Chelm Keeps Kosher

The village of Chelm, as everybody knows, is a Jewish shetl somewhere around Poland or maybe it’s around Latvia someplace. The people of Chelm wanted to be good Jews, but sometimes it was hard work. Sometimes the people get confused.

Now, there are people today who think that the villagers of Chelm are stupid but that’s not the case at all. They just think differently than you and me. Take something as simple as the 10 commandments. Can you count to 10? Sure. So you know there are 10 commandments. Well, many people in Chelm think there are 11 commandments. Why? Because they count the commandment to honor your father and mother as two commandments: honor your father and honor your mother. But that’s another story.

If they couldn’t keep the number of commandments straight, just think how hard it is for them to keep kosher. Keeping kosher isn’t all that easy. It was meant that Jews think about the Torah and commandments every day, all day long. And what better way to remind Jews of the Torah than whenever they eat a meal or a snack. You’re supposed to think about keeping kosher, which gets you thinking about the Torah, which reminds you that you’re Jewish every time you eat.

Well, we know that the people of Chelm think differently than most of us so you can imagine how hard keeping kosher is for them. Now it shouldn’t be so hard. The Torah lists all the foods that a Jew can eat and the foods that a Jew can’t eat. And, if you encounter a new animal, it gives you ways to tell if it is all right to eat. If it is a fish in the water, you can look to see if it has fins and scales. If it is an animal, you can see if it has split hooves and chews its cud. Even if it is a bug–now I personally wouldn’t want to eat bugs, even if they were covered in chocolate, but you never know when you might get very hungry and bugs are the only things around. For bugs the Torah tells us to check that they have legs jointed above the knees and they have no more than four legs and they jump. This sounds straightforward enough to you and me, but it wasn’t for the people of Chelm.

So every time they wanted to eat something different they ran to the rabbi and asked if it was kosher. The rabbi and his wife had come from another town, where the people didn’t find the rules of keeping kosher terribly difficult. But that wasn’t the case in Chelm.

Mendel, for instance, was in the woods one day and caught a raven. “Rabbi, rabbi,” yelled Mendel as he ran through town to the rabbi’s house carrying the raven. “Is this kosher?” The rabbi checked the Torah and shook his head, “Sorry Mendel, this isn’t kosher.” Everybody in town would bring whatever they thought they could eat to the rabbi and check with him first. That’s how the people of Chelm kept kosher.

One day Schmuel bought a new cow. Well, everybody knows that cows are kosher. Schmuel didn’t even want to eat the cow. He wanted it for milk. But Schmuel still wanted to know if it was kosher, just in case. He brought the cow to the rabbi’s house and asked. The rabbi didn’t even have to check the Torah. “Of course it’s kosher. It’s a cow,” said the rabbi, who was getting a little annoyed. The cow dropped some cow manure on the path to the rabbi’s door as Schmuel led it away.

When the rabbi’s wife returned from town, she stepped in it and slipped. Needless to say, she was very unhappy. “In other villages, people know what is kosher. They don’t drag every animal in the village to the rabbi’s house,” she complained.

A few days later, Sarah was fetching water from the lake when a big, fat frog jumped into her bucket. She rushed to the rabbi’s house. “Is this kosher?” she asked, taking it out the bucket. Of course, wet frogs are very slippery and it slipped out of her hand and started hopping all around the rabbi’s house.

The rabbi, Sarah, and the rabbi’s wife madly tried to catch it. The frog leaped here and then there. They ran around after it, but it kept jumping just out of their reach. The rabbi’s wife grabbed a broom and tried to hit it. Sarah threw the bucket at it, trying to catch it. Things were getting knocked over. Some nice china got a little chipped. OK, some even was broken.

Finally, the rabbi trapped it in the sink. He saw it was a frog, checked in the Torah, and said, “Sorry, this is not kosher.”

“This is the last time!” screamed the rabbi’s wife. The villagers were sorry about the mess they had made and decided to come up with a new plan for how to keep kosher. “Let’s check the Torah for ourselves,” said one villager. So, whenever they had a question, they brought the animal to the synagogue where they could take the Torah from the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, and check for themselves, but the animals started making a mess of the synagogue. People tried to daven or study Torah, but they were always being interrupted by animals. The noise, the smell, the dirt, the disruption; the animals had to go.

Then Hymie had an idea: “Let’s just ask the animals themselves.” Well, one small girl had the gift of being able to talk with animals. But when she asked an animal if it was kosher, what do you think it said? Every animal said, “No, I’m not kosher. Sorry.” Even the ones that were kosher said that. They didn’t want to be eaten any more than you would.

“The Torah must have an answer to this problem,” suggested Gittel. The villagers poured over the Torah and, sure enough, they found the answer. It was right in Beresheit, in the story of Noah. “We’ll build an ark,” they declared. In the ark, they would keep two of every kind of kosher animal, bird, and fish–which they would keep in bathtubs–and even bugs. Then, when they needed to know if an animal was kosher, they would just come to the ark and check.

Well, we won’t go into how they managed to build the ark. That too is another story. But finally they got it done. And they used it every day.

You may think it is a complicated solution to a simple problem, but it worked out even better than expected. The kosher animal ark became a curiosity for miles around, and people would flock to the village to see it. The villagers charged an admission fee and soon Chelm became quite wealthy. They gave a lot of tzdukkah and did many good things with their money while continuing to live in their simple way.

Cast Away (a High Holiday Story)

I was four years old the first time I met the duck. My dad had taken me to the Tashlich service on Rosh Hashanah. A small group of people from our synagogue had gathered by river. The rabbi said a brief prayer, read a Psalm, and told us to spread out along the riverbank. Everybody brought stale bread. He asked us to think about our sins and throw the bread into the river. In doing so, we would be symbolically casting away our sins and allowing ourselves to start fresh.

My dad brought a box of stale matzah, which had been sitting around our kitchen since Passover the previous spring. All these people tossing bread into the river attracted the nearby ducks. My dad and I wandered down the river a few hundred yards from the others to a point where I could safely stand on a rock jutting into the water. He explained that sins were things we did that we felt bad about, things we knew were wrong but we did them anyway. The only sin I could recall that day was being mean to a boy in pre-school. I don’t exactly remember what I had done; maybe I grabbed a toy or pushed him away during circle time, but whatever it was I felt bad about it.

My dad stood a few feet behind me as I broke off pieces of matzah and threw them into the water. A duck, a common mallard with the bright green head and a yellow bill, paddled up. I knelt on the rock and started tossing the matzah bits directly toward him. I was chattering to him in a kind of baby talk, saying things like here ducky, nice ducky. Suddenly, the duck started talking back to me.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Mikey,” I said. “What’s yours?”

“I don’t have a human name and you won’t be able to pronounce my duck name. You can just give me any name you like,” the duck continued, his voice deep and quiet, kind and calm and reassuring.

I thought for a moment about a good name for a duck. The name Isaiah popped into my head. The boy I had been mean to had a new baby brother who was named Isaiah. “I’ll call you Isaiah,” I said.

“Isaiah, that’s a nice name, the name of a Hebrew prophet,” Isaiah replied.

I didn’t know anything about the Hebrew prophets or their names. I just nodded. My dad stood a few feet away on the shore watching me. “Don’t get too close,” he warned. “Just toss some matzah to the nice ducky.”

I threw some more to the duck, who gobbled it up. “Have you been mean to a boy in your class?” Isaiah asked.

I was stunned. “How do you know?” I stammered.

“I can taste it. You put your sins in the matzah. What are you going to do about that boy?”

I shrugged. I didn’t know.

“I think you should say you’re sorry and then do your best to never do it again,” Isaiah said.

“OK,” I agreed. And I promised to myself that I would do exactly what the duck had said.

“What are you doing?” called my dad. “Toss in the rest of the matzah and let’s go.”

I gave it all to Isaiah. “Bye bye. See you again,” I said walking away.

“I’m sure you will,” Isaiah replied.

“Were you talking with that duck? That’s so silly,” said my dad. He scooped me up in his arms and gave me a big kiss.

“The duck talked to me. His name is Isaiah,” I told him. He messed my hair and smiled and said OK. I don’t think he believed me, but I didn’t care. As he carried me, I waved again to Isaiah, who was eating the rest of the matzah.

My dad brought me to the river again the next year for the Tashlich service. This time I brought some old bagels. They were pretty hard to break into little pieces, but my dad helped me. My mom was staying home with my baby sister. She was little and cried a lot. “I hope Isaiah is there,” I said as we drove to the river.

“Who?” said my dad.

“Isaiah, the duck,” I reminded him.

“I don’t know if the same duck will be there, and I don’t know how you can tell them apart. They all look pretty much the same. But I’m sure there will be lots of ducks,” he said cheerily.

A bunch of people had already gathered. The rabbi recited the prayer and reminded us to think about our sins. This time I thought about all the bad things I wanted to do to my little sister if I had the chance. She was really annoying, and my mom was always tired because of her. Of course, I didn’t really do any of those bad things, but sometimes I would pinch her.

