Chanukah with Savta
When the young man entered Bais Simcha on shabbos morning, Rabbi Levi stopped giving his Kaballah lesson and stared. All the eyes of the small congregation also turned to study the stranger.
He was in his mid-twenties, well-built, of medium height, dark and sphardi-looking with intense brown eyes, wearing a t-shirt, slacks, sandals, and a black cap.
“Baruch habah. Leheecones,” Rabbi Levi called out, welcoming him and bidding him to enter.
The young man nodded, hesitated, and then moved forward tentatively to the long table where twenty people from the congregation were seated. There was an empty seat at the end of the table, farthest from the rabbi.
“Shev, bvakashah,” Rabbi Levi added, inviting him to sit. Rabbi Levi smiled, showing well-cared for white teeth from among his long, salt and pepper beard. He had on his finest shabbos suit, made of dark, comfortable fabric and a fresh starched white shirt.
The young man nodded again, sat down, and looked around. He appeared uncomfortable because he was the youngest adult there. The others ranged from the mid-thirties and upward.
“Why are you speaking Hebrew, Rabbi?” whispered Avi Fingerboard, the youthful looking eighty-two year old gabbai who lied and said he was seventy-five. That was so his sixty-seven year old girl friend, Sara Batya, who sat next to him wearing an expensive pastel dress, would not think of him as too old for her.
“Because he is Israeli,” the Rabbi whispered back.
“How can you tell?”
“It’s his nose.”
Avi turned around and stared at the young man’s nose, and then looked back at the Rabbi, puzzled.
“I don’t get it. His nose looks like a regular nose,” Avi whispered back.
Rabbi Levi turned and smiled at Avi, indicating he had made a joke, and after a long pause, Avi smiled back, indicating he got it.
The truth was some Israelis dressed casually for synagogue, like this one, and that was the Rabbi’s first hint. It was also true that some sabras, native Israelis, emitted an intensity that Rabbi Levi was attuned to. He did not question why he knew the young man was Israeli, beyond his casual attire, he just knew it. Perhaps it was the air in Israel that made them intense, Rabbi Levi mused, or perhaps it was the Kohen gene in the Rabbi’s ancestry that made him aware of such a thing.
The Rabbi continued with his talk about Chanukah, the Kabbalistic meaning in the holiday, and the gematria of Maccabees. After another twenty minutes, he glanced at the clock on the wall, and knew he must wrap up his shur. It was time to begin the shabbos morning service.
“Don’t forget to light the second candle after havdahlah tonight,” Rabbi Levi reminded the congregation of Bais Simcha, the only Orthodox synagogue in Sunshine, Florida, a little town west of Miami.
The twenty-odd most devoted members of his congregation, who regularly attended Saturday services, now stood up and moved the tables and chairs around, facing east, toward Jerusalem, and also their Torah resting in its fine wooden arc. Avi dragged over the mechitzah, a portable wall made of wood and lattice, to separate the men and women’s sides during the prayer service.
The young stranger came over, during the commotion, and tapped Rabbi Levi on the shoulder.
“Rabbi, would you mind if …”
Before he could finish the sentence, Avi Fingerboard steered the Rabbi away by the arm, pointing to the clock, letting him know now was time to start the prayer service because Avi had to be home to take his medicine by one, and he liked to spend at least an hour by the kiddish. Rabbi Levi sighed, opened his siddur, and began the shabbos morning service.
When the Rabbi came to the part where Kaddish, the prayer honoring those who have passed from this world, was said, he turned around and faced his group of twelve men.
“Is there anyone who wants to say Kaddish?”
The young stranger stood up, the only one who had.
Rabbi Levi nodded to him, and the young man began saying the prayer, by himself, perfectly in Hebrew. There were several places where the congregation said “Amen” and one place where they repeated a verse. When the young man reached the last verse, he said:
“Oh say shalom beemroomov, who yaasay-”
He stopped midway on the verse, heaved a heavy sigh, and then shook his head. He tried to repeat the verse, but he could not. He sighed again, closed his prayer book, and then walked out of Bais Simcha, his eyes avoiding the stares of the congregation.
“Avi, please take over from here,” Rabbi Levi said, pushing over the special prayer siddur with the extra-large print for the eighty-two year old gabbai. Then the Rabbi walked quickly out of the synagogue, following the young stranger, while the members once again followed with their eyes.
“Let’s continue!” Avi ordered, over the mumbled protestations of the others. He continued on with the service, much louder than Rabbi Levi, making many more mistakes which were corrected with glee by some of the members of the congregation.
Once outside, Rabbi Levi looked around and saw the young man was sitting on the bench under Bais Simcha’s large oak tree in the back, staring up at the sky. Rabbi Levi walked up to him.
“Would you mind if I joined you?” the Rabbi asked in Hebrew.
The young man stared over at the Rabbi, and after a very long, thoughtful pause, he said:
“No I don’t mind, Rabbi, but I think it would better if we spoke English. My Middle-Eastern accent is easier to understand in English, than your Ashkenazi accent is in Hebrew.”
