by Menucha Levin
This piece is nostalgia-reversed. Whereas we like to think
back on old times as the good ol' days, this forward looking writer
finds joy in the present and is happy to have come this far.
When I was thirteen years old, my family moved to a tiny Jewish
community located deep in the isolated pine forests of northern Ontario,
Canada. It had flourished in the years before the Depression and there
were still the remanants of a once-vibrant place of Yiddishkeit, about
thirty families in all, mainly middle-aged or elderly people. All
the young people left as soon as they finished high school, relocating
in the large cities of Toronto or Montreal. The shul was a solid looking
brick structure, situated on the main street. At the back of the building
there was even a mikve, now sadly unused, its walls green with
My father, z'l, was hired to be the rabbi and cheder
rebbe in this tiny outpost. Although he had obtained smicha
from R' Kahaneman at the esteemed Ponevizher Yeshiva in Lithuania,
his European accent and `old fashioned' outlook made it difficult
for him to obtain a position in a larger center where American pronunication
and an impressive vocabulary were considered necessary qualifications
for a community rabbi.
We arrived at that little northern town on the first of December.
I can still remember descending from the train in the morning darkness
and feeling the most freezing blast of air that I had ever experienced.
It must have blown in directly from the North Pole! But when we complained
of the bitter cold, the locals merely laughed. "Oh, this isn't
even real winter yet. It's fall." They smirked. "Winter doesn't
arrive for another three weeks." I could not begin to imagine
anything more glacial. Obtaining a thick, warm blue scarf, I wound
it tightly around my face and no one knew what I really looked like
until spring came. Once the temperature dropped to minus 39 degrees
Fahrenheit. Snow fell for ten months of the year.
We soon realized it was time for that season - that bright, colorful
time of jangling tunes when the goyim celebrate and all Jews, even
the most secular, feel alienated and realize deep down that they are
a minority and do not really belong. Our house was the only one on
the street undecorated by flashy colored lights. Only Hashem's pure
white snow, thick as whipped cream, adorned our roof and windows.
And when we lit our menorah that year (how my younger sister and I
loved choosing the pretty little colored candles), it really was a
brave beacon shining into the vast alien darkness which surrounded
We stayed eighteen months in that small community [only two of
which were snowless]. My father did his best, teaching Hebrew to the
children, scraping up a minyan for davening, delivering
the occasional dvar Torah (which I helped him write up) and
patiently preparing two `problem' boys for their bar mitzvahs, one
tone-deaf and the other developmentally delayed. Every evening I used
to wait at the back of that bare little cheder classroom, huddled
near the hot hissing radiator. The bar mitzvah tunes echoed over and
over in my head until I, too, knew them by heart. Then my father and
I would walk home together in the surprisingly beautiful night, the
thick snow crunching beneath our boots, air cold as ice-water, stars
large and very bright in the dark, frigid sky. When the boys' bar
mitzvahs finally arrived, their performances astounded the community
and their parents were thrilled.
My father also helped one other boy who had gone to religious
summer camp and upon his return, insisted that his mother begin keeping
kosher. She, however, was less than thrilled, as kashrus was no easy
task in the middle of that frozen wilderness. Kosher meat came from
Toronto, over four hundred miles away by train, and when it arrived
at the station, we went to `meet our meat,' as I described it. My
mother had to bake her own challas for Shabbos, not out of choice
as I do now, but of necessity. Yet, somehow, my father managed to
persuade this woman to keep kosher for her `unusual' son.
But eighteen months there was long enough, and we moved far away
from that icy, isolated little town in the middle of nowhere. The
years went by. My parents grew older. My sister and I married. We
all talked of making aliya to Eretz Yisroel, but, sadly, my father
never lived to see that dream become reality. Finally, however, after
many years of planning, my husband, children and I were privileged
to move here.
One day, during our first Chanuka, I found myself in Jerualem
with errands to do and by the time I caught the bus to our home in
the suburbs, the sun had already set. Menorahs began to glow in many
of the windows we passed by. Then, as the bus journeyed toward our
neighborhood, we went through a section where, unfortunately, few
of the inhabitants are yet observant, and it was dark, a sad reminder
that we are still in exile, even here, and will be until Moshiach
comes. But at least, in the meantime, Chanuka here is still a holiday
for the majority and one can blessedly forget about that other goyishe
calendar-time- of-the-year which barely exists here at all.
Then, suddenly, the bus rounded a curve and descended into our
new, all- religious area. Everywhere I looked, every single window
blazed with beautiful menorah lights, brightly joined in banishing
the darkness. Realizing how far I had traveled in every sense, I felt
grateful that, unlike me, my children will grow up having this as
their own special memory of Chanukah.