Then we all spread out along the riverbank. I immediately went to the rock. My dad followed. As soon as I started throwing pieces of bagel into the water, a mallard with a bright green head paddled over. I hoped it would be Isaiah. “Hi Isaiah,” I called out.

He gobbled up some bagel and swam close to the rock. “Hi, Mikey, I like bagels. Thank you,” he said. “Did you apologize to that boy last year?” he asked.

I must have because we had since become friends. “Yes,” I replied. “We have play dates together now. It’s fun.”

“But you don’t have fun with your baby sister, do you?” Isaiah continued.

“How do you know? I didn’t do anything really bad,” I said defensively.

“I can taste it in the bagels,” Isaiah replied.

“She’s a real bother. She ruins all my stuff and she cries. It’s awful,” I said.

“What are you doing?” my dad called from the riverbank. “C’mon, we have to get home to mom and your sister.”

“She won’t always be a bother. If you are nice to her and play with her sometimes, she will grow to love her big brother more than anything in the world. And your mom will be more rested and have more time for you too. Think about it,” said Isaiah.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Let’s go now,” my dad called again.

“I have to go. Bye bye, Isaiah. See you again,” I said, turning to leave.

“I’m sure you will,” Isaiah replied.

“Was that the same duck?” my dad asked as we got into the car.

“Yeah, Isaiah,” I said.

“Well, it seems you’ve found yourself quite a friend,” he said, but I knew he didn’t really believe me about Isaiah. It didn’t matter.

The next year it threatened to rain on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, when Tashlich is observed. My father didn’t want to go to the river, but I insisted and threw a tantrum. Finally, he agreed to take me. We didn’t have any stale bread, but my mom gave me a bag filled with Cheerios. I like Cheerios and ate a few as we rode in the car. They tasted delicious. When we arrived, the rabbi was there with just a few people.

The rain had just started to fall, lightly at first, so the rabbi rushed through the prayer. I quickly ran to the rock and began throwing my Cheerios into the river. I thought about what had happened just a few days ago at the start of school and hoped Isaiah would show up. He would know what to do. He was right about the boy in preschool. He was right about my sister, who I now thought of as kind of fun. I knew he would know what to do.

The problems all started when a girl came to school with a really cool pencil box, which had a neat pencil sharpener. My mom got me a nice pencil box too, but it didn’t have a sharpener like that. At one point when no one was looking, I just took her pencil sharpener. I didn’t really plan to take it but I did. I knew it was wrong. I was going to just quietly slip it back in her desk but she went running to the teacher and made such a big fuss. Now, there was no way to give it back without everyone knowing. I felt terrible.

Isaiah appeared as soon as I started to throw the Cheerios. “These have a sour taste. You’ve done something very bad, haven’t you? You stole something,” he said.

“I didn’t mean to. I wanted to give it back,” I pleaded.

“Hey, let’s not spend a lot of time talking to that duck. It’s getting wet out here,” called my dad. He was holding an umbrella, but it had started to rain very hard and the wind was blowing. He was getting wet. My mom made me wear my yellow raincoat and boots and rain hat, so I didn’t mind as much. In fact, I was having fun.

“You have to give the pencil sharpener back. You can quietly leave it on the teacher’s desk or slip it into the girl’s desk. First thing tomorrow morning will be a good time. And then you have to promise God never to do something like that again,” Isaiah said.

“I will. I promise,” I said.

“Say goodbye to that darn duck, and let’s go,” urged my dad.

“Bye bye, Isaiah. See you next year,” I said.

“You can count on it. Goodbye, Mikey,” Isaiah replied.

“Do you really think it is the same duck each year?” my dad asked when we got in the car.

“Oh yes. It’s Isaiah. He’s my friend,” I said. My dad smiled in a funny kind of way. I’m not sure if he believed me or not. I decided not to tell anyone about Isaiah.

Every year at Rosh Hashanah I insisted my dad take me to Tashlich. After a few years he also took my sister, but I always ran to the rock first. Every year I brought some kind of bread–pretzels, chips, rye, pita, Cocoa Puffs, whatever my mom had around. And, it seemed there always was some sin, something I had done that was on my mind. Isaiah always appeared as soon as I threw the first piece in the water, and he always knew what I had done. Maybe I had broken some rule at school or talked back to my parents. One year I had cheated on a test. Another year I lied. The worst year was when I turned my back on my best friend because I wanted to get in with the cool kids at school.

Isaiah always knew what had happened and always knew what to do about it. Sometimes I knew what he would say, but until I heard it from him I didn’t really want to do it. I sort of hoped I could, maybe, get away with doing something else. But Isaiah wouldn’t accept anything else, and, it turned out, he was always right. I did what he said, and things worked themselves out.

Then, one year when I was in high school my parents got divorced. Rosh Hashanah came and my father was living in another city with his new girlfriend. My mom took my sister and me to services, but she didn’t want to go to Tashlich. That was my dad’s thing, she said. So, I went myself.

All I could find to bring were some awful croutons my mom once bought for salads. They were too spicy so nobody liked them. I arrived late. Everybody had already spread along the riverbank. I went straight to the rock and hurled some croutons into the water. Isaiah appeared, pushed around some of the croutons with his bill but didn’t eat any.

“So you don’t like them either,” I said.

“Why are you so angry?” he asked.

“How do you know if I’m angry? You haven’t even eaten a single crouton,” I replied

He looked at me, turned, and gobbled up a crouton. “There. Are you satisfied now? Why are you so angry?”

Most of the people had gone by now. I was alone on the riverbank. Without planning to, I sat on the rock and told Isaiah the whole story of my parents’ divorce and the kinds of mean, angry things I had been doing since then. My grades had fallen. I quit the basketball team. I skipped school. I fought with my mom and exchanged really nasty, mean words with my father about his girlfriend. When I got to the end of the story, I dumped the rest of the croutons into the water.

Isaiah pushed them around with his bill. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he finally said.

“Is that all you can tell me?” I snapped.

“What do you want me to say? Your dad and mom both love you, but you know that. This whole mess isn’t your fault, but you know that too,” he said.

“You’re right. They told me all that. Big deal,” I replied.

“You need to talk with somebody,” Isaiah continued.

“Like who? I’m talking to you,” I demanded.

“You might start by talking to your counselor at school,” he replied calmly.

“That jerk! No way,” I protested.

“Try it. This is too big a problem for you to handle yourself. Talk to your counselor or your coach or a teacher. There are people who are eager to help you if you just talk with them,” Isaiah said reassuringly.

“Maybe,” I said grudgingly.

“And also, talk with God,” he added.

“Why God? Is he going to magically bring my parents back together and make it like nothing ever happened?” I said mockingly.

“No, God won’t do that. But he will show you how to forgive your parents and let go of your anger.” Isaiah turned away from me and started eating all the croutons, which were floating away on the river.

He was swimming away from the rock. “Will I see you again?” I called.

He turned back for a moment. “You can count on it.”

With the help of a teacher, I managed to get things together again, at least together enough to get into a good college that wasn’t too far from home. I wanted to stay close so I could get back for Tashlich each year. I also tried talking with God, but it’s hard to tell if God heard me. Slowly my anger went away. And I began to see the strains that drove my parents to do what they did. So, I guess I did forgive them. As usual, Isaiah was right. It just wasn’t as easy as giving back a pencil box.

Throughout high school and college I managed to get back home for Rosh Hashanah and always went to the Tashlich service. And Isaiah was always there. Then one year, my mother remarried and moved away. My sister, who had become my best friend, went away for college. My father had left long before. Coming back for Tashlich wasn’t quite as simple.

Still, I treasured those minutes spent with Isaiah more than almost anything else in the world. I never stopped to question who Isaiah actually was. But clearly he was no ordinary duck. Neither did I wonder why Isaiah talked to me. I sort of felt that everybody had an Isaiah of their own in one form or another, just nobody talked about it. Isaiah simply was part of my life from my earliest memories.

We had our first fight when I was in law school. I arrived with some biscotti and tossed it into the water. I deliberately kept from thinking about the real sin that worried me because I feared what Isaiah would say and I didn’t want to hear it. In fact, I was prepared to argue with him, to get him to see it my way. In the meantime, I thought about a couple of parking tickets I had received. He appeared, ate the biscotti, and immediately saw through me. “What are you hiding?” he demanded.

I had been accused of plagiarizing a paper in law school, stealing somebody else’s words and ideas and not giving the other person credit for it. Law school was all about plagiarizing, I argued as I told Isaiah what had happened. Professors asked you to cite this ruling and that ruling. What I did wasn’t really any different, I insisted. Isaiah didn’t buy it.

“You plagiarized that work. You can make any excuses you want, but it is stealing and that won’t change. You need to tell your professor, apologize, and promise God never to try that again,” he said.

I pleaded with him: “But you don’t understand. If I admit it, the school will officially reprimand me. It will go into my permanent record. It will probably mean that I won’t get a choice internship or a job at a top law firm. If someday I run for political office or try to get appointed as a judge, it could be held against me. This isn’t like pinching my little sister or talking back to my parents. This is serious.”