Rabbi Levi smiled, stroked his long beard, and nodded agreement. He sat down, placed his hands in his lap, and looked around. A squirrel, one of the few that inhabited the large trees in the back, was gathering acorns for the winter, even though it was still over eighty degrees, such was winter in south Florida in early December.
“I don’t believe I have seen you here before. What is your name?” Rabbi Levi asked.
“I am called Or. Or Amarli.” The young man extended his hand, and Rabbi Levi shook it. He had a strong grip and a calloused hand, in contrast to the rabbi’s hand, which was softer and more used to turning pages rather than manual labor.
“I am Rabbi Yaakov Levi, but you can call me Yankee.”
“It is my nickname, and also the name of an American baseball team from New York. It makes the members of my congregation smile when they say it, and I like seeing them smile.”
Or nodded, but did not say anything further.
“Who were you saying Kaddish for?” the Rabbi asked.
“It is not important.” Or turned his head away and looked off in the distance once again.
“Not important?” Rabbi Levi asked, his eyebrows raised.
When Or looked back over at Rabbi Levi, his eyes welled up with tears.
“Perhaps it would be better to say … that I would rather not say … Yankee … no … Rabbi … I am sorry but I cannot call you Yankee. It does not make me smile to say it.”
Rabbi Levi nodded.
“What brings you to our little town, business or pleasure?”
“I go to university in Miami, but I was invited to stay the weekend with a college friend of mine, who lives a few blocks from here. When I asked him if there was a synagogue close by, this is the only one he could think of. He is not Jewish, so he did not join me.”
“Do you regularly attend synagogue in Miami?”
“No. But then I do not regularly need to say Kaddish.” Or’s eyes once again filled up with tears.
“Do you still feel the need?” the rabbi asked.
Or nodded his head.
“Perhaps then we should go back inside. What do you think, Or?”
“Yes, Rabbi. I would like that very much,” he said softly.
Rabbi Levi put his hand on Or’s shoulder, like a father would when comforting a son. They walked back together, and when they entered Bais Simcha, they split up. Or picked up a siddur and prayed quietly in the back, while Rabbi Levi stood next to Avi at the bimah, until Avi finished a Psalm and then let the Rabbi resume the service.
When it was time to take out the Torah, Rabbi Levi gave Or the third aliyah, after the Kohen and Levite portions. Or insisted on reading his portion of the Torah himself, and he made only one mistake, which was impressive considering he had not prepared. After the Torah reading, Avi Fingerboard read the Haftorah, and then Rabbi Levi gave a short sermon on Chanukah. Or rose and said Kaddish three more times before the service was concluded, and then Rabbi Levi added a fourth Kaddish because it felt like the right thing to do.
“Everyone is invited to a special kiddish today in honor of Chanukah,” Rabbi Levi called out, “and in honor of our guest, Or Amarli, from Israel.” He turned to Or, and said, “Or, we would be honored if you would stay and join us.”
Or nodded his head.
Avi dragged the mechitzah away and the tables and chairs were once again moved around, forming a U shape. Everyone pitched in. Some of the women, including the rebbetzin, Rebecca Levi, worked rapidly in the kitchen getting the meal prepared, while the men set out the disposable table cloths, paper plates, plastic utensils, and paper napkins. Nobody liked to wash dishes and silverware on shabbos for a party of twenty or more.
When the kiddish was set, and everything was ready, Rabbi Levi raised his full glass of wine and said the prayer over it. The others drank from his cup and then everyone got up and washed before the challah. Rabbi Levi waited patiently for everyone to finish washing, while sitting at the head of the U with his family, humming a Hasidic niggun. When all had completed the ritual, he cut the challah, dipped the slices in a little salt, took a bite of one slice, said the hamotzi blessing, and then passed around pieces of the delicious homemade, sweet bread.
“So, nu, Mr. Or Amarli, I don’t mean to be a Mr. Busybody, but who were you saying Kaddish for?” Avi Fingerboard asked, while still munching on his challah. Sara Batyah elbowed him hard in the ribs and whispered that Avi should finish chewing before he talked.
“My savta,” Or replied. “My grandmother.”
“I am so sorry,” Rebecca Levi said, her voice full of genuine sympathy. She brushed away some of the long brown hair from her shaytle, that had accidentally covered part of her large blue eyes. “I still remember when I lost my Bubbe. She was a very special person to me. When did your grandmother pass?”
“Three days ago.”
“Did she pass here, in America?”
“No, in our little town in Israel, near Zichron Yaakov.”
“Did you go to the funeral?” Rebecca asked.
Or grew silent once again, and turned away. He covered his face with his hands and began sobbing.
“I’m so sorry, Or,” Rebecca Levi whispered. “I did not mean to make you feel worse than you must already feel. Please forgive me.”
The rebbetzin looked at her husband, and he stood up and walked around behind Or and once again, placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder.
“There … there … it will be all right,” the Rabbi said soothingly.
Or turned around and tears were now dripping from his big brown eyes, eyes that changed from intensely bright, to wet and luminescent. He did not look like he was ashamed anymore to be crying in front of so many he did not know.
