Dedicated to the memory of Yeudel ben Fruma who passed away this week – may his inner inspiration and optimism be a light for all of us.
(to dedicate a future Table Talk, send an email)
Question for you and your table: What does that expression mean? How is “Happy Hannukah” different from “Happy Passover” or “Happy birthday”? Is it the same kind of happiness that we are wishing each other? Are there different kinds of happiness, or is happiness one-size-fits-all?
Two stories for you this week.
The first is from a reader of Table Talk, short and very sweet:
My favorite Chanukah story: I got engaged on the last night of Chanukah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. My husband-to-be told me that night that the time period of Chanukah contains tremendous power for dedication, and the eighth night contains the greatest potential for dedication of all. So, thank God, almost twenty-nine years ago we dedicated ourselves to each other, and we’ve been on an awesome journey together ever since.
Story number two is a legendary tale that has been around for years but getting more attention in the past year since a children’s book came out called “Hannukkah at Valley Forge”. Some wonder whether or not the story is true. The author himself notes:
"This story of George Washington and Hanukkah is based on facts, but the tale itself must be taken on faith. It is known that in December 1778, Washington had lunch at the home of Michael Hart, a Jewish Merchant in Easton, Pennsylvania (cited in Jacob Rader Marcus's United States Jewry 1776-1785). It was the middle of Hanukkah, and when Hart began to explain the holiday to the general, Washington replied that he knew it already. He then told the merchant and his family of meeting a Polish soldier at Valley Forge the year before. It was Hart's daughter Louisa who reportedly committed the story to her diary (which was later recounted in Rabbi I. Harold Sharfman's book Jews on the Frontier).
Since Washington himself kept no diary during the war years, he left no personal record of the event. Certainly, though, the story fits in with the curiosity and reactions Washington displayed on later occasions. In that spirit, some of Washington's dialogue here has been borrowed from his later writings in the hope of echoing his real voice."
Once source told me that the story is sourced in an actual letter or diary from this Jewish Polish immigrant solider in the Smithsonian; however, I have not yet been able to verify it. There are several versions circulating around, but they all agree on most of the details. Here is one version, written as the journal of one Jeremiah Greenman.
Chanukah 5538 (1777)
A difficult winter. Terrible cold. We are sitting in Valley Forge and waiting. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps for better days than these. I am the only Jew here. Perhaps there are other Jews among us, but I haven’t seen any. We hunger for bread. We have no warm clothing or shoes to protect our feet. Most of the soldiers curse George Washington for going to war against Britain.
There are those who hope for his downfall, but I believe that his cause is just. We must expel Britain from America. She wants to put her hands in everything her eyes see. Although we are suffering here terribly, I am loyal with all my heart to George Washington. More than once I see him at night, passing through the camp, between the rows of sleeping soldiers. He gazes with compassion upon the soldiers who are suffering from the cold. And sometimes he approaches one of the sleeping soldiers and covers him, as a father would cover his son.
There are times when the hunger and the freezing cold torture me to death. But I don’t curse General Washington who is fighting for the freedom of America. At moments like this I think of my father in Poland. I think about all that he suffers at the hand of the cruel "Poritz". I remember: I was a child then and I saw my father dancing before the Poritz. What an awful thing to see! My father was wearing the skin of a Polar bear - and danced like a bear before the Poritz and his guests.
What terrible pain! What great shame! My father dancing like a bear - and the "Poritzim" laughing and rejoicing at the sight. I decided then and there that I will never dance like my father before the Poritz. Afterwards, I escaped to America.
And now I am lying in Valley Forge and shivering from cold. They say that Washington is losing and that he can’t win this war. But I don’t believe all that. I lie at night and pray for him.
The first night of Chanukah arrives. On this night, years ago, I left my father’s house. My father gave us this Chanukah menorah and said to me, "My son, when you light the Chanukah candles, they will illuminate the way for you".
Since then, the Menorah has been like a charm for me. Wherever I go, I take it with me. I didn’t know what to do - to light the Chanukah candles here, among the goyim, or not. I decided to wait until they were all asleep, and then I took out my father’s Menorah. I made the brocha and lit the first candle. I gazed at the light and remembered my parents’ home. I saw my father dancing like a bear before the Poritz and I saw my mother’s eyes filled with tears. My heart was filled with pain and I burst out crying like a small child. And I decided then in my heart, that for the sake of my father and mother, for my brothers and sisters in Poland. I must help George Washington make America a free country, a land of refuge for my parents and brothers who are subjected to the cruelty of the Poritz.
Suddenly I felt a gentle hand touching my head. I lifted my eyes and it was he - he himself was standing over me and he asked, "Why are you crying, soldier? Are you cold? ".
Pain and compassion were in his voice. I couldn’t bear to see him suffer. I jumped up, forgot that I was a soldier standing before a General, and said what came from my heart, like a son speaking to his father:
"General Washington," I said, "I am crying and praying for your victory. And I know that with the help of G-d we will win. Today they are strong, but tomorrow they will fall because justice is with us. We want to be free in this land. We want to build a home here for all those who flee from the hands of "Poritzim", for all who suffer across the ocean. The "Poritzim" will not rule over us! They will fall and you will rise!" General Washington pressed my hand.
"Thank you, soldier," he said. He sat next to me on the ground, in front of the Menorah.
"What is this candlestick?", he asked.
I told him, "I brought it from my father’s house. The Jews all over the world light candles tonight, on Chanukah, the holiday of the great miracle".
The Chanukah candles lit up Washington’s eyes, and he asked, "You are a Jew from the nation of Prophets and you say we will be victorious?!"
"Yes sir," I answered with conviction. "We will win just like the Maccabees won, for ourselves and for all those who come here after us to build a new land and new lives."
The General got up and his face was shining. He shook my hand and disappeared in the darkness.
My faith prevailed. Washington’s victory was complete. The land was quiet. My General became the first President of the United States and I was one of its citizens. I soon forgot the terrible days and nights in Valley Forge. But I kept the memory of that first night of Chanukah in my heart like a precious dream. I did not relate it to anyone because I said to myself: Who will believe me? I was certain that the General forgot it completely. But that was not the case. He didn’t forget.
The first night of Chanukah 5549 (1788)
I was sitting in my apartment in New York, on Broome Street, and the Chanukah candles were burning in my window. Suddenly, I heard a knock at my door. I opened the door and was shocked: my General, President George Washington, was standing in the doorway (there himself), in all his glory. "Behold the wonderful candle. The candle of hope of the Jewish People," he proclaimed joyously when he saw the Chanukah candles in my window.
He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "This candle and your beautiful words ignited a light in my heart that night. It was a bleak time for our army and for our country, and your candle gave me knew hope and courage. Soon you will receive a Medal of Honor from the United States of America, together with all of the brave men of Valley Forge. But tonight, please accept my wishes for a Happy Hannukah."
Happy Hannukah and Shabbat Shalom.