“Every sin is serious, and every sin has its just punishment. This sin is no different. God remembers them all. When you admit it, accept your punishment, and sincerely seek forgiveness, you will feel right. And, God will forgive you,” Isaiah insisted.

I wanted to do what Isaiah advised, but I was afraid. When we parted I still wasn’t sure what I would do when I got back to school. “Will I see you again?” I asked.

“Whenever you come, I will be here,” he said, but he sounded sad.

I tried to fight the plagiarism charges, but I really didn’t have a case. In the end, I was publicly rebuked as well as officially reprimanded. If I had followed Isaiah’s advice immediately, I would have been quietly reprimanded instead of being made into a public spectacle. It was awful, worse than it would have been if I had just listened to Isaiah.

I’m not sure when I stopped going to Tashlich by the river. Maybe after I met a wonderful woman, married her and we settled in a distant city to pursue careers and start our own family. I went to Tashlich there by a pretty pond. It had ducks and geese and swans but not Isaiah. People must have thought I was a little weird, a grown man trying to strike up conversations with ducks during Tashlich. Later, I brought my own children, but I didn’t find Isaiah. Maybe my children did and I never realized it. I hope they did.

Anyway, I missed Isaiah. I missed his assured guidance. Maybe he didn’t actually tell me anything I didn’t already know. He certainly told me things I didn’t want to hear, but when I heard it from him, it made so much sense.

Despite the plagiarism incident in law school, I became a very successful lawyer. I managed money for very rich people and steered them into very lucrative investments. They became richer and I became rich. I craved the success. I gave a lot of the money I made to tzedakah, to charity. People put me on important boards and committees and threw dinners in my honor. I loved it.

Then things fell apart. One year I hit a bad streak. Maybe I was stretching too far, but the result was a string of bad deals. A lot of people who trusted me lost a lot of money. I should have told them about it right away, but I was afraid. I was afraid of losing everything I had worked my whole life to build. Without the money and the success, I feared I would lose my home and the love of my wife and my children and my friends and the respect I had in the community.

So I started lying to people and cooking the books–altering the records so people wouldn’t know what happened to their money. I tried to fix things but everything I did just seemed to make it worse. And I found myself breaking laws, doing things I could go to jail for. I was desperately looking for the big win that would let me settle up with everyone and set everything straight before I got caught.

After a while, people started asking questions and more questions and still more questions. I didn’t have any good answers. Even my lies didn’t work any longer. The police started looking into my activities. In fear, I ran away.

I don’t remember exactly where I went, but as Rosh Hashanah came around I found myself in my hometown. It had been years since I was last there. Few people probably remembered me, but I certainly wasn’t going to go to services at my old synagogue where I might be recognized. Instead, I went to the river and stood on the rock on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

It was late in the afternoon when I got there; the people who came for Tashlich had long since gone. I was alone. On the way, I stopped at a donut shop and bought a bag of donuts–cinnamon, sugar, glazed, a whole assortment. They would have to do for bread.

It was a beautiful early fall day. The air was crisp, and the late, low afternoon sun was bright and clear. The riverbanks glowed in the low light and the water seemed to twinkle. The leaves had just begun to turn color creating a mix of green and yellow tinged with orange, and red. I would have marveled at the beauty if I hadn’t been so desperate and scared. I tossed the first piece of donut into the water, wondering if Isaiah was still around. More than wondering, I was praying and hoping beyond any reasonable hope that Isaiah would still be there after all this time and would come to me. God, I prayed, please let him still be there. I desperately needed to talk with Isaiah although I could pretty much guess what he would say. This time, however, I wasn’t going to argue with him.

I threw a second piece of donut. No Isaiah. I threw another and then another, but Isaiah didn’t appear. Then I dumped the whole bag of donuts into the water. Nothing happened. I couldn’t blame Isaiah; I had stopped listening to him and had stopped coming. I’ve been so stupid, so really stupid, I thought. Forgive me, Isaiah, I muttered in despair as I started to turn and walk away. Then suddenly I heard a familiar voice. “Hello, Mikey. It’s been a long time.”

Miracles

Have you ever seen a miracle, a real miracle that God performed? Rachel had always wondered where all the miracles went. Her teachers in Hebrew school would read the stories from the Torah that were filled with great miracles God had performed — things like splitting the Red Sea or providing manna to eat in the desert or the Ten Plagues that freed the Israelites from slavery. How come, she wondered, we don’t see miracles like that anymore?

This wasn’t just idle curiosity. Rachel had become very interested in this question of miracles ever since her baby brother, Michael, had been born a few weeks ago. She overheard some of her aunts and uncles talking at Michael’s bris. Her Uncle Phillip, who was a famous doctor at a big university, said, “it will be a miracle if this child survives.” The others seemed to agree. They told each other to pray to God for a miracle. Everyone seemed sad.

Rachel knew something was seriously wrong with Michael. His bris, the ritual circumcision all Jewish boys have when they are eight days old, had been delayed, which was a big deal, but the rabbi said it was okay since it was for medical reasons. Her dad had stopped traveling and was spending time at home, something he never did before. Her parents spent a lot of time taking Michael to appointments with doctors and talking with other doctors on the phone. Then there was a nurse who came to the house almost every day and all kinds of special equipment in Michael’s room. Her parents told her Michael was sick. They never said he would die, but it seemed to Rachel that he might. Michael didn’t look or act like a normal baby, not like the babies she’d seen at her friends’ houses when their brothers and sisters came home from the hospital after being born.

To make matters worse, Rachel had never really wanted a little brother or sister at all. Her dad was an important consultant and spent most of the time flying around the country going to meetings. He was usually home only on weekends and even then he often had to leave late on Sunday afternoon. He almost never was around for things at school. He even missed it when she sang a solo part in the fall school concert. Rachel loved doing things with her dad, but now, when he was home he was spending so much time with Michael.

Her mom also worked, at least just until Michael was born. Rachel loved her mom, but Rachel really only got to see her at breakfast, which was usually rushed, and at supper. Now that Michael had been born, her mom had stopped working and was home more, but she was taking care of Michael all the time, it seemed. And when she wasn’t, she seemed sad and tired
.
Rachel felt bad admitting it even to herself, but if it would take a miracle for Michael to survive, she wasn’t sure she wanted a miracle to happen. As she saw it, Michael had made a bad situation even worse. What she really wanted was to have her mom and dad with her more and not share them with Michael. She certainly wasn’t going to pray for a miracle.

But this issue of miracles troubled her. She asked her grandmother if she had ever seen a miracle. “When I was a little girl in Poland, the terrible Nazis came, but my parents hid me with a Christian family. The Nazis came looking for all Jewish children and searched the homes of Christians too. The family hid me in a special closet, but I heard the Nazis right outside the wall. They were breaking open everything. I prayed to God to protect me. Suddenly, they stopped just when I thought they would smash the wall that hid me. The Nazis didn’t find me. I consider that a miracle,” her grandmother said. Rachel wasn’t sure. It wasn’t like splitting the Red Sea and drowning Pharaoh’s soldiers.

Rachel asked her uncle who lived in Israel when he came to visit. “You want to know a miracle,” he replied. “Israel is a miracle. When I went to live on the kibbutz many years ago, it was just desert. Nothing grew there, not even weeds. Now we grow oranges and olives, lemons, grapes, and more beautiful flowers than you can imagine. We turned the desert back into the land of milk and honey that God promised to us. To me, that’s a miracle.” Rachel didn’t really consider that a miracle, not of God’s doing anyway. She had heard the stories about how hard her uncle and the others had worked.

At Hebrew school, Rachel asked the rabbi. “The great miracles of Torah happened because God wanted to show the Israelites and the whole world the power of the one God, the God who gave the Torah to the Jews. Today, the survival of the Jewish people — people like me and you and your family — are proof of the power of God, so we don’t need the big miracles any more. Now, we can be satisfied with little miracles like getting up every morning and seeing the sunrise or feeling the love of our families. Even your beautiful voice and your singing, Rachel, is a miracle, a gift of God that such beautiful sounds could come from such a precious child. You too are a miracle. These might not be spectacular like the big miracles in the Torah, but they are just as real,” he said. Rachel wasn’t so sure, although she did like it that the rabbi noticed her singing.

She asked her aunt about miracles. “Babies are a miracle of God. You were a wonderful miracle. Every baby is a miracle,” her aunt replied.

“What about Michael?” asked Rachel.

Her aunt hesitated, thinking about Michael. Finally, she said: “Michael is a miracle too. It’s just harder for us to see it.” Her aunt gave her a big hug. “I know this is hard for you. It is hard for everybody. All we can do is pray,” she added. Rachel certainly didn’t see any miracle in Michael. If anything, he was a disaster.

Michael struggled and continued to hang in there. He didn’t seem to get any better, but he didn’t get any worse either. Rachel watched closely to see any signs of a miracle.

