Why my great-great-grandfather was late for the family’s Chanukah latkes

Why my great-great-grandfather was late for the family’s Chanukah latkes

A tale from novelist Curt Leviant

It was deep into the bitter Russian winter of 1843. My great-great-grandfather, Chaim Leviant, then a youngster of 15, was driving his grandfather Moshe’s horse-drawn sleigh along the snow-covered roads not far from Kariukovke. This shtetl in the Ukraine was noted for its sugar factory, owned by the well-known Jewish millionaire and philanthropist, Brodsky. In another hour or so the first light of Chanukah would be kindled at the house of Chaim’s grandparents, where the entire family was gathered to sing songs, play dreidl, and eat Grandmother Dobbe’s crispy potato latkes.

The snow finally had stopped. The late afternoon sky was clear. The roads, the roofs, the trees were white. The fields were endless sheets of white. All was silent, except for the music of the little bells in the horse’s harness; the snow was so deep that even the horse’s hooves made no sound.

Young Chaim drove carefully. He knew that during the winter, drivers had to follow three crucial rules: dress warmly, never leave the path, and never ever fall asleep. Yes, he had heard of faithful horses who brought sleeping drivers home. But he also knew the tales of tragic accidents – a slumbering driver could fall from his perch, land in the snow, and not be seen again until the spring thaw.

At the behest of his grandfather, Chaim had just delivered a goose, dried beans, flour, oil, and potatoes to a poor Jewish family in a neighboring shtetl. Grandfather Moshe was a wealthy man who supplied the sugar factory with beets. He owned his house, but he leased the land on which he grew the beets, for Jews were forbidden to own land in Russia.

Despite the bearskin greatcoat and blanket on his feet, Chaim was cold. To counter the chill in his bones, he thought of the Chanukah lights and of his grandmother’s latkes. He began to sing, “I’ll soon be home to celebrate” to the tune of “Maoz Tsur.”

Chaim held the reins as the sleigh glided along. Suddenly, he glimpsed something on the edge of a snowdrift. Could that be a fur hat? “Whoa!” Chaim shouted, tugging at the reins. The horse stopped. Yes, a fur hat. The youngster jumped off the wagon. He picked up the hat – but his heart nearly stopped at the fright of what he saw beneath it. It was a gloved hand. “My God!” Chaim cried. He quickly began to dig in the snow with his hands until he saw what he saw: a boy of about 12 or 13, wearing the fine clothes of the gentry. Chaim put his ear to the boy’s chest and nose; he was stunned but breathing. As he lifted the lad into the sleigh, Chaim surmised what had happened. A snoozing coachman, very likely drunk, had dropped the reins and the unrestrained horses had set off in a gallop. Then a rut in the road, and the lad must have tumbled out into a snow bank while the sleigh sped on.

Chaim patted the boy’s face. He rubbed his hands and chest. He took off his own bearskin coat and wrapped the boy in it, then placed some blankets around his feet. Over his own shoulders Chaim draped another blanket like a tallis.

“Can you hear me? Can you hear me?” Chaim asked. But the boy’s eyes remained closed. When the sleigh began to move, however, Chaim heard a faint moan.

“Father, father,” the boy whimpered.

“You’re safe,” Chaim said. “Who is your father? What is your name? Tell me.”

The boy answered slowly. “Arkady … Ivanovich … Goluptsin. I fell off our coach.”

“Ivan Goluptsin? Our provincial governor?”

“My father…”

Following the boy’s instructions, my great-great-grandfather Chaim made his way to the Goluptsin winter mansion. He knew he was late for Chanukah lights; he had passed the turn-off for Kariukovke long ago.

A servant opened the door, took one look, and shouted, “He’s here. Master, he’s here.” Arkady’s mother and the governor rushed into the warm, brightly lit entranceway. They saw a tall boy supporting their son, who was wrapped in a huge bearskin coat they did not recognize.

Arkady was laid on a sofa, and his mother began rubbing his face and hands, while two servants removed the bearskin and the boy’s leather boots. Another attendant came with two glasses of hot tea on a silver tray, for the boy and for Chaim.

“He saved me, Mama. He found me. He saved me, Papa.”

“We’ve sent messengers to all the police stations,” said the governor. “And that idiot of a coachman still hasn’t come back…. Who are you, my boy?”