“I could not feel worse than I already feel, Rebbetzin,” Or explained. “When I spoke to her last, she was in the hospital, but she said, ‘I’m fine, neched. I’m fine. It’s just a routine check up. Take your exams and when you are finished, come home for Chanukah and we will light the candles together.’”
Or looked down and reached for a napkin to wipe his eyes.
“I have been lighting the candles of Chanukah with my Savta since I have been able to stand and reach the menorah.”
Or wiped his face and then continued.
“She said she was fine … I said, ‘Savta, are you sure?’ and she said, ‘Of course I am sure. You finish the semester and I will be waiting for you’ … “She promised me she would be waiting for me. Instead … instead she …”
With a shaking hand, Avi Fingerboard handed Or his own napkin, since Or had drenched his with tears. Avi then thought of his own savta and when he started crying, he looked around for another napkin. He saw Sara Batyah’s was untouched, but when he reached for it, she grabbed it away at the last second and wiped her own eyes. Avi used his shirt sleeve, when he thought no one was looking.
There was a writer among the congregation, a poor story writer of little fame and small success, but he loved to hear stories, and the ones that were real were the best. He, too, started crying – he could not help it. The only thing he could think of to honor the moment was to say:
“Or, please tell us a story about your Savta, that we may know her too, and know how precious she was to you.”
Rabbi Levi was sure, absolutely positive, that Or would not tell such a story in public, since a short while before, Or would not even tell him privately whom he was saying Kaddish for. If Or would not tell such a thing to the most trusted member of the congregation, the one whom everyone told their special story, the one they were taking to their grave … but if they should tell such a story, before they could tell it, they swore the Rabbi to secrecy and-”
Or continued … interrupting the Rabbi’s thoughts, causing the good Rabbi to remind himself that perhaps it was time for a humility check.
“A story of my savta? There are so many … there was this time when I was in the Army … yes … and my commanding officer was giving me a rough time. He demanded I shoot better, and run longer, than the five men that were under my command. He made me stay over, when the others had weekend passes, and practice firing at targets until my ears grew deaf, and then run until my feet were raw and bleeding. I was going to quit the Army and I told this to Savta while we were in her kitchen. Savta … she just listened, and stirred her chicken soup. You know, I can still smell her chicken soup … it was my favorite thing in the whole wide world when I came home from the Army … I was not home … until I had her soup.”
Or dabbed at his eyes, and then continued.
“Well, this officer reminded me of my father, whom I had not spoken to for almost a year, because of the rough time he had also given me in what you call high school. Everything I did was not good enough for him. If I got a Bet Plus in school, I should have gotten an Alef. If I got an Alef, I should have gotten an Alef Plus. If I scored one goal in soccer, why didn’t I score two?”
Or looked around and there were others in the congregation nodding their heads. They also understand what it was like to have a demanding parent, but not just any demanding parent, a demanding Jewish parent.
“Savtah handed me a huge bowl of her chicken soup, the size of a sink, and while I drank it, making the most disgusting animal sounds, like only a man on leave from the Army can make, who has been eating nothing but Army rations, she told me to listen and be quiet … she said, ‘Or, my heart, my light, it is my fault. You must not blame your father, you must blame me. I raised my son, your father, your Abba, to be strong, because only the strong in my family got out of Austria alive. I lost three brothers … and two sisters … one sister that was dearer to me than my own life … my mother and father …and my mother’s mother, my own savta … to the Nazis. The others did not move fast enough, nor try to be clever enough, to escape, like your grandfather and I.’”
Or stopped because he was sobbing so hard now he could barely breathe. When he gathered himself, he continued:
“And each Chanukah, from that day forward, Savta and I, we would light a candle for each of those that she lost, one on each night, for the family that I would never know, but whom I came to know and love because each night of Chanukah Savta would tell me a story … a new story … about each of them … all eight … and they would come alive to me.”
Or looked around and then said to the Rebbetzin, “Who will tell me those stories now? Those people will die now without my Savta … like she will die … like she has died … without … me.”
That is how Or Amarli came to stay in Sunshine, Florida for the holiday of Chanukah. Each remaining night, he came to Bais Simcha, and after lighting the menorah, he told the congregation a new story about his Savta. Her name was Chaya, which means life, and she came to life for the people of Sunshine … their tears, and Or’s tears, brought her to life.
The story writer wrote down this story, and he thanked God for allowing him to hear it, because it was a gift. The writer did not have such a story inside him, nor would he ever.
And as he wrote the words, the story writer thought, this is what is so wonderful about being a Jew. Because when a Jew is a stranger, and he stops by a synagogue on shabbos, and he opens his heart, and shares the love and pain in his heart, there are other Jews that will open their hearts to him and make him feel like family.
And then the congregation will remember, once again, that all Jews are one family.
*Dedicated to A.R. and Savta Chaya
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Copyright 2012 by Zalman Velvel Inc.
You may print this story for yourself, but you may not copy it without permission from the author.