In the meantime, she was busy practicing for the big Spring Concert in school, which was quickly coming up. Even the mayor comes to the Spring Concert. And Rachel had another important solo part. Her dad promised he’d be there for the Spring Concert without fail. Rachel was sure he would make it this time because he was home more, now that he had all those meetings with doctors.

A few days before the concert, her father announced that he had to start traveling again. He had work to do that he had put off because of Michael, but he couldn’t put it off any longer. Rachel exploded when she heard his announcement. “The Spring Concert is coming up in three days. You missed it last time. You promised!” she screamed. “How come you can stop traveling for Michael but you can’t for me? I hate you. I hate Michael. I hope he dies!” She stormed up to her bedroom, slammed the door, flopped down on the bed and cried.

Her mom and dad came into her room quietly a few minutes later. She expected them to be furious with her. She felt bad, selfish and terrible for thinking that Michael should die. “I’m sorry,” said her dad. “We’ve been so concerned about Michael and our own things that we have forgotten about you, haven’t we? Thank you for reminding me.”

Rachel’s mom stroked her hair. “We love you so much. We love Michael too, but I can guess what you’re feeling. I’m sorry we didn’t see it sooner,” her mom said softy.

Her father kneeled by the side of her bed. “I do know how you feel, I really do. I love Michael more than I ever believed I could, but you know, there were times in the past few weeks when even I wished that maybe Michael would be better off just dying and going to God,” her dad admitted.

Rachel was shocked to hear this. Poor Michael, she thought. She sat on her bed with her mom and dad for hours, it seemed. They talked quietly about Michael and her, about how he was such a strong fighter, about her mom and her dad and their work, about her singing, about the family. Rachel wished this time together would never end. She fell asleep in her mom’s arms.

At breakfast the next morning, Rachel’s dad announced that he was changing the way he would work starting that morning. He would be at Rachel’s concert. He was canceling almost all his travel. Her mother, who had been thinking about returning to work, said that she would not go back to work, maybe someday but not now. These changes, of course, would mean that the family would have less money, that they would take fewer vacations or buy fewer things, but they’d still be able to manage if they were careful. “The most important thing, I now realize, is that we are together, no matter what happens,” her dad said. “We have to be here for each other.”

The Spring Concert was a success. Rachel sang beautifully. Her mom and dad were in the audience. So were her aunts and uncles, and even her grandmother, who rarely went out anymore.

At home, Rachel spent more time with Michael. She and her dad would rock him. Her dad still worked a lot, but most of the time was sitting in his office at home, on the phone and at the computer. Sometimes he went out, but he was usually back for bedtime. Her mom was home a lot too. Rachel helped her mom feed Michael. Sometimes she would put her little finger in his hand and he would grasp it tightly. She would then jiggle her finger and, it seemed to her, that he smiled and laughed. “Hey, Michael’s playing with me,” she called. Her mom and dad laughed and kissed them both. They were all so much happier. That night, at bedtime, Rachel prayed for God to perform whatever miracle it would take to help Michael.

A few weeks later, as her dad tucked her in, Rachel told him of her prayers for Michael. “But I haven’t seen any miracles,” she said anxiously.

“I don’t know what miracles God has planned for Michael,” replied her dad. “But I do know one miracle that God already performed for us.”

“What miracle was that?” asked Rachel, puzzled. She couldn’t think of any miracles and she had been looking very hard.

“God taught me and your mom how precious the time we spend together is, loving each other as a family, being here for each other. Our time together is a wonderful gift from God. Just as splitting the Red Sea was a miracle that revealed the power of God, so Michael is a miracle that revealed to me the gift of my family, a gift I have received from God.”

Rachel, who had wondered what happened to all the miracles, suddenly realized how much better her life had become since Michael arrived, how much more time she and her parents and even Michael shared together. “Yes,” she whispered, “Michael is a miracle. Thank you, God.”

Chanukah Story

Until now, Shimon the pottery maker and his Jewish neighbors could always find a way to sneak around the decrees against Jews that came from the Syrian king. But this latest decree might be impossible to avoid. It forbade Jews to perform the ritual circumcision of newborn sons. Shimon’s wife, Sarah, was pregnant. They already had two beautiful daughters. This time Sarah was convinced she was carrying a boy. If it was, he would have to be circumcised. That was the Jewish way, since the time of Abraham. Shimon was determined: no Syrian king would stop him.

But what could he do? It was one thing to hide Torah study and prayer services, to light candles and celebrate holidays in secret. Shimon and his Jewish neighbors even went so far as to pretend to make sacrifices to the Greek and Syrian gods when ordered to just so they would not be punished. Then they prayed secretly to Adonai, the one God, for forgiveness. A baby, however, is something else. You can’t hide the fact your wife is pregnant, at least not for long. Sooner or later the baby has to come out of its mother. Then the Syrian soldiers, who were always snooping around, would find out. Worse yet, there were people in his small town, even among the Jews, who might tell on him. Shimon was worried.

“I see Sarah is expecting,” Ruben said to Shimon one morning as he walked into

Shimon’s pottery shop. “When is the baby due?”

“Not for a while,” replied Shimon evasively. He suspected Ruben was a spy for the Syrian soldiers. Ruben and his sons had quit being Jewish several years ago when the trouble first began.

Shimon lived in a small town in Israel, far from Jerusalem. It was the time of the second Temple, but Israel was now part of the Seleucid dynasty. The Seleucids were Greeks who lived in Syria. The different Seleucid kings were unpredictable in their behavior, sometimes nice and sometimes mean, particularly when it came to Jews. The current king, Antiochus IV, was the worst. He was determined to destroy the Temple and the Jews.

Natan the baker, a close, trusted friend of Shimon, came into the shop moments after Ruben. Finishing up quickly, Ruben said: “Well, make sure you let me know when the blessed event takes place. Zeus and the gods will be happy,” and he left.

“You have to watch out for him. He won’t hesitate to report you to the Syrians,” warned Natan.

“I know, I know,” Shimon agreed. He didn’t need to be warned. He was wracking his brains trying to come up with a way to hide the birth of his son, if indeed Adonai blessed him with a son. He had to get away, but where? No place was safe anymore.

For most of Shimon’s life it had seemed the rest of the world didn’t even know his village existed. A few people might go off to Jerusalem for a festival once in a while and return with news, but that didn’t happen very often. Mostly, the Jews in Shimon’s village lived the way their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had, going all the way back to Moses, who first set down how Jews should live.

Shimon had only left his village once, with his father, to celebrate Sukkot at the great Temple in Jerusalem. It was a long, long walk of many days. Someday he hoped to bring his own children to Jerusalem to celebrate one of the festivals …if there still was a Temple left in Jerusalem after the Syrians got done with it.

The best idea he and Natan could come up with was a vague plan to flee into the woods and marshes if the baby was a boy. They would try to join up with the Maccabees, a band of Jewish fighters who were battling the Syrians. But Shimon and his Jewish neighbors–bakers and farmers and tradesmen–were peaceful people. They didn’t know how to fight like soldiers. They didn’t even have any weapons to use against the Syrians, who had big swords and shields, helmets and armor and were trained in fighting.

“How would I even find the Maccabees? I don’t know how to survive in the woods and marshes. And, I’d have to bring Sarah and the children with me. Otherwise, the Syrians would kill them,” Shimon reasoned. “Still, it’s our only hope,” he concluded.

“Don’t be afraid. Adonai will help you if it comes to that,” said Natan. Shimon reluctantly agreed: he could only trust in God.

The people of the village had heard about the Maccabees. “The Maccabees,” a Syrian officer boasted during a meeting in the town square, “will never get here. They will be destroyed and forgotten in a matter of weeks.” Shimon prayed the officer was wrong.

As the birth of the baby approached over the next few months, Shimon looked for signs of the Maccabees. While everybody heard rumors of their victories, it all seemed to be happening far away. In his village, the Syrians appeared as strong as ever.

One night, Sarah gave birth to the baby, a boy. “Thank you, Adonai, for giving me a healthy child,” Shimon prayed. But the family’s joy was mixed with fear because in eight days, according to Jewish law, they would have to circumcise the baby. That would bring the anger of the Syrian soldiers upon them. For now, however, they would keep the birth of the baby a secret. Sarah was to remain inside the home, out of sight.

To keep up appearances, Shimon continued to go work. The day before the bris, the circumcision, Ruben stopped by the shop. “How’s Sarah doing? It must be about time. We haven’t seen her lately.”

“She’s been very tired. She’s staying in bed,” Shimon replied.

“Let us come over to help. With two little girls already in the house, I’m sure you can use some extra help,” offered Ruben.

“Thank you, but that’s not necessary. Everything is under control,” said Shimon.

The next morning, Shimon planned to do the bris as early as possible and then flee into the woods and marshes with his family. He hoped to bump into the Maccabees, but he had no idea where they might be. More likely, he realized, they’d bump into Syrian soldiers who would capture and punish them. But it was his only chance.

Shimon’s family and some trusted friends and their families joined together at Shimon’s house for the bris. Everybody was at great risk. Older children were posted as lookouts to warn if any Syrians approached.

