Attitude of gratitude
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Attitude of gratitude

Light in the darkness

Writer, teacher, and Yiddishist Curt Leviant’s new novel, “King of Yiddish,” will be published this month.

Harry Samson took the Chanukah lamp out of the cabinet and stood resolutely in the middle of the living-room.

“Tonight I’m going to light the candles by the front window,” he announced to his wife.

He watched his wife’s eyes move away from her book and up to his face. “You’ve always lit them in the kitchen,” she said.

“Not always. You remember in New York….”

“These past four years have not been New York.”

Harry paced the living-room floor. “For once I don’t want to hide it. So this is a hick town in the South. So what! The lights are supposed to be seen for many reasons. As a reminder to a passing stranger. For everyone to see how the Maccabeans overcame Syrian-Greek tyranny more than two thousand years ago.”

His wife, Vera, understood. Still, she said, “But we’re the only Jews here. Who will you inspire?”

Harry curled his fingers around the lamp. “No more hiding. This is a holiday of lights. A light in the darkness is no light at all.”

They looked at each other in silence, absorbing the words and feeling the loneliness of four years of isolation. In the small town in Georgia, even the people’s names were so Anglo-Saxon that you couldn’t even have the pleasure of conjecture – maybe … maybe he’s a Jew. Scattered in the nearby towns were a few Jewish families, but not nearly enough to shape a community.

So the Samson home became synagogue and house of study combined. But a house of meeting it never could be. On the horizon stood the day when Harry and Vera would be able to leave town, when Harry would have a teaching job in the big city. There they wouldn’t be island-dwellers. There they would participate once more in communal life. Still, Harry persuaded himself that the gifts of the spirit were everywhere.

Their neighbors were silent, distant people. Like Fire Chief Brown across the street, estranged not only from the Samsons but from his other neighbors as well. A silent, brooding man, looking as if some kind of guilt rode perpetually on his shoulders. Never close to anyone, he just did his job. Harry’s other neighbors too were polite but distant friends. And so the Samsons’ companionship was centered around the faculty of his school, from whom they sustained their social and intellectual nourishment.

“¢

It was the first night of Chanukah. As on each holiday, their aloneness was accentuated by the starkness of no one sharing their joy. Harry carried the candleholder and placed it on the window sill facing the street. He put the first candle into position and lit it with the shammash candle. He sang the blessings sweetly, looking at his wife. Her eyes were focused on the flame, as if seeking out its mystery.

Harry’s hand shook as he passed the flame to the candle. He waited anxiously for the next day.

Business on the street as usual. He taught his classes in basic chemistry; his wife ran their little arts and crafts shop; the world remained a tiny norm. That evening Harry Samson lit the second candle. Still the quiver of the flame reflected in his mind. Soon someone would inquire. He was impatient for someone to ask – “Why?”

The next day a question was asked.

Fire Chief Brown stopped him on the street, saying, “Excuse me, Mr. Samson, but, uh . . . can you tell me where you buy those little candles? The ones . . . you were burning in your window last night.”

Harry expected him to ask, “Why?” Instead he asked “Where?” But Harry was ready with an answer.

“You can’t get them here.” Harry forced a laugh. “You get them ten miles out in the supermarket. You know. A few Jewish families are scattered around there.” Harry watched Brown’s face. His lips didn’t form the word Why. In that case, Harry would ask him, “Why did you want to know, Mr. Brown?”

“Thought I would test them for … fire hazard, quick burning quality, and … we can’t be too careful, you know.”

They both laughed, Harry again exploding the artificial smile into a laugh. “Yes, you can get them at the supermarket,” he repeated foolishly.

“¢

When he told his wife the story, she laughed and said, “Maybe he’s Jewish.” Harry joined in with the joke. “Maybe I’m a fire chief.” But underneath his tongue the words were forming: What will he really do with them?

Two days later he saw some men talking on the street. They were huddled together strangely. He couldn’t hear what they were saying and his sensitive mood imagined the worst. “He packs a powerful wallop,” said one man, raising his fist. But then he heard, “That guy is some boxer.”

