|To say that life was hard for the residents of the Lower
East Side was to do them an injustice. The streets of New York were not paved with gold,
as they had been led to believe. The streets' cobblestones were cold and hard. No work, no
money, no opportunity. Grown men ate portions of food too small for children, and children
ate much less. For every one job that opened up, fifty new immigrants streamed off Ellis
Island. Life was indeed hard, but hardest of all for those Jews who still clung to the
religion of their forefathers. Monday morning out on the streets looking for
worktake what you can getthen on Friday afternoon came the inevitable
question, "Are you coming in tomorrow?" "No." "Then don't come in
next Monday." This is how it went, week after week. Not many held on, not even the
Yaakov Cohen was one of these faithful. A descendent of a long line of distinguished rabbis, he could recite his family tree with ease. Furthermore, he was a Cohen, a Priest, another unending source of pride. He often dreamt of the day when the Holy Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt, and how he and his children would serve there. In his small town in Poland he was a prominent figure. His small grocery provided a modest living for his wife and four sons, but his real life centered around the community. He was the gabbai of the shul, ran a soup kitchen for the needy, gave classes to young married men, and every Friday afternoon, lit the golden candelabra in the synagogue, to welcome the oncoming Shabbos. He was a good Jew, and no one could question his faith.
But America was different. There were many Yaakov Cohens here, many other pious, but they had fallen before the onslaughts of hunger, sickness, and cold winter nights. Yaakov, like the others, had come with the dream of building a better life, and like so many others, he found his dream difficult to fulfill. His problem was accentuated by his appearance; his beard and peyos clearly labeled him a Shomer Shabbos, (Sabbath observer) and employers would hardly look at him. What could poor Yaakov do? Compromise crept in slowly. The peyos eventually went. The beard was trimmed, shorter and shorter, until it too was gone. But as for the holy Shabbosthat he would not touch, not even a hair.
However, the hunger of winter was the hardest of all, and Yaakov could find no work. Nothing. He walked the streets, peered into store windows, eavesdropped on the conversations of well-fed businessmen on street corners. Maybe, maybe. . . . Then one day he spied a little notice besides a drugstore telephone: "Bookkeeper wanted. Inquire 11-15 Delancey St. Second floor." Yaakov pulled the note down and stuffed it into his pocket. Moments later, he was ushered into a small office. A fat man with a foul smelling cigar showed him his job. "Here are the books. These are the entries. Here is what you write. This is what you add. It's a lot of work, and it must be done on time." Yaakov nodded, acceptingly. "And one more thing," the fat man added, "of course you work Saturdays." Yaakov looked down. He rubbed his dry, cracking hands, he stared at his worn, peeling shoes. He nodded, acceptingly.
Life changed after that, for better and for worse. Yes, there was food for Yaakov's family, but now, he hardly saw them. Off to work early in the morning, back late at night, and how many nights did he sleep at his desk? He found that if he worked very hard, he could silence the small nagging voice within him. Meanwhile, his sons were growing up. Without a strong father figure to guide them, their own commitment to Torah was becoming lax, and New York offered many distractions for these strong, young men. Only Yaakov's youngest son, Ephraim, maintained his childish faith. Still only nine years old, he enjoyed saying Tehilim, or studying Torah in the back rows of the corner shteible. Ephraim was very young when his family came to America. He did not remember Poland, and his memories of his father before his transformation were poignant, but fleeting. Still, he read the Chumash, and the Midrashim, and dreamt of a golden Temple in a Holy land where Priests served the living God. One day, he and his family would be there.
Time passed. Yaakov the Cohen became thin. Leaning over his books, his eyes became weak. He did not observe much of anything these days, and he would not remember the past.
It was a cold afternoon in late November. Ephraim Cohen was searching through his parents' bedroom closet, as children often do. Perhaps he was looking for a hidden treasure, or, since Chanukah was less than a week away, he may have been searching for a little flask of pure untouched olive oil. He found something just as good.
Among some old papers, an expired passport, a birth certificate, and some tattered greeting cards, he found an old black and white photo of a young boy wearing a pair of Tefillin. The boy's face shone with strength and intelligence, and he stood with a pride undimmed in the faded print. On the back was written the date 1901.
Ephraim brought the photo to his mother. "Mother, who is this?" he asked. His mother stared at it long, she turned it over, then over again. "I believe this is your father on his Bar-Mitzvah day," she sighed. "Is this father? Is this really father?" he said in disbelief. Ephraim ran down to the street where his oldest brother was unloading a wagon. "Shimi," he said, "who is this?" He examined the photo, and recognized something of that same look in his own little brother's eyes. "This is father," he said softly.
That night, the brothers sat around the kitchen table and sighed, passing the photo back and forth. "This is father. What has happened to him? What has happened to us? We must try to help."
Suddenly, Shimon the oldest spoke up. "I have an idea," he said. He ran to the hall closet and began shifting through the old newspapers, the yellowing tablecloths. After a moment he pulled out a faded blue cloth bag his father's Tefillin. Long unused, they had sat there patiently waiting. He ran back to his brothers, holding up his prize.