Just as the mohel, a person specially trained in doing circumcisions, was performing the actual circumcision, one of the children ran in. “A Syrian is coming,” she whispered urgently. Natan quickly bolted the door, securing it as best he could.

Before the Jews could finish and flee, the Syrian officer, accompanied by Ruben, banged on the door. “We know you are there. We know what you are doing. Come out now or we’ll break down the door,” the officer demanded.

No one answered. Shimon and the mohel were finishing up as quickly as possible. The infant began to cry.

Ruben and the officer threw their full weight against the bolted door. Once. Twice. The door started to splinter under the blows. “Hurry!” cried Natan, trying to reinforce the door.

On the third try the door gave way. Ruben and the officer charged into the room. “Halt!” commanded the officer, pulling out his sword.

“They are performing a circumcision, just as I suspected,” shouted Ruben.

“The penalty for performing a circumcision is death,” declared the officer. He raised his sword to strike the baby, but before he could bring it down, Shimon grabbed a metal poker from the fireplace and swung it at the officer as hard as he could, hitting him on the head. The officer fell to the ground.

Ruben ran out of the house shouting for more Syrian soldiers. “We’re all in trouble now. We’ve got to flee,” Natan urged. Sarah wrapped the baby in blankets. They grabbed the few provisions they had packed and dashed out, quickly plunging into the woods and marshes.

It was slow going with the baby and the children. The marshes were wet and mucky. The woods were dense with prickly thickets that scratched them. The Jews expected Syrian soldiers to catch them at any moment. They all prayed to Adonai as they struggled forward, away from the village.

Once they heard a noise ahead. “Hide!” ordered Shimon, in a loud whisper. Everyone dove for cover. The noise was only an animal moving through the woods.

The Syrians still hadn’t caught up to the small band of Jews as twilight came. They were cold, wet, and hungry. They were torn and scratched from the thickets. Sarah was still weak from childbirth. They were poorly prepared to spend a cold night outside. They couldn’t even light a fire for warmth, fearing it would attract the Syrians.

Sarah passed around the little food she had packed. They said the blessings, wondering if they would live to see the next day. Again they heard noises in the woods–men’s voices. They knew it had to be soldiers.

“Take cover,” ordered Shimon. They crawled as best they could under thickets. The noises were growing louder, getting closer and closer. In the fading light, Shimon could see they carried swords and shields. It’s all over, he thought, and started praying.

One of the men passing nearby suddenly stumbled. Shimon’s girls screamed. In the growing darkness, the soldier had tripped over the girls hiding by a thicket. Shimon and Natan, grabbing heavy sticks and rocks, prepared to fight the Syrians to the end.

“Wait!” shouted the soldier. “We’re fighters of Judah Maccabee. We drove the Syrians from your village. The people sent us to find you.” Only then Shimon noticed the soldier’s shield glinting in the last remaining bit of daylight. Across it were Hebrew letters, the initials of the Hebrew words: Who is like You, O Lord, among the mighty [Mi Chamocha, Ba-ayleem Adonai]. The Hebrew letters spelled out Maccabee. Shimon knew they were safe and sang a prayer of thanks to God.

Shimon and Natan joined the Maccabees. They quickly learned to be soldiers and marched with Judah Maccabee to liberate and restore the holy Temple in Jerusalem. When they returned to their village, Shimon told his children and later his grandchildren over and over again of Judah Maccabee, their victory over the Syrians, the great Temple in Jerusalem, and the one-day’s worth of holy oil that lasted eight days. And for many years, he would bring them to Jerusalem in the month of Kislev to thank God and celebrate the great miracle that happened there.

Chanukah Presents

Imagine having all the toys and games you ever wanted. Your playroom would be like a toy store: filled with trucks and trains and airplanes and ships, Lego and K’nex, Gameboys and Nintendo, every Beanie Baby ever made, Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles and Barbies galore and huge amounts of Playmobil–any toy or game you could think of. David’s large bedroom was very much like that, stuffed with every toy a nine-year old boy might desire. When friends from school came to visit, they nearly went crazy. It was like living in a toy store. Every kid thought David was the luckiest kid in the whole world.
But David didn’t feel lucky. He didn’t quite know what he felt. Although surrounded by toys and games, he often was bored. “I don’t have anything to do,” he complained to Mrs. Carlson, the nanny who took care of him. Mrs. Carlson, an older woman, lived in David’s house and made meals for the family and took care of David. His parents were business consultants and spent most of their time traveling. They always brought him toys and games whenever they came home, which is why he had so many.

“You’ve got so much here. How about this?” Mrs. Carlson asked, taking a box off the shelf. “This looks like a fun arts and crafts project.” She was very nice and cared about him more than anyone else, David thought, but she wasn’t much fun when it came to playing. David liked it best when she told stories or when they just talked.

“Tell me about Chanukah,” suggested David. He had heard his best friend at school, Adam, talking excitedly about Chanukah, the celebration of the successful Maccabee revolt.

“You’ll have to ask your mother or father about that, I’m afraid. I don’t know much about Chanukah except it is a Jewish holiday that comes around Christmas and children get lots of presents and light pretty candles,” she explained.

David didn’t think his parents knew much about Chanukah either. They were Jewish and even belonged to a synagogue, but they never went and they never did anything Jewish. His friend Adam always did Jewish stuff that seemed to be fun, like wearing costumes and passing out treats and having celebrations and eating meals in a neat little shack Adam’s father built in the yard.

It was early December, and Chanukah was just a few weeks away. Adam and his family had organized a used toy collection for children in a homeless shelter. Kids brought in old toys — stuff they had outgrown — and put it in a big box. David brought a bunch of his toys. “Hey, this stuff is really neat. And it’s practically brand new. You really want to give these?” exclaimed Adam.

“Yeah, I have others like it, and I don’t play with it much anyway,” David explained. Although his friends loved coming to his house because of all the toys, David always had more fun when he went to other kid’s homes.

Adam’s dad brought all the toys to Adam’s house, where the family cleaned them. Adam invited David home one afternoon to help. Adam’s dad, who worked in the local high school, set up the boys cleaning the toys in the basement. Adam’s mom worked too, but his dad was home whenever high school was out. He always made himself available to play with Adam and his two sisters in the afternoons after school. When they were done cleaning the toys, they brought them to a neighbor’s garage where other toys already had been stored. The neighbor had a little workshop in the garage, but the place was mainly filled with toys for now. They would take them to a shelter on the last day of Chanukah, just in time for Christmas, which was the holiday most people in their community celebrated.

Back at Adam’s home, his dad talked about Chanukah, which was just a few days away. He told stories about God’s miracle of making the one day of oil for the lamp last eight days, of the brave Maccabees, and of lighting the menorah. They practiced spinning the dreidel, a top with Hebrew letters on it. One of Adam’s favorite games was tzedekah (charity) dreidel, in which kids tried to win piles of coins. To David, it all sounded great.

David’s mother arrived home on the afternoon of the first night of Chanukah. She had more than the usual number of presents. “It’s Chanukah. I’m so happy I could make it this year,” she said cheerily.

“Are we going to light candles in a menorah?” asked David.

“Oh. Not tonight, sweetheart. I’m not even sure where we put the menorah; it’s been so long since we used it. And, we certainly don’t have any candles for it. But we do have presents for everybody: you, Mrs. Carlson, even daddy,” she explained. David couldn’t hide his disappointment. “If you’d like a menorah, I’ll find it tomorrow and get some candles. We can light it when daddy comes home. He should be home in time for the last night. The menorah will be beautiful with all the candles lit.”

David’s mother was too busy to get the menorah the second night, but it didn’t matter; David had been invited to Adam’s house. Each child, including David, had a menorah to light. Adam and his sisters sang the blessings. Then everyone joined in singing Chanukah songs. David didn’t know the songs, but he danced around and around in a circle with them. They didn’t have much in the way of presents. Adam and his sisters got underwear and heavy winter socks — stuff they needed anyway. David was given some chocolate Chanukah coins. He passed them around. They were delicious.

Then they played tzedekah dreidel. Adam’s dad gave each child a small pile of coins: pennies, nickels, dimes. They would put coins in the middle of a circle and spin the dreidel. Depending on how it landed, each child would win or lose money. If they lost, they would add money to the pile in the middle of the circle. As the pile of coins grew, the children got more and more excited with each turn. “At the end of the game,” Adam’s dad announced, “you can keep half the money you have left, but you have to put the other half in the tzedekah box,” in which the family collected money they would give to charity. Afterward, Adam’s mom made potato latkes. They stuffed themselves with the delicious latkes. David had a great time.

The following nights of Chanukah were a disappointment. David’s mother had more presents but hadn’t managed to find the menorah or get candles. David wished he could go back to Adam’s house.

On the seventh night of Chanukah, the night before they were to deliver the toys, disaster struck. There was a fire in the neighbor’s garage. Nobody was hurt, but most of the toys were ruined. David heard about it from Adam at school the next morning. “We’re not going to have any toys to bring to the homeless children,” Adam said sadly. David felt terrible.

