Every Tuesday morning in the village of Chelm, Reb Cantor the merchant and Rabbi Yohon Abrahms the schoolteacher (and mashgiach) went for an early morning walk. They met in the village square when it was still black out, squinting up at the sky as the sun crept up inch by inch over the Black Forest, and off they’d tramp. Rain or shine, snow or mud, every Tuesday morning it was their habit.
For Rabbi Abrahms it was a chance to get a little bit of exercise and clear his head before spending the rest of his day inside trying to teach a horde of youngsters, most of whom would much rather be out running in the fields.
For Reb Cantor, who awoke in the pitch black, muttering and stumbling about the house, complaining bitterly under his breath, exercise was fine, but this was a chance to pick the brain of the man who was almost certain to succeed Rabbi Kibbitz as the chief rabbi of Chelm. Not that the legendary elder rabbi was going anywhere soon, but.…
One Tuesday in October, while it was still warm and dry, the pair were in high spirits as they made their way along the trail next to the Uherka (Bug) River.
“Tell me,” Reb Cantor asked. “What do you think of Hanukkah?”
“I like latkes,” Rabbi Abrahms grinned. “Are you inviting me to your house already?”
“Of course you’re invited,” Reb Cantor smiled back. “But what do you think of it as a holiday?”
Rabbi Abrahms shrugged. “Not much. It’s not in the Torah. The Book of Maccabees is fascinating. It’s nice to know that every so often Jewish people win a battle.… Why do you ask?”
“Well,” Reb Cantor hesitated. “Ever since the Schlemiels invented the Hanukkah present, people have been buying things from me to give as Hanukkah presents.”
“So?” said Rabbi Abrahms, stopping to pick up a stone, which he skipped three times across the narrow river before it stuck with a thunk in the mud on the other side. “That sounds like a good business.”
“It is!” Reb Cantor agreed. “It seems to be almost a third of my local business right now, and it keeps getting better every year. I got a letter from my cousin Richard in America. He wants to start selling Hanukkah presents too.”
“Again, so?” This time the rock skipped only twice before sinking.
“So, Richard wants to trademark the phrase ‘Hanukkah Present’ so that we can make some money every time somebody calls something a Hanukkah present.”
Rabbi Abrahms was trotting up the side of East Hill. “Can you do that?”
“In America, you can trademark anything. You can sell anything. Especially around Christmastime.”
“I’m confused,” said Rabbi Abrahms. “I thought we were talking about Hanukkah.”
“Yes, that’s the point,” Reb Cantor said. “Hanukkah would not be a present-giving holiday if it wasn’t so close to the Christmas celebration.”
Rabbi Abrahms tugged his short beard. “I see.”
“So, you understand my problem?”
The chubby merchant stopped for a moment to catch his breath and then sputtered, “Hanukkah is not much of a holiday. That’s my point. Should we be giving gifts just to keep up with the Joneses?”
Rabbi Abrahms looked puzzled. “Who are the Joneses?”
“They are a Christian family who live next door to my cousin Richard in Brooklyn. They give their children presents. Richard’s children heard about Hanukkah presents and now they want some also. But since Hanukkah lasts eight nights, his children want eight presents. And it’s not that much of a holiday!”
“There’s a miracle and there’s latkes,” Rabbi Abrahms said. “What more do you need for a holiday? Come on, I want to get to the top of West Hill, too.”
“Oy!” Reb Cantor groaned. “I’m having an ethical problem, which as a businessman is likely to cost me money. I can make a lot of money selling Hanukkah presents. I’m just not sure I should.”
Rabbi Abrahms grinned, “So you have a conscience after all.”
Reb Cantor smiled back. “A little one. I just think that we have to be careful sometimes. The next thing all the children will be wanting a Hanukkah bush.”
“Never mind. What do you think I should do?”
Rabbi Abrahms tugged his beard again. Sometimes he thought that maybe if he kept tugging his beard it would grow as long and luxurious as Rabbi Kibbitz’s beard. Mostly though, when he tugged at his beard some of the hairs fell out and it stayed as short as ever.
“Do people enjoy giving gifts and getting gifts?” he asked.
“Of course,” said Reb Cantor.
“And you can profit from this?”
“Hoo boy, yes,” said Reb Cantor. He was puffing and huffing from the climb up the second hill.
“So,” Rabbi Abrahms said, “I don’t see much of a problem. Sell the gifts, make the money.”
“But,” panted Reb Cantor, “what about the Christianization of a Jewish holiday?”
Rabbi Abrahms raised his hands, palms up. “What Christianization? On Hanukkah you tell the story of the Maccabees. You tell the story of the miracle. You light the menorah. You eat the latkes. You give and get some presents. Where’s the Christian part of that?” “The gifts!” Reb Cantor coughed. “The gifts.”
Rabbi Abrahms shook his head. “Do you think that the Maccabees ate latkes on Hanukkah? No. Potatoes came from America. Some enterprising potato farmer decided that having potato pancakes was good for business. Who are we to complain? They taste good — except for Mrs. Chaipul’s.”
Both men paused to shudder at the thought of Mrs. Chaipul’s infamously lethal latkes.
They looked down the hill at the village of Chelm below. Tevye the milkman was already up and on his rounds, but just now other doors and windows were beginning to open as another morning began.
Reb Cantor sighed. “I suppose you are right. But how can we avoid doing it to excess. If there’s one thing the Christians do, they go all out celebrating their holiday. It’s crazy-making.”
“Last year I went to the Schlemiel house for latkes.” Rabbi Abrahms licked his lips. “They were delicious. I ate so many that I felt sick to my stomach for three days. You know what? This year when I come to your house to eat latkes I’m not going to eat so many. You have to let people learn from their mistakes and set their own limits. Now let’s go back.”
Without another word, Rabbi Abrahms set down the hill at a jog.
“Wait!” shouted Reb Cantor after him. “Richard also wanted to know how you should spell it in English, ‘Hanukkah’ or ‘Chanukah’!” But the young rabbi was already far down the hill, and Reb Cantor decided that it probably didn’t matter anyway, and set off after him.
Copyright 2006 by Mark Binder
Mark Binder is an author and storyteller. He is the former editor of the Rhode Island Jewish Herald. His latest book, “The Brothers Schlemiel,” will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in 2008.