That night, a Wednesday, as Yaakov slept at his accounting desk, his oldest son quietly entered the office and placed the Tefillin on the table before him. When Yaakov awoke in the morning, he could not believe his eyes. It was as though a dream of the past had floated down into reality. He gently picked up the bag and smiled as he examined the gold and silver embroidery on the blue velvet. He put his hand inside and felt the smooth leather straps. What is written in Tefillin? "Hear, O' Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One." "And what is written in God's Tefillin?" the Talmud asks. "Who is like Your people Israel, a one nation on earth." Yaakov returned to his accounting, but throughout the day, as he wrote with his right hand, his left hand rested comfortably on the Tefillin bag before him.
That night Yaakov again fell asleep at his accounting table and in the still darkness, his second son, Nachum, slipped into the room and quietly laid his father's Tallis in front of him. When Yaakov awoke that next morning, a Friday, he blinked in disbelief. "What is going on here?" he thought. "Where did this come from? Is this real?" He rubbed the yellowing wool, he fingered the fraying tzitzis. It was real. He spread out the Tallis. It was worn and moth-eaten, a little like Yaakov himself. Still, there was a certain dignity to it. He remembered the High Holidays services, and how, even as a child, he would stand at the front of the synagogue, Tallis over his head and arms, and bless the people: "May God bless you and protect you. May God shine His face upon you and be gracious to you. May God lift His face to you, and bestow upon you peace." He had always meant it, as well.
"It's cold in here," he told himself, "Maybe this will keep me warm." He wrapped himself in the old Tallis and strangely, it did keep him warm. He bent over his work and continued, the ragged Tallis around his shoulders, his left hand resting upon the Tefillin.
Sometime towards dusk, Yaakov laid his head upon his arm and fell asleep. When he awoke it was already night. He looked up and saw what appeared to be two flaming angels hovering in the darkness before him. He blinked, rubbed his eyes, and beheld two Shabbos candles burning brightly on his desk. While he had slept, his third son had placed them there, made the blessing over the Shabbos, and left. Yaakov gave a great shudder. A flood of memories overwhelmed him. "Shabbos," he whispered to himself, "Shabbos, Shabbos."
Yaakov stared into those lights. He sat unmoving for hours as they slowly burned down. In those holy Shabbos lights he saw many things. He saw his own wife lighting Shabbos candles back in their home in Poland. He saw his mother, too, as she would pray for her family before the Shabbos lights, and his ruddy cheeked grandmother kindling, as well. Yaakov saw the oil lamps of the Beis HaMedrash, where scholars studied the holy Torah deep into the night. And he saw the Shabbos lights of his own shul, that he, himself, once lit.
His vision went back. He saw the lights that Jews had lit for thousands of yearsa million Chanukiot in a million homes. He saw the Cohen Godol tending the lights of the holy Menorah in the Sanctuary. The wars of the Chashmonaim, as they fought to reclaim their religion. He saw the countless Jews whose lives had ended in flames because they had refused to abandon their Torah. And, at the very end, before the candles died out, as they flickered their last, dull, orange and blue flame, he saw the destruction of Jerusalem, the burning of the Beis HaMikdash, and the beginning of the long, dark exile. Yaakov did not return home that night, nor Shabbos by day, nor Motzoi Shabbos, nor Sunday. And Sunday night was the first night of Chanukah.
In their small apartment, his four sons sat anxiously looking out the window. In their hands was a small candle that would serve as an impoverished Menorah. They watched the darkening horizon, waiting for the proper moment in which to light, but silently, their eyes scanned the streets, searching for something else. Darkness fell, the stars would soon appear.
"We may as well begin," Shimon, the oldest, finally said. At that moment, from down below on the street, they heard a call. "Shimon, Nachum, Tzvi, Ephraim. Come down!" It was their father! Like sparks from a bonfire they flew out the door and down the steps.
Standing in front of the house was Yaakov. Beside the door, in a small glass case, was a beautiful gold tinted Menorah. "My boys, my dear boys," he said, "you saved me. You did. You were the angels that brought about my deliverance. I've made many mistakes, I'll admit them, but from now on things will be different." His eyes were wet with tears. "Now, come, who will help me light the Menorah? We have only one candle tonight."
Shimon, the oldest, spoke up first. "Me, Father, because I brought you your Tefillin, it was really my idea." "Your right, my son, and it was a beautiful idea. It's what woke me up from my sleep." Nachum stepped forward. "Father, I brought you your Tallis." "Yes, my son, that too was important. It warmed my very soul." "Father," said Tzvi, "I lit the Shabbos candles." "Tzvi, that was most precious gift of all." He turned to Ephraim, the youngest. "What about you, Ephraim? What did you do?" "Nothing, father. Only I . . . I found an old photo of you in the closet, and I went around asking everyone, 'Is this father? Is this father?'"
His father paused. "Then to you, Ephraim, I owe the most. Because you cared enough to ask about me, and a man is never completely lost as long as someone cares for him. Your words woke up every one of us." He took Ephraim's hand. "Come boys, let us light the Menorah with your little brother, Ephraim." The brothers gathered around as Yaakov bent forward to light the Menorah, and there was joy in their hearts, because they knew their father had returned.
This story first appeared in Bas Ayin. It was reprinted in "Chosen Tales: Stories Told by Jewish Storytellers," edited by Peninnah Schram. Published by J. Aronson Inc.