The fire had darkened everybody’s spirits, but Adam’s father refused to let it ruin Chanukah. He called that day, inviting David and his parents to celebrate the last night of Chanukah with them. “Robert will just be returning so I don’t think we can make it,” David heard his mom say. Robert was his father’s name.
When she hung up, David exploded. “I want to go to Adam’s house. You couldn’t even find a menorah. You didn’t buy any candles like you promised. They have menorahs. I’m going. Mrs. Carlson can take me,” David screamed, and ran to his room. Stunned by his outburst, his mother changed her mind, picked up the phone, and called Adam’s father to say they would love to come if they were still welcome.

David didn’t come out of his room the rest of the afternoon. Before they were to leave for Adam’s home, his mother came up to the room. She was shocked to see a huge pile of toys in the middle. “What’s going on?” she cried.

“We’re taking these over to Adam’s house. We’re going to replace the toys that were burned in the fire,” David declared.

“But those are your toys. We gave you those,” his mother stammered.

“I don’t need them. The homeless kids need them more,” David insisted.

“We don’t have room in the car for all these toys. You can’t be serious,” his mother argued.

David had thought a lot about his toys, even before the fire. He also thought about the children who didn’t have any toys. And, he knew that he had more fun and was happier at Adam’s house, where there were only a few toys. “Adam’s father has a van. He’ll help us,” David answered, and he picked up the phone to call.

Adam’s father came over and helped with the toys. David’s mother and even his father, who had only just arrived back home, joined in. They all drove over to the homeless shelter with the toys. The children there were overjoyed. “This is a miracle, a gift from God,” one of the mothers said, sobbing with joy. They treated David like a hero. David, who suddenly experienced the pleasure that comes from giving from your heart, liked the feeling.

Back at Adam’s house, the last night of Chanukah was dazzling. Four menorahs, one for Adam, one for each of his sisters, and one for David, burned with all eight candles and the shamash alight. Everybody sang and danced and played tzedekah dreidel. Even David’s parents got caught up in the celebration.

Later that night, at their own house, David and his parents stood in his bedroom, now nearly empty of toys. “So, what is the best part of Chanukah for you?” David’s father asked.

“I really love the candles and the story and the singing and dancing and tzedekah dreidel and everybody being together. I guess I love it all, especially being together,” David replied.

“Don’t forget the presents — eight nights of presents,” reminded his mother.

David paused for a moment, not sure how to answer. He knew his parents liked to give him presents. And after tonight, he understood how they must enjoy giving him presents the way he enjoyed giving presents to the children at the shelter.. “The presents are nice but they aren’t my favorite part. Still, I’m glad I had them to give to the homeless kids. They really loved them,” David said as carefully as he could. He didn’t want to hurt his parent’s feelings.

His father was silent, thoughtful. David was afraid he might be angry. “Well, maybe should try extra hard to be together more,” he said finally. David’s mother and father hugged him close.

“That would be the best present of all,” David said in a voice that was muffled in their embrace.

The Brightness of Candles

The wind howled and roared. Michael expected the palm trees to snap any moment as the wind drove the tops of the tall trees over until they nearly touched the ground. The rain slashed across the yard, more rain falling faster and harder than Michael had ever seen before. And to think that only a few hours ago, it was a bright, tropical day with just a threat of a few squalls. No one predicted anything like this. To the contrary, a storm like this, neighbors had once told him, would be quite unusual this late in the year.

Michael moved his family here six months ago, when he changed jobs. Until then, they had always lived in the north. There, at this time of year, the talk had been of cold and snow and whether the family would have a white Chanukah. The Chanukah candles always looked so warm and bright in the window against the snowy, cold landscape. Now, the menorah was unpacked, a new box of candles sat ready on the counter, and presents were wrapped and waiting in the closet as the family prepared to celebrate its first Chanukah in a place with palm trees and tropical heat.

Michael wasn’t sure he liked the change. He loved snowstorms, the bigger the better. Now, he found himself standing in shorts and a t-shirt in the middle of December watching his first severe tropical rainstorm. He had never experienced anything like this rain. Noah’s flood must have been like this, Michael thought as he watched the water pool up on his lawn.

The family loved its new home. The children could wear shorts and sandals all year long. No more heavy coats and winter boots. They loved swimming and boating. Every weekend, they would explore the nearby waterways.

The road outside the house was quickly turning into a waterway itself. Michael was getting nervous. He had taped the windows, as the weather forecasters advised last night when they predicted the possibility of a powerful squall line passing through. Michael hoped the big Xs he taped on the windows would be enough.

Michael’s wife Carol and their three children–Amy, a six-month old baby, Lisa, eight, and Steven, 12–were closely following both the radio and the television, waiting for weather advisories. They heard reports of power outages and bridge and road washouts. Suddenly, Steven rushed into the front room where Michael had been watching the storm through the window. “Dad, they’ve upgraded this storm. They’re warning everybody who lives near the river to evacuate right away!” Steven exclaimed. Lisa and Carol, holding the baby, rushed in behind him.

“We’re at least three miles from the river,” Michael replied, but he was concerned. A storm was a lot more serious than a squall line. He tried to think where the family might find a higher, safer place to go, but before he could organize his thoughts a loud crack sent them all rushing to the window. A tree had snapped in the high wind, and a piece was driven like a spear into their neighbor’s garage, smashing through the roof. The wind, catching the ragged edges of the roof, started ripping off pieces and blowing them way like paper.

“Oh no,” cried Carol. As the family watched, the wind quickly ripped the rest of the garage apart. The rain was washing away pieces of the garage and its contents. The street suddenly had become a surging river; the water was rising faster by the second. Michael quietly prayed: dear God, please keep my family safe.

Lisa started to cry. Steven looked afraid. “Will we be all right? Shouldn’t we go someplace?” he asked. Carol cuddled the baby.

“We can’t get through that road. I think we’re in more danger if we leave the house now. We’ll have to sit it out here and trust to God,” said Michael. He tried to sound confident. The lights began to flicker for a moment, and then the house went dark. The TV and radio became silent. He picked up the phone to call the police for instructions or advice or something, but the phone was dead.

The roar of the wind and rain grew louder and louder, almost deafening. By now, high winds were demolishing the neighbor’s house, not the just the garage. Michael also could see other neighbors’ homes being destroyed in the storm. From the window, he saw debris–furniture and broken pieces of houses–floating past his home.

“Water’s coming under the door!” cried Steven. Sure enough, the water was rising over the lawn. Then, a window shattered. Wind started roaring through the house.

Michael quickly herded everybody into the back room. There they kept the life jackets they used when they went boating. “Quick. Put these on right now,” he ordered, handing out the life jackets. With a little fumbling, everyone managed to get a life jacket on. Michael also found some rope. He grabbed it, intending to tie everybody together. Before he could get started, he heard an awful ripping sound.

“Aaaah!” screamed Carol. The wind suddenly ripped a portion of the roof off the house. Water and wind poured through the opening and tore at the rest of the house. Michael grabbed Amy in his arms. Carol tried to hold onto Steven and Lisa. The house seemed to be coming apart around them as the water rose.

Before Michael knew what was happening, he was desperately swimming in the yard or maybe the road, holding the baby. Carol was clinging to a large piece of floating roof, holding onto Lisa for dear life. Steven lost his grip and floated away in the swift current, swimming and bobbing in his orange life jacket. “Mom!” he screamed.

All Michael could think about was hanging onto the baby and keeping her head above water. Somehow, he struggled through the surging water to higher ground. Huddling against a piece of concrete wall, he cradled Amy close to him and prayed and prayed that his family would come through safely.

Carol managed to push Lisa onto the roof that had become their life raft. She pulled herself partially up onto it and hoped she could hold on long enough to be rescued. But she could feel herself slipping as the piece of roof was carried away by the wind-driven water. Then, it stopped with a lurch. Carol saw that it had hit a big snag of fallen trees and debris. She managed to pull herself up onto the roof. “Thank you God,” she muttered, as she and Lisa clung to each other, afraid to move. The wind began to die down, the rain stopped, but night was closing in fast. Carol and Lisa huddled together, scared and wet.

In the fading light, rescue workers found Michael and Amy huddled against the concrete. They brought them to a shelter in a school. Michael was torn between staying with Amy and going out to find his wife and children. “There’s nothing you can do for them tonight. Take care of your baby,” said a volunteer, handing him a dry blanket and a baby bottle.

All night Michael paced the hallway of the emergency shelter while holding Amy tightly in his arms. Morning brought bright sun and clear skies. The rescue crews set out early. Michael played with the baby outside the entrance. He raced to meet every new group of people brought in by the rescue workers. More people were arriving every few minutes. Michael watched desperately. Everyone looked the same, so wet and muddy. Twice he rushed up to someone thinking it was Carol or Lisa or Steven. “Sorry. I thought you were somebody else,” he mumbled each time.

Michael was feeding Amy a bottle when he heard his name. “Michael, Michael is that really you?” shouted Carol.