“I am Chaim Leviant from Kariukovke.”

“Oh, yes, where Brodsky has his sugar plant. I know Brodsky well. Do you know who I am?”

“Your son told me.”

“How old are you? 16?”

” Actually, I’m 15.”

“You are tall for your age, Chaim, and so grown up too.” The governor put his hand on his heart. “Thank you, thank you for saving my son’s life. Come with me, please.”

Governor Goluptsin put his arm around Chaim’s shoulders and led him into a spacious dining room. A large, glittering chandelier lit with many candles hung over a long mahogany table. “Why are you hesitating, my boy? Come with me.”

“Sir, if you don’t mind … I … I am late. Our entire family is waiting at my grandfather’s house, ready to celebrate our holiday, Chanukah. I should have been there an hour ago, and they must be worried.”

“I can understand that worry, Chaim,” Goluptsin said. “We ourselves…” and he broke off, holding back tears. He motioned to Chaim. “It will only be a moment.”

My great-great-grandfather Chaim followed the governor of the entire Kiev district into his office. An oil portrait of the czar hung behind Goluptsin’s gleaming desk. “Please sit down.”

The governor opened a drawer and placed a purse on the desk.

“I know it is your holiday and it is your custom to give coins to the children.” He smiled.

“This I learned from Brodsky. Chaim, how many grandchildren does your grandfather have?”

Chaim began counting to himself. Yakov, Israel-Noah, Mendl, Tanya, Rachel, Rivka, Dvora and Boris. And Zyama and Kalman, Lazar and Isak, Shmayke and Hillel and – until he reached 18, including himself.

The governor counted out 18 of the large, heavy, five-ruble gold coins and spread them on the desk. The coins glittered in the light. Chaim knew that an average worker’s wages were a ruble a month.

“Sir,” Chaim said, “please don’t think me ungrateful, but I don’t want to be rewarded for the mitzvah of saving a life. The Talmud teaches us that when someone saves one life it is as if he has saved an entire world. This alone is my reward.”

Governor Goluptsin looked at Chaim. “Hmm, I see. Well, then, is there anything I can do for you?”

“Yes,” said my great-great-grandfather Chaim, and the prompt response must have surprised the governor. “As you know, sir, Jews are not allowed to own land in Russia, except under rare and very special circumstances. You said you know Brodsky. Our family does business with him. They have always wanted to buy land to cultivate more sugar beets and plant more crops. With this land we could provide jobs for many people in the area.”

“So how can I help?”

“Could you get my family permission to buy a tract of land outside Kariukovke?”

For a moment the governor was silent. Chaim thought that surely he would say it was out of his hands. Then Goluptsin’s face brightened.

“Chaim, you have my word. Come back in three days. I shall contact the Imperial Bank in Kiev and the documents will be prepared. And thank you again for your good deed. ” Now the governor smiled. “And don’t forget your bearskin greatcoat.”

When he arrived at his grandfather’s house, Chaim saw no Chanukah lights in the window. But a dozen faces were pressed to the glass and a few people stood outside. Now, for the second time in an hour, Chaim heard the cry, “He’s here. He’s here!”

Inside, the warm house was filled with the aroma of potato latkes. His mother and father kissed and embraced him, and he felt himself hugged from all sides. At that moment Chaim knew what a dreidl felt like, being spun and turned in every direction. And then he quickly told his story.

“Now we can light the first light,” said the beaming Grandfather Moshe. “We waited and we worried, but we didn’t want to light the first candle without you.”

Then Grandmother Dobbe came in with a large platter of latkes, saying, “Right after the blessings we eat.”

The menorah was lit, and the shamash candle and the first flame glowed in the house. After the songs were sung, Grandfather Moshe gave Chanukah gelt to all the children. As they sat on the floor playing dreidl for walnuts, Moshe called my great-great-grandfather Chaim into his study.

“You refused the governor, but you won’t refuse me, eh?” Moshe smiled. Then he pulled a coin from his pocket. “This five-ruble gold piece is for you. When the time comes, give it to your firstborn son and tell him to pass it to his son, along with this story.”

And this is the coin, whose worth is far more than its weight in gold, that we keep next to our menorah during the eight days of Chanukah.

Like a legend, it sheds its own special light.