By R.M. Grossblatt
On the first day of Chanukah at Torah Academy, all the second-graders walked into class with gifts tucked under their arms or stuffed into their book bags.
All except me. My father was out of work, and we couldn’t afford Chanukah gifts. But nobody at school knew it.
“Where’s your present, Jacob?” asked my friend Avi, showing me a set of walkie-talkies.
I shrugged but couldn’t say anything.
“I got a super-duper highway,” said Matt, setting up tracks on the floor.
“Look at my singing dreidel,” said Debbie. On her desk she spun a bright red top that lighted up and played “I Had a Little Dreidel.”
“Did you get the chemistry set you wanted?” Avi asked me.
“No,” I answered. “But I lighted a candle in my menorah, and while it was burning, my father grabbed my hand and the hands of my little brother and sister, and we danced around in a circle.”
“Oh,” Avi said. I knew that he wondered why I didn’t get the chemistry set, but I didn’t know how to tell him that my father was out of work.
“Can I try one of your walkie-talkies?” I asked.
“Sure,” Avi said. “Go out and see if you can hear me.”
Just as I reached the door, Mrs. Goldberger walked in. Now the walkie-talkies, super-duper highway, singing dreidel and all the other gifts had to be put away.
On the second day of Chanukah, the children came to school with more gifts. All except me.
“What did you get for Chanukah?” Avi asked, showing me his new, oversized “Captain Calamity” comic book.
“I lighted two candles in my menorah,” I said. “And while they were burning, I danced again with my father. Then he told me how during the days of the Temple, King Antiochus tried to stop the Jews from being Jewish.”
“How did he do that?” Avi asked.
“He took away our rights to celebrate Shabbat and holidays and practice Jewish law,” I told him.
“I remember,” said Avi, but I knew that he still wondered why I didn’t get a gift. At lunchtime we took turns reading from the “Captain Calamity” comic book and laughed at the pictures.
On the third day of Chanukah, Matt was searching the reading corner for one of his race cars that got lost flying off the super-duper highway. Debbie twirled a blue singing dreidel because her red one broke, and Avi showed me a bag of tiger-eye marbles.
“Did you get your chemistry set yet?” he asked.
“Not yet,” I answered. “But I lighted 3 candles in my menorah. While they were burning, I danced and sang ‘Oh, Chanukah, Oh, Chanukah’ with my father. Then we talked about how a small band of Jews led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers conquered King Antiochus and his huge army of soldiers, who were riding on elephants!”
“Um-hm,” Avi said. “You can have one of my marbles.” He rolled a green-and-yellow tiger-eye across my desk.
“Thanks!” I said. The marble landed on the floor in front of Mrs. Goldberger, who almost stepped on it.
“Time for math,” she said, picking up the tiger-eye. “How much is six tiger-eye marbles plus three, minus one?”
On the fourth and fifth nights of Chanukah, I lighted the candles in my menorah and danced wildly around and around with my father. The next day in school, I didn’t care that Avi asked again about my Chanukah present. I could hardly wait to dance wildly with my father again.
But on the sixth night of Chanukah, my mother and I had to wait until my father came home from interviewing for a job. He walked into the house with his head down. I knew that he probably didn’t get the job.
When I lighted my menorah, Daddy sort of smiled. So I grabbed his hands and the hands of my little brother and sister and started dancing. Then Daddy took just my hands in his and whirled me around and around. When we finished dancing, we both collapsed into chairs. My little sister and brother begged Daddy to whirl them around too.
The next day, after school, Avi came home with me in carpool. I lent him the clay menorah I made in kindergarten. As soon as the stars came out, we each lighted seven candles in the window and danced and sang with my father and little brother and sister. With Avi joining us, it was easier to form a circle.
Then we sat down to a meal of my mother’s famous cheese blintzes and sizzling potato latkes. While we dipped the latkes in applesauce, we spoke about how the Jews cleaned up the Temple and found one jar of pure oil — only enough to light the menorah for one day.
“But it lasted for eight days,” I said, “enough time for the Jews to get more pure oil.”