He spun around. “Daddy!” yelled Lisa as she ran and threw a great hug around him.

“Amy, my precious baby. Michael. You’re all safe. Thank you, God. Thank you. Thank you,” Carol sobbed.

The family hugged and kissed for a moment. Exhausted as she was, Carol was ready to jump for joy. Then she realized. “Where’s Steven?” she asked.

“Out there someplace,” said Michael glumly. The family’s joy and relief evaporated in an instant.

When Steven lost his grip on his mother, he was pulled into the torrent of water. He tried to grab onto things, but everything was wet and slippery or moving too fast in the rushing water. Steven was a strong swimmer and his life jacket made it easy to stay afloat. He tried not to panic. Finally, he grabbed onto a large piece of a tree floating by.

Eventually, the water slowed and Steven saw what looked like solid ground to his right. He pushed off the tree and swam toward it. His arms and legs ached when he finally reached the solid ground. By then it was getting dark. Steven crawled up the small hill. He had no idea where he was. Too exhausted to move any further, he curled himself into a ball and tried to sleep.

In the bright morning sun, Steven stood at the top of the small hill. The water had receded leaving what looked like a lake of mud. Sticking out of the mud were televisions, pieces of furniture, appliances, and other broken stuff, now just junk. Steven had no idea where he was, where to go, or how to get there. Hungry and homesick for his family, Steven sat on the top of the little hill, and that is where the rescue helicopter found him.

The reunion with his family back at the rescue center was joyful. They hugged and kissed and said prayers of thanks. That they were all alive was a miracle, Michael thought.

Michael was eager to get back to their home and inspect the damage, but they couldn’t leave the rescue shelter because bridges and roads for miles around were unsafe or completely washed away. So they waited. Most people at the shelter talked of being home by Christmas. The few Jews there tried to celebrate the start of Chanukah, but nobody even had a menorah. They sang a few Chanukah songs half-heartedly. The children quickly lost interest.

A week later people could leave the shelter. Michael and the family found half the roof had been torn off the house. Mud covered the floor. Things were strewn all over the yard. It hardly seemed like their home at all. They could inspect the house, but they couldn’t sleep there. They started picking through the pieces scattered about.

“Hey, here is the menorah and the box of candles,” Carol called out.

“The presents! Where are our presents?” Lisa demanded, suddenly remembering Chanukah.

“They’re gone, but Chanukah must be over anyway,” snapped Steven.

They were still culling through the debris as darkness fell. Carol called the family into the kitchen. She had cleaned the menorah and filled it with candles. “Tonight is the last night of Chanukah,” she said. They sang the blessings and took turns lighting each candle until all eight were lit. The glow of the brightly burning candles brought the warmth of their loving home to the wet, muddy scene around them.

“There are no presents,” said Lisa sadly.

Carol and Michael gathered up their children in their arms. “God gave me the greatest present I could ever want–all of you, alive and safe. It is the only Chanukah present I’ll ever ask for,” Carol replied.

“You know, this makes me think of the Maccabees so long ago,” Michael said quietly. “They arrived at the Temple in Jerusalem only to find that the Syrians had made it into a mess worse than this. But they found their Ner Tamid–the eternal light–and a little bit of oil and lit it just like we lit our menorah.” The family, gazing at the candles, thought about Chanukah and all the miracles God had performed, then and now. The brightness of the candles, it seemed, could light up the world.

Purim Surprise

Joey and his little sister Ilana wanted to be happy. Purim is supposed to be a joyous holiday. In fact, the rabbis point to only two things people must do on Purim, read the Megillah, which tells the story of Esther, and be happy. The commandment to be happy on Purim is so important that the rabbis even encourage the adults to drink lots of wine and liquor. Then, throw in dressing up in costumes, a story about how the Jews triumphed over their oppressors, and goodie bags of special treats—candy, nuts, fruits, and sweets of all sorts—called mishloach manot, and you almost have to be happy. You just can’t avoid it.

But Joey and Ilana were very sad in the weeks leading up to Purim. Their grandmother, whom they called Bubbie, died a few months before. It was Bubbie who brought most of the joy to their celebrations of Jewish holidays. She made wonderful foods and brought presents and sang songs and played games with the children and told stories of life when she was a girl growing up in the old country, a place she said was now called Poland. She made it all seem so magical.

Bubbie was very old, and she had gotten sick and died a few months before. They missed her so much on Chanukah. They still received presents from her—Mom said Bubbie had bought them before she got sick and died—but she wasn’t here to cook latkes or play dreidel or sing songs or tell stories like she always did. Mom tried, but it wasn’t the same. She was sad too. And their dad was far away. He is all right, but he and Mom divorced when Joey was very little and Ilana was a baby. He calls sometimes and sends letters, but they only really see him during the summer.

Now Purim was coming, and Joey and Ilana couldn’t get excited about the holiday at all. They even had roles in the synagogue’s Purim skit; he was going to play one of the king’s guards and Ilana would be a handmaiden to Queen Esther. And they were supposed to perform the skit in front of a real audience at a nursing home the week before Purim. Still they were sad. They didn’t even bother with their costumes. Mom wasn’t putting together the goodie bags of treats, mishloach manot, that they always gave out to other families. Instead, she just sorted through Bubbie’s things trying to figure out what they would keep and what she would give away. Their house was small and they didn’t have much extra room.

“Are we going to do Purim this year?” asked Joey.

“Yeah,” added Ilana, “Bubbie always brought us a Purim surprise.”

Mom didn’t know what to say. She felt sad too. Ever since she was a little girl she had loved Purim. Sometimes she dressed as Queen Esther. When she was older, she dressed as Vashti, the queen Esther replaced. Her mother, Bubbie, was always eager to help the children celebrate the holiday. But with her mother gone, Mom didn’t feel like celebrating. She knew she should help her children enjoy the holiday, which only made her feel worse. Next year, she promised herself, we’ll do it big next year.

In an apartment building on the other side of town, Estelle also was sad as Purim approached. She was an old woman who lived alone; her husband died many years before. Her apartment was bright and small and crammed with all kinds of plants and old-fashioned furniture. She was sad because her daughter and son-in-law and their three grandchildren, two girls and a boy, had moved far away. The son-in-law had been out of work for a long time and finally found a good job. She knew her daughter’s family desperately needed the money the new job would bring in, but she was still sad they had to move away. They promised to visit but that wouldn’t happen for months.

Usually, Estelle would bake wonderful cookies and treats for the grandchildren every holiday. And she always kept little packages of candy with her, which she gave to the grandchildren, although her daughter would gently scold her and complain that the sweets would ruin their teeth. To be honest, Estelle enjoyed the sweets herself, too, which is why even now she still keeps some in her pocketbook although her grandchildren have moved away. She also had a huge box of wonderful old clothes the grandchildren could wear for playing dress up or as Purim costumes. But without the grandchildren around, she wasn’t even thinking about Purim.

One day she was standing in her kitchen holding a pot when she fainted. Without any warning, Estelle suddenly just fell to the floor. She must have blacked out. When she finally came to she didn’t even remember what happened. One moment she was looking at a pot and suddenly feeling a little funny and now this. She was lying on the kitchen floor and felt so weak she could barely move. She tried to move her legs and get up but tremendous pains shot through her.

Unable to move even to call for help, Estelle was afraid no one would find her or they would find her only when it was too late. Although she couldn’t move, she had to do something. Luckily the pot she had been holding was lying right next to her. It took all her strength to grab hold of the pot and bang it on the floor. She hoped the neighbors who lived underneath her, a nice young couple, would hear the banging and come see what was wrong. She banged and banged the pot, but she didn’t have the strength to keep it up for very long. Then she heard the phone ring, but there was no way she could get to it. Once the phone stopped, she banged the pot a few more times, as much as she had strength for. It’s hopeless, she thought, and she blacked out from the pain in her leg.

She didn’t know how long she lay on the floor when the young couple and the janitor finally found her. “When we heard the banging and you didn’t answer your phone, we went to get the janitor,” explained the young woman as Estelle was put on a stretcher and taken away in an ambulance. At the least, the emergency medical technician said, her hip was probably broken from the fall, maybe her pelvis too. “Don’t worry. I know you’re going to be all right. We’ll water the plants and take care of the apartment until you get back. And call us if there is anything you need,” the neighbor added.

Estelle wouldn’t return to live in the little apartment for a long time. She had broken some bones, the doctor said, and it would take weeks for her to heal. She would have to be in a wheelchair. From the hospital, they moved her to a nursing home, where she shared a small room with another old woman. The doctor didn’t think Estelle should live by herself until she could walk and climb stairs and move easily. Her old bones would need a long time to heal.

News that the children from the synagogue were coming to the nursing home to put on a Purim skit spread quickly. The old people living at the nursing home were very excited. Many of the people didn’t get visitors. And even when visitors came, they usually were grownups, not children. But the old people at the nursing home really loved seeing the children. Their smiles and their laughter and their voices made the people in the nursing home happy. The nursing home itself was a dull, drab place with walls painted tan and light blue, gray linoleum floors, and overhead fluorescent lights that hummed and flickered and cast a greenish light, making everyone look worse than they really were. Someone hung pictures of flowers on many of the walls, but even the pictures didn’t make it very cheerful.

