” said Reb Cantor.
It was too late. The young rabbi was already running, and the fat merchant had no choice but to trundle after, hoping that he wouldn’t trip, fall and roll down the hill like a barrel.
By the time Reb Cantor caught up, Rabbi Abrahms was busy playing a friendly game with Joseph Katz, a well-known dreidel shark. Instead of wagering raisins on who would win, everyone was betting about how many coffee cups and teacups Joseph could rebound a dreidel off before landing on whatever letter he chose.
“Watch this,” Joseph said with a twinkle. He twirled a square top onto the table, where it ricocheted back and forth, striking five mugs and three cups before flying up, hovering over Rabbi Kibbitz’s plate of latkes, and then splashing down into the rabbi’s apple sauce.
“Nun!” said Joseph. “I win.” (In Chelm, foolish as it is, they say it takes nun to win.)
“You always do,” said Rabbi Kibbitz, who fished out the dreidel and wiped it off with a napkin before returning it to the young man.
“Sorry about that,” Joseph said.
Rabbi Kibbitz shrugged. “I’ve always felt that apple sauce is more of a garnish than a necessity.”
“How can you eat those latkes?” whispered Reb Stein, the baker. “I know you love your wife, but….”
Mrs. Chaipul, the rabbi’s wife (she kept her own name, which is another story) was listening from the kitchen to see how her husband would answer.
As the owner of the only kosher restaurant in Chelm, she was known as a miracle worker in the kitchen, with the exception of her lead-sinker matzah balls and her notoriously lethal latkes.
She knew, as did everyone in Chelm, that she had something of a culinary blind spot when it came to potato pancakes. She’d solved the problem at the annual Chanukah party by enlisting the help of Mrs. Rosen and her daughters, but her husband insisted that she still make her old recipe for him.
Rabbi Kibbitz smiled. “First of all, my stomach is protected by my belief in God.”
Everyone in the restaurant rolled their eyes.
“Secondly, it’s a question of scale,” he said. “When she cooks a small batch just for me, they’re quite good.”
“Really?” Reb Stein said.
“Would you like a taste?” the rabbi said, raising a piece on his fork.
“No, no, no, no!” Reb Stein said, hastily backing away. “I have work to do today.”
Even Reb Cantor, who had caught his breath by then, joined in as Reb Stein fled from the restaurant ahead of a wave of laughter.
Every night for seven more nights, candles were lit and the stories of the Maccabees were told. Songs were sung, dreidels spun, and latkes and doughnuts were fried.
More and more families were following the Schlemiel’s tradition of giving Chanukah presents to each other, but it wasn’t to excess. No one fought over whose present was best or biggest. And everyone remembered to give a little extra gelt to Rabbi Abrahms the schoolteacher to honor his contribution to their children’s lives.
On the last night it snowed, but everyone was home safe. They looked out their windows at the falling flakes, glad of their walls and roofs, and warmed themselves in front of their fires. And, as the candles finally burned down, the children were tucked into bed beneath comforters and blankets with a final goodnight kiss.
It was an ordinary Chanukah in the village of Chelm.
For once, nothing bad happened and nothing went wrong.
And that in itself was a miracle.
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.