Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights. It commemorates an ancient Jewish
rebellion against oppression, during which the Temple in Jerusalem
was miraculously recaptured from pagan hellenizers and rededicated
to the worship of God. The candles of Hanukkah celebrate that rededication.
They also help brighten the long winter nights.
But I remember a Hanukkah when darkness almost overpowered the light.
It was the first week of November 1938. The final years of the Depression
lay like a polluting mist across the streets of New York. On afternoons
when it did not rain, I would play on the sidewalk in front of the
plate-glass window of the candy store near our apartment house. The
bubble of darkness on the other side of the world bumped only vaguely
against my consciousness. I was very young then, interested more in
Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers than Adolf Hitler.
One afternoon I was near the candy store, in the cardboard box that
was my rocket ship, when an elderly couple walked slowly by; I caught
some of their frightened words. Before supper that evening I saw my
mother standing over the kitchen sink, her head bowed and heard her
whispering agitatedly to herself. Later, my father came home from
work, drenched in weariness; he turned on the radio and became wearier
That night I lay awake in my bed and saw the pieces of the day come
together and form a portrait of terror.
A Jewish boy had shot a German, the old people had said. We will pay
dearly for it, very dearly.
The boy had been sent by his parents to live with his uncle in Paris,
my father had murmured. Then his parents were deported to Poland.
The boy went out of his mind, my mother had said in a voice full of
fear. He did not know what he was doing.
wanted to kill the German ambassador, my father had said. He wanted
the world to know about the suffering of Germany's Jews. Inside the
embassy, he made a mistake and shot and wounded a subordinate instead.
He was out of his head with grief, my mother had said. He could not
have known what he was doing.
I lay very still in my bed, thinking of the boy who had shot the German
and wondering what the Germans would do to the Jews. Two days later
the subordinate died.
In the weeks that followed I dreamed about the synagogues that were
burning all over Germany, about the Jews who were being sent to concentration
camps, about the looted stores and smashed shop-windows. One day I
stood in front of our apartment house and imagined our street littered
with glass, shattered glass everywhere, the plate-glass window of
the candy store splattered across the sidewalk, the store itself burned
and gutted. I imagined the entire block, the neighborhood, the city
heaped with broken glass and thick with the stench of fire. The days
of that November and December began to go dark, until it seemed all
the world would soon be shades of darkness: dark sun and dark moon,
dark sky and dark earth, dark night and dark day. I was a child then,
but I still remember that darkness as a malevolence I could touch
and smell, an evil growth draining my world of its light.
world seemed thick with that darkness when Hanukkah came that year
on the twenty-fifth of December.
I remember my father chanting the blessings over the first candle
on the first night of the festival. He was short and balding; and
he chanted in a thin, intense voice. I stood between him and my mother,
gazing at the flame of the first night's candle. The flame seemed
pitiful against the malignant darkness outside our window. I went
to bed and was cold with dread over the horror of the world.
next night two candles were lighted. Again my father chanted the blessing
before the lighting and the prayer that follows, when the candles
are burning: "We kindle these lights on account of the miracles,
the deliverances, and the wonders
which You did for our fathers.... During eight days of Hanukkah these
lights are sacred.... We are only to look at them, in order that we
may give thanks unto Your name for Your miracles, Your deliverances
and Your wonders."
I wanted a miracle. But there were no miracles during that Hanukkah.
Where was God? I kept dreaming of burning synagogues.
On the eighth and final night of the festival I stood with my parents
in front of the burning candles. The darkness mocked their light.
I could see my parents glancing at me. My mother sighed. Then my father
murmured my name.
"You want another miracle?" he asked wearily.
I did not respond.
"Yes," he said. "You want another miracle." He
was silent a moment. Then he said, in a gentle, urging voice, "I
also want another miracle. But if it does not come, we will make a
human miracle. We will give the world the special gifts of our Jewishness.
We will not let the world burn out our souls."
The candles glowed feebly against the dark window.
"Sometimes I think man is a greater miracle-maker than God,"
my father said tiredly, looking at the candles. "God does not
have to live day after day on this broken planet. Perhaps you will
learn to make your own miracles. I will try to teach you how to make
I lay awake a long time that night and did not believe my father could
ever teach me that. But now, decades later, I think he taught me well.
And I am trying hard to teach it to my own children.
story first appeared in McCalls's 100, no. 3 (December 1972).
Reprinted in The Hanukkah Anthology. Copyright © 1992 Jewish
Publication Society (Philadelphia). Reprinted by permission of Chaim