The nursing home put up flyers announcing the Purim skit. Estelle had heard the news and now saw the flyers, but she had an appointment with her doctor that afternoon. They would put her in a wheelchair and someone at the nursing home would drive her to her doctor and bring her back. She would probably miss the skit, but the doctor’s appointment was much more important. Well, she hadn’t been looking forward to Purim anyway, she thought, so it didn’t matter that much.

On the day of the Purim skit, the children streamed into the nursing home like a flood of sunlight and lit up the place. The skit was held in a big common room filled with chairs. The old people who lived there and many of the parents of the children, including Joey and Ilana’s mom, crowded into the room. The children were nervous and giggling and laughing and fooling around. Only Joey and Ilana were quiet. They looked around at all the old people and got scared. Ilana actually hoped they might see Bubbie here. “Maybe she isn’t really dead. Maybe she’s just sick and living in a place like this,” Ilana suggested.

But these old people were nothing like Bubbie as they remembered her. Many of them were in wheelchairs. Others could barely walk. Some could hardly sit up or stay awake or even talk. “Forget it. Bubbie isn’t here. She was never like this,” Joey replied.

All the children changed into their costumes. Joey put on a funny robe, and Ilana got to wear a fancy party dress. First, the cantor from their synagogue led the children in some songs they had practiced. Then they put on their skit. They pantomimed parts of the Esther story while the rabbi narrated it. The handmaidens, including Ilana, were beautiful. So was Esther who, along with Mordechai, was very brave and stood up to the mean Haman. The king was foolish and silly and made loud noises. Haman stomped around acting mean and nasty. Finally, everyone cheered when Joey and the rest of the king’s guards carried Haman away. The people in the nursing home loved it.

After the skit, the nursing home staff served milk and hammentashen, triangle-shaped cookies filled with jelly and chocolate and other sweet things. Most of the old people weren’t very interested in the food. They just wanted be near the children, a few reaching out bony, bent hands to gently touch them. “This is kind of creepy,” Joey said to Ilana. As the children were preparing to leave, Estelle was being wheeled back into the nursing home from her doctor’s appointment. Joey and Ilana passed her in the lobby on their way out but didn’t notice her, just another old lady in a wheelchair. They saw a lot of them here. Estelle noticed the children and felt sad she missed the skit.

The actual Purim Megillah reading would take place the next week at the synagogue. Purim really is a big party. The children parade in costumes and shake their noisemakers every time the name of Haman is mentioned. The rabbi and the cantor wear funny costumes and hats, blow horns, and ring bells. The grownups slip off to the back room where they drink liquor. People pass around mishloach manot and everybody eats hammentashen. Joey liked hammentashen filled with raspberry jelly; Ilana loved chocolate ones.

Mom and the children always went to the synagogue with Bubbie, who usually brought them special noisemakers called graggers. She would bring a different kind every year. Joey and Ilana would shake or clang their gragger every time Haman was mentioned. This year, Bubbie wouldn’t be there and Mom wasn’t doing anything about Purim.

“Are we going to do anything for Purim?” Joey asked

“What do you feel like doing?” Mom asked.

“I dunno. Something,” he said

“We’ll go to synagogue for the Megillah reading and you can wear the same costumes you wore in the skit,” Mom said sadly.

During that week before Purim, Joey noticed Mom packing up boxes of Bubbie’s books. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“I saw they had a library at the nursing home when I went to watch your skit. I thought I would give these books to them. We don’t have room for them here, and I think the people there will appreciate them. You and Ilana can help me bring them over,” Mom said.

“I don’t want to go back there. It was kind of weird. Those people are nothing like Bubbie. I want Purim the way it used to be,” Joey said.

“I know they aren’t like Bubbie. We won’t stay long. We’re just bringing the books there and then we’ll leave. And we’ll have Purim, a special Purim, I promise,” she said, although she didn’t know how or what.

“What kind of special Purim?” Joey insisted.

“I’m not sure. It will be a surprise,” Mom replied, trying to sound confident.

“Surprise! I love surprises,” chimed in Ilana, who had been playing nearby.

A few days later Joey and Mom carried the books into the nursing home. Ilana mainly held the doors open. The woman in the library was expecting them and greeted them warmly. Estelle also happened to be sitting in her wheelchair in the library reading a book. She looked up and beamed as she saw Joey and Ilana. “What a big, strong boy you are to carry all those books,” she said to Joey. “And what a big help you are to hold the door,” she said to Ilana.

Joey put his box of books on the floor near Estelle. The people in the nursing home still gave him the creeps, but this woman seemed almost normal, except for the wheelchair. “What do you have there?” she asked Joey.

“These are my Bubbie’s books. She died,” he said.

“I’m sorry to hear about your Bubbie. I bet you must miss her. We’ll take very good care of her books,” said Estelle. “Are you hungry after all this work? If it is all right with your mother, I just happen to have some little treats with me,” she said, taking a small package of candy from a little pocketbook. “And I have one for your sister.”

Mom glanced at the woman and nodded her permission to take the candy. Joey and Ilana thanked Estelle and opened the treats. Meanwhile, Mom and the lady in charge of the library started to take the books out of the boxes and stack them on the table. Estelle noticed one. “Could I see that book, please?” she asked Joey.

He went to get the book. It turned out to be a book with pictures of Poland, the old country. Bubbie used to show him the pictures and tell him and Ilana stories. “This was my Bubbie’s favorite book. She would read it to us all the time,” Joey told her.

“Read it to you? This is a very grown up book. You must be very smart,” said Estelle kindly.

“Well, she showed us the pictures. She lived there once. She told us lots of stories of living there,” Joey said.

Estelle looked through the book. “You know, I lived here too. It was very long ago. See this picture. This is the city near the village where I lived. My parents had a farm with a cow and some chickens. Would you like me to tell you about it?” she asked.

Mom watched as Joey and Ilana huddled around Estelle’s wheelchair and she told stories about growing up as a Jew in the Polish countryside. She was the same generation as her own mother, a natural-born Bubbie if there ever was one. Could they bring some joy into this woman’s Purim, Mom wondered. Maybe Estelle could make this Purim special for her children too? Wasn’t that what Purim was all about—joy, she decided. They all needed some joy this Purim. By the time Mom and the children left, they had invited Estelle to join them at the synagogue for the Megillah reading. “We’ll pick you up, wheelchair and all, and bring you back. But I have to warn you, it will be noisy.”

“I love Purim and the noise and tumult of children. I won’t mind,” Estelle replied.

When they picked up Estelle at the nursing home a few days later, she held a large paper shopping bag. “What’s that?” asked Ilana, sensing maybe something for her, a surprise.

“Something special from my apartment. You’ll see,” teased Estelle. Instead of the costumes from the skit, Joey and Ilana wore dress ups as Purim costumes, which Mom had hurriedly pulled together in the past few days. They also carried graggers Mom had dug up from a previous year. Estelle opened the shopping bag and started pulling out clothes for dress up. “I asked my neighbor to bring these over. I thought they might be good for Purim,” she said.

Estelle put on a funny hat piled high with fake flowers and fruit. She handed long white gloves and a feathery boa to Ilana. The gloves almost reached Ilana’s shoulders, the boa trailed on the floor. For Joey she had several old fedora-styled hats and some vests. Joey put on one of the hats. “Oh, you look like an old-time gangster, like Al Capone,” Estelle crowed. They helped Estelle into the car and folded her wheelchair and put it in the trunk.

The synagogue was crowded with children in costumes and adults, some of whom also wore costumes. Everyone who didn’t already have one was given a gragger. The rabbi and cantor, each in costume, were about to begin reading the Megillah. Joey and Ilana rushed in to join their friends. Mom stayed with Estelle by her wheelchair and introduced her to everybody around them. The tumult of happy children swirled throughout the large room. And the noise was deafening, especially whenever the name of Haman was mentioned.

Surrounded by all the hubbub, Estelle turned to Mom: “This is such a treat. Thank you for bringing me. I didn’t expect to celebrate Purim this year. I missed the children’s skit of the nursing home. This is such a delightful surprise.”

“It really is a treat for us too. Thank you for joining us,” said Mom. Holding Ilana by the hand, she caught Joey as he flew by at one point. “Hey, how’s it going?” she asked giving him a hug and a kiss.

“It’s nice, but I still wish Bubbie was here,” Joey said.

“Me too,” Ilana added

“Yes, I know. We’ll always wish Bubbie were with us. But think about this: we’ve made a new friend. Wasn’t that a nice surprise? Let’s think of her as our Purim surprise,” said Mom, who gestured toward Estelle. Just then, the name of Haman was mentioned. Estelle smiled at them and started to madly swing her gragger, as did Joey and Ilana and everyone else.

When the din finally subsided, Joey replied, “Yeah, she’s nice. I like her. Purim is fun.”