Finkelstein sat staring out of the window of his sparse one-room lower-East-side tenement. Somewhere the last rays of winter sun were painting the evening sky, but all Finkelstein could see was the grey-brown brick of an adjacent brownstone—square, plain and slitted with long, rectangular windows. It began to get dark, but Finkelstein, feeling particularly old and weary, didn’t bother to get up and turn on the light.
He heard a rapping at his door—two tentative knocks followed by two more, just as timid. It was Jakey Kovacs. Jakey lived in the apartment upstairs and across the hail with his mother, a middle-aged widow. Jakey was eight—no, seven. His mother was always sending him down to borrow a bit of this or a little of that. Finkelstein didn’t mind. He appreciated the company.
Mr. Finkelstein,” Jakey announced, “my Ma wants to know if you have some matches she could borrow.”
“Matches,” Finkelstein mumbled, shuffling across the room to find some.
“My Ma says we need matches to light the menorah. Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah.”
“Matches… Hanukkah…” Finkelstein repeated to himself as he rummaged through a squeaky old drawer. “Ah, matches!” Triumphantly he pressed a red and white box of wooden matches into Jakey’s hand.
“Thank you, Mr. Finkelstein. I’ll return them right away,” Jakey promised, as he hurried out of the door and up the stairs.
“Hanukkah…” Finkelstein sighed. He remembered Hanukkah. Candles burning, dreidles spinning, the tantalizing smell of fried latkes. But that was years ago. “Oy, Hanukkah, Oy Hanukkah, a yom tov a shayner,” Finkelstein sang under his breath in a croaky old voice, “a lustiger, a freilicher…” He stopped. Jakey was knocking at the door again.
“Mr. Finkelstein, Ma says you should come up and join us while we light the candles.”
“Candles…” Finkelstein repeated. “Hanukkah candles.”
“Are you coming, Mr. Finkelstein?” Jakey asked from the doorway.
Finkelstein shook his head. He remembered Hanukkah back in Poland. His wife would sing the blessing over the candles. “A voice she had,” Finkelstein mused. “Like a bird.” Why had he left her? Then he remembered. There had been trouble. She had made him leave. She hadn’t wanted him anymore. Finkelstein had sold everything he owned and had come to America. “Has it been 28 years already that I have been alone?” he thought. First he had sold from pushcarts on Delancy Street. Then he had owned a dry goods store in Brooklyn, and there had been so many things after that. All he could remember was almost 30 years of hard work. “And now,” he thought, “it’s nothing.”
He heard another knock, this time more bold and assertive. He opened the door. There stood Jakey again, this time with his mother.
“Mr. Finkelstein,” Jakey said, “My Ma don’t want that you should be alone on the first night of Hanukkah.” He held up a large brass menorah and two slender white candles, one for the first night, and the other to light it.
“May we come in?” Mrs. Kovacs said.
“Come in, come in,” Finkelstein said.
Jakey and his mother set the menorah on a rough table by the window. Mrs. Kovacs sang the blessing, and for a moment Finkelstein thought again of Poland. She lit the candles. Jakey joined her in the “Shehecheyonu” prayer, carefully pronouncing the Hebrew, and together they sang the traditional “Maoz Tzur,” Rock of Ages. Finkelstein sat and listened.
“Mr. Finkelstein,” Mrs. Kovacs said, “upstairs I have latkes, applesauce and good, hot tea. Do you mind if I bring it down?”
He didn’t mind, he said. He appreciated their company. He thought as he waited for them. Hanukkah had something to do with miracles—things that didn’t happen every day, good things, great things. Miracles! Did he believe in miracles? “I used to,” he thought.
Mrs. Kovacs and Jakey came back. She carried an enormous tray piled high with crisp potato latkes and Jakey held a big bowl of fresh, hot applesauce. “She must have spent all day grating potatoes,” Finkelstein thought. They left and returned again with plates, cups and a steaming hot teapot.
They ate. Finkelstein explained that he was “between jobs.” He always seemed to be between jobs. Mrs. Kovacs said that she, too, seemed always to be looking for odd jobs, but somehow she had managed to put away a bit of money each week to send Jakey to cheder. It was important for a Jewish boy to learn Hebrew and the traditions of his people. “Jakey, tell Mr. Finkelstein what you learned about Hanukkah in cheder,” she urged.
“Hanukkah is about miracles,” Jakey began, “about a light that was only supposed to burn for one day, but it burned for eight days, and that was the miracle, because there was only enough oil for one day.”
Finkelstein nodded his approval. He almost managed a smile.
“Do you believe in miracles, Mr. Finkelstein?” Jakey asked suddenly.
“Miracles? I think so… at least I used to.”
It was getting late. Jakey had to go to bed. Finkelstein thanked them both for coming down, and he helped them carry the dishes back upstairs. They would leave the menorah in Finkelstein’s window and let the candles burn down.
Finkelstein sat and watched the menorah. The two burning candles reminded him of something—a book he had read, a person who spoke to him. It was all so long ago, before the trouble began. What was it? Now he remembered. He had read it once: “I am the light of the world; he who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” That was all he could remember. The two candies burned brighter and brighter, and the whole room was flooded with a soft radiance, as if the morning sun were shining directly through the grimy window.
“So much light from just two candles,” Finkelstein thought. Suddenly he realized that the menorah was the only light in the room. Quickly he got up and turned on the light.
A knock came at the door. It was Jakey again. “Mr. Finkelstein, your matches. I almost forgot!”
“Thank you, Jakey,” Finkelstein said.
“Thank you, Mr. Finkelstein. Happy Hanukkah!”
“Happy Hanukkah, Jakey.”
“I am the light…” Where was that book? The battered trunk in the storage space in the basement… under his grandfather’s old prayer shawl and the patchwork quilt he had brought from Poland. A small black volume. The pages must be yellowed with age by now. Tomorrow…tomorrow he would find it.
Dreidle: a four-sided top marked with Hebrew letters that represent the words, “a great miracle happened there.”
Cheder: Hebrew school.
Latkes: potato pancakes.
Shehecheyonu: a traditional prayer of thanksgiving used at holidays and first-time experiences.
Shayner: beautiful or pretty.
Yom tov: holiday, literally “good day.”