He walked by the firehouse, purposely, wanting to meet Mr. Brown, wanting to bring the situation to its inevitable conclusion. He saw him standing there, an intense look on his round face, the lips puffed out, the eyes half closed. He was about to say something. Harry signaled his attention by lifting his head upwards in a half nod.

He’ll tell me about the fire hazard. And I’ll have to remove the candles from the window. But Mr. Brown was silent. He just looked at Harry, made another motion, as if to walk toward him, but then walked slowly back into the shaded firehouse, his hands in his pockets.

“¢

The continued silence of the town hung heavily like a curtain in Harry’s mind. By the fourth night he was ready to remove the candles from the window. All he needed was an official excuse. His zeal had done nothing but set him on edge. His wife noticed it. And maybe she was right. All this would have been fine in a Jewish community. But here? Here it was just stubbornness. His wife’s thoughts were now, somehow and mysteriously, his own. With each lit candle his head buzzed with vague fears. Something had to come. It was slowly building up. He knew it. He breathed it in the air of the streets. He saw it in the looks of the people’s eyes. He heard it in the rumblings of daily life.

As soon as he finished lighting the fourth night’s candles he resolved, “This is the last night.” As if confirming his decision, the phone rang. There it is, he thought. He stood watching the candles as his wife answered the phone. The little flames leaped higher and higher and disappeared into the air. Yet more flames always sprang up from the wick. Thus our people against the tyrants, he thought. He let his eyes relax, filling them with light, filling his whole being with the warmth of the light.

“It’s for you, Harry.” His heart bounced with the leaping flames.

“This is Fire Chief Brown,” he heard the voice say. Get those candles off the window, he thought. But instead a soft voice said, “Do those candles have to burn in the window?”

Very subtle, thought Harry. “How do you mean?” Harry’s voice was not his own. The cords in his throat tightened as he spoke. The sound was in a higher, odder pitch. He swallowed.

Mr. Brown continued. “Is it part of the religious ceremony to do that?”

Come out with it, Harry thought, and tell. Don’t play with me. Don’t keep me in suspense. Tell me now. “Let me explain the significance of the candles, Mr. Brown . . .”

Harry was cut short. “If you don’t mind, just tell me, is it better if they burn in view?”

“Yes,” Harry’s thoughts exploded. “It is better if they are seen, if they communicate their message to the others….”

“Good. That’s all I wanted to know. The message was communicated. Thank you.” And click – the phone was dead. Harry looked at the mouthpiece for a while and set it back.

“What’s the matter, Harry?” his wife asked. She stretched her hand out to him. He took her warm hand into his and felt his fingers trembling against hers. The nervousness leaped with the touch into her. “What is it? What did he say?” The edge of her lips quivered. “You’re all upset.”

“I don’t understand, Vera. He said, ‘The message was communicated.'”

“Harry,” Vera said softly. “Since you started this candlelighting in the window you haven’t been the same. You worry about every word, every sound, every flame. Either go back to the privacy of the kitchen, or accept your own move.”

Harry knew his wife was right, but still he felt that his wife was deserting him, by asking about it in the open, by verbalizing what had previously been unsaid. Gloomily he looked at the candles and at the street below, scanning the houses across the street mechanically. His mind was playing tricks again. Two of his four candles had gone out already. In the window opposite his, symbolically enough in Mr. Brown’s window, the reflection of his Chanukah lights were shining. He looked at their reflection. Suddenly he called his wife.

“Come quickly. I’m having a vision.”

Vera came running, afraid something was wrong with him.

“Look. Look across the street. In Mr. Brown’s window.”

She held her breath. They couldn’t believe it. A living reflection.

Strangely, a third candle appeared to be shining in Mr. Brown’s window, while only two remained in Harry’s window.

“He’s kindling Chanukah lights,” Harry shouted. “Vera, do you know what that means? Chanukah lights by Mr. Brown?”

Across the street, the lit candle illumined Mr. Brown’s shadowy, brooding features, and the flickering flames cast a glow on his face as he lit the fourth candle.

“A light from the darkness,” Vera whispered. “Another miracle.”

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