My father smiled. Then my mother brought out dessert: sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), in honor of Chanukah.
“That’s why,” said my father, winking, “we get to eat latkes and doughnuts fried in oil.” I hadn’t seen my father wink in a long time.
When Avi bit into the soft, round doughnut, raspberry jelly squeezed out. “Yum,” he said. Then he whispered, “Maybe we should search your room for your present.”
“I don’t think so,” I whispered back.
On the eighth night of Chanukah, I lighted eight candles in my menorah and listened as Daddy told how over 2,000 years ago, when the Chanukah story took place, children learned Torah in caves — all the time pretending to play the game of dreidel.
“It’s a miracle they weren’t discovered,” my mother said.
“A miracle could happen, and Daddy could get a new job,” I said.
“Yes, he could,” said my mother, looking at Daddy. Then my father winked and danced so fast with me and my little sister and brother that our feet hardly touched the floor.
The next morning in school, Avi lined up behind me on the playground as Rabbi Rosenbaum, the principal, announced, “It’s the last day of Chanukah. How about chocolate-chip latkes and ice cream for lunch?”
“Did you get a present?” Avi asked as we walked in line toward the classroom.
“Yes,” I said.
“You did?” Avi asked, stopping in the middle of the line, which caused two boys behind him to collide.
“First I lighted eight candles in my menorah and ran outside to see how they looked in the window,” I told Avi. “The lights in all our menorahs lighted up the whole miracle for everyone to see. Then my father and I and my little sister and brother, even my mother, joined hands in a circle and danced and danced and danced. We sang every Chanukah song we knew. Afterward, we fell into our chairs at the kitchen table for our last night of latkes and warmed, leftover sufganiyot.”
“But what about the present?” Avi asked.
“Oh, the present,” I said, and winked. “After dinner, I played dreidel with my little sister and brother and won this.” I held a bag bulging with gold-wrapped coins.
“Chocolate Chanukah gelt?” Avi said. “That’s sort of a present, I guess.”
I knew he didn’t understand why I didn’t get the chemistry set. Still, I couldn’t explain, but at lunch I shared the Chanukah gelt. By the time lunch recess was over, we finished the whole bag. In the afternoon, we couldn’t go back to class because we had to see Mrs. Marks, the school nurse.
As we trudged to the nurse’s office, holding our stomachs, Avi asked, “Why didn’t you get a real present for Chanukah?”
“Maybe I did,” I told him.
“You mean the chocolate gelt?” Avi asked as Mrs. Marks poured pink medicine into a spoon.
“Besides that,” I said. “I mean the kind of gift you don’t eat up, lose or break.”
“What kind of gift is that?” my friend asked as Mrs. Marks poured the pink potion for me also.
“Maybe the kind I’ll remember forever, like lighting my own menorah in the window and dancing with my father each night of Chanukah.”
“Hmm,” Avi said as we walked back to class. “Don’t you want a chemistry set?”
“Sure. Maybe I’ll get one for my birthday,” I said.
Avi shook his head and sighed. That’s when I decided to share my secret with my best friend.
“I have to tell you something,” I said quietly. “My father is out of work. That’s why I could only get chocolate gelt.”
“Jacob, why didn’t you tell me?” asked Avi, putting his arm around my shoulder.
I shrugged. I didn’t know why I couldn’t tell Avi, but I was glad I finally did.
As we reached our classroom, we heard lively Chanukah music behind the closed door. Inside, Debbie was spinning her blue dreidel, which sounded a little like a broken CD, on every desk. Matt was racing a new car down his super-duper highway. And all the other children were playing with their Chanukah gifts.
“Join the party,” Mrs. Goldberger said.
“Can I share my gift?” I asked.
“Of course, Jacob,” she said.
“Everybody make a circle,” I said, grabbing my friends’ hands, “and let’s dance!”
So Avi, and I and all the students in second grade joined hands and danced and sang Chanukah songs until the bell rang.
Then all the second-graders stuffed their gifts back into their book bags. All except me. I swung my book bag over my shoulder and, humming a Chanukah tune, hurried out the door to dance away the last moments of Chanukah with Daddy.