Can you guess, children, which is the best of all holidays?
Khanukah, of course.
You don't go to kheyder for eight days in a row, you eat latkes every day, spin your dreydl to your heart's content, and from all sides Khanukah money comes pouring in. What holiday could be better than that?
Winter. Outside it's cold, a bitter frost. The windows are frozen over, decorated with beautiful designs, the sills piled high with snow. Inside the house it's warm and cheerful. The silver Khanukah lamp stands ready on the table, and my father is walking back and forth, his hands behind his back, saying the evening prayers. When he is almost through, but while still praying, he takes out of the chest a waxen candle (the shammes, to light the others with) and starting Oleynu, the last prayer in the regular services, signals to us:
“‘Shehu noyte shomayim …' Nu! Nu-o!”
My brother, Motl, and I don't know what he means. We ask,
“What do you want? A match?”
My father points with his hand toward the kitchen door, “‘Al-keyn nekave lekho …' E-o-nu!”
“What then? A bread knife? Scissors? The mortar and pestle?”
My father shakes his head. He makes a face at us, comes to the end of the prayer, and then, able to speak again, says, “Your mother! Call your mother! I'm ready to light the candle!”
The two us, my brother Motl and I, leap for the kitchen, almost falling over each other in our haste.
“Mother! Quick! The Khanukah candles!”
“Oh, my goodness! Khanukah lights!” cries my mother, leaving her work in the kitchen (rendering goose fat, mixing batter for latkes) and hurries into the parlor with us. And after her comes Brayne the cook, a swarthy woman with a round plump face and mustache, her hands always smeared with grease. My mother stands at one side of the room with a pious look on her face, and Brayne the cook remains at the door, wipes her hand on her dirty apron, draws her greasy hand over her face, and leaves a black smear across her face.
My father goes up to the lamp with his lighted candle, bends down and sings in a familiar tune, “Blessed art thou, O Lord … ” and ends “ … to kindle the lights of Khanukah.”
My mother, in her most pious voice, chimes in, “Blessed be He and blessed be His name.” And later, “Amen.” Brayne nods her approval and makes such queer faces that Motl and I are afraid to look at each other.
“These lights we kindle,” my father continues, marching up and down the room with an eye on the Khanukah lamp. He keeps up this chant until we grow impatient and wish that he would reach his hand into his pocket and take out his wallet. We wink at each other, nudge and push each other.
“Motl,” I say, go and ask him for Khanukah money.”
“Why should I ask?”
“Because you're younger. That's why.”
“That's why I shouldn't. You go. You're older.”
My father is well aware of what we are talking about, but he pretends not to hear. Quietly, without haste, he walks over to the cupboard and begins to count out some money. A cold shiver runs down our backs, our hands shake, our hearts pound. We look up at the ceiling, scratch our earlocks, try to act as if this meant nothing at all to us.
My father coughs.
“Hm … Children, come here.”
“Huh? What is it?”
“Here is Khanukah money for you.”
The money in our pockets, we move off, Motl and I, at first slowly, politely, then faster and faster with a skip and a hop. And before we have reached our room we lose all restraint and turn three somersaults one after the other. Then hopping on one foot we sing:
And in our great joy and exuberance we slap our own cheeks twice, so hard that they tingle. The door opens and in walks Uncle Benny.
“Come here, you rascals. I owe you some Khanukah money.”
Uncle Benny puts his hand into his vest pocket, takes out two silver gulden and gives us each one.
Nobody in the world would ever guess that our father and Uncle Benny are brothers. My father is tall and thin; my uncle is short and fat. My father is dark, my uncle is fair. My father is gloomy and silent, my uncle jolly and talkative. As different as day and night, summer and winter. And yet they are blood brothers.
My father takes a large sheet of paper ruled off in squares, black and white, and asks us to bring him a handful of dry beans from the kitchen, dark ones and white ones. They are going to play checkers.
Mother is in the kitchen rendering goose fat and frying latkes. My brother Motl and I are spinning our dreydl. My father and Uncle Benny sit down and play checkers.
“One thing I'll have to ask you,” my father says. “No regrets, no take-backs. That means: Once you've made a move, it's a move.”
“A move is a move,” my uncle agrees, and makes a move.
“A move is a move,” repeats my father, and jumps my uncle's bean.
“That's right,” says Uncle Benny, “a move is a move,” and jumps twice.
The longer they play the more absorbed they become. They chew their beards, beat time under the table with their feet, and together they hum the same song:
“Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do? What shall I do?” sings my father, chewing the tip of his beard. “If I move here,” he chants, as one does over the Gemara, then he'll move there. Maybe I'd better move … over here.”
“Over here … over here,” echoes Uncle Benny in the same tone.
“Why should I worry?” my father hums again. “If he should take this one then I'll take those two. On the other hand, maybe he thinks he can take three …”
“Take three … take three … take three …” Uncle Benny helps him out.
“Ah, you're no good, Benny. You're no good at all,” sings my father and makes a move.
“You're worse than no good, my brother,” sings Uncle Benny, and pushes a bean forward, then snatches it back.
“You can't do that, Benny!” my father cries. “You said that a move is a move!” And he catches Uncle Benny's hand.
“No!” Uncle Benny insists. “If I haven't finished I can still move.”
“No!” my father declares just as emphatically. We decided on that before we started. No regrets, no take-backs!”
“No regrets?” asks Uncle Benny. “How many times did you take back?”
“I” says my father indignantly. “See! That's why I hate to play with you, Benny!”
At this point my mother comes in from the kitchen, her face flaming from the heat.
“Already? Fighting already?” she asks. “Over a few beans?”
Behind her comes Brayne with a large platter of steaming latkes. We all move toward the table. My brother Motl and I, who only a moment ago had been fighting like cat and dog, make up quickly, become friends again, and go after the latkes with the greatest gusto.
In bed that night I lie awake and think: How much would I be worth if all my uncles and aunts and other relatives give me Khanukah money? First of all there is Uncle Moyshe-Aaron, my mother's brother, stingy but rich. Then Uncle Itsy and Aunt Dvoyre, with whom my father and mother have not been on speaking terms for years and years. Then Uncle Beynish and Aunt Yente. And how about our sister Ida and her husband Sholom-Zeydl? And all the other relatives?
“Motl, are you asleep?”
“Yes. What do you want?”
“How much Khanukah money do you think Uncle Moyshe-Aaron will give us?”
“How should I know? I'm not a prophet.”
A minute later: “Motl, are you sleeping?”
“Yes. What now?”
“Do you think anyone else in the whole world has as many uncles and aunts as we have?”
“Maybe yes … and maybe no.”
Two minutes later: Motl, are you asleep? “
“If you're asleep how can you talk to me?”
“You keep bothering me so I have to answer.”
Three minutes later: “Motl, are you awake?”
This time he answers with a snore. I sit up in bed, take out my father's present, smooth it out, examine it. A whole ruble.
“Think of it,” I say to myself. A piece of paper, and what can't you buy with it! Toys, knives, canes, purses, nuts and candy, raisins, figs. Everything. “
I hide the ruble under my pillow and say my prayers. A little later Brayne comes in from the kitchen with a platter full of rubles … She isn't walking, she's floating in the air chanting, “These lights we kindle …” And Motl begins to swallow rubles as if they were latkes.
“Motl! I scream with all my might. ” God help you, Motl! What are you doing? Eating money?”
I sit up with a start … spit three times. It was a dream.
And I fall asleep again.