A sharp wind entered the small house. Closing the door behind him, Chaim brushed the snow off his pants, pulled his prayer book from his woolen coat's inside pocket, and hung the wrap on a wooden peg by the door. Looking into the front room he found that a handful of his friends were already seated cross-legged on the floor, chatting quietly, their prayer books open.
"Shalom, Chaim," a young boy, with mousy brown hair and a mischievous grin, said in muffled tones. "Sit by me today, OK?"
Chaim smiled and took his place beside his friend.
"Get your lesson done, Eli?"
"Mostly," Eli whispered. "Had trouble memorizing Judah Maccabee's father's name."
One more student arrived, sitting to Chaim's left.
Soon Maxim Lainer entered the room. He scrutinized each face, and after assuring himself there were no uninvited guests, locked the front door and pulled the drapes closed.
"OK. Let us begin with the Shema."
The students rose, and Mr. Lainer gestured that they begin. Seven voices, in not-so-perfect chorus, then recited the six most precious words in all Judaism: "Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad."
"And who remembers it in Russian?"
About half of the boys raised their hands. Mr. Lainer gestured toward Chaim.
"Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,"* Chaim recited in his native tongue.
Mr. Lainer smiled and nodded, signaling for the boys to sit down.
"Who can tell me what starts at sundown today?"
"Hanukkah!" several boys shouted, with huge smiles on their faces.
Mr. Lainer looked at them disapprovingly and went to the front room window. He peered out for a moment, and then replaced the drapery.
"You boys should know better than that--keep those voices down!"
The boys muttered apologies.
"Well, despite that, you are right, of course. Hanukkah does start this evening. We have already talked about it, but who can tell me why we celebrate Hanukkah?"
Several boys raised their hands. Mr. Lainer acknowledged Eli.
"King Antiochus had said Jews could not follow their traditions, and he'd turned the Temple into a place for idol worship-he even sacrificed a pig on the altar! Judah Maccabee and his brothers fought against him and his huge army, and we won!"
"That's right. Can someone else tell me why Hanukkah is eight days?"
Chaim raised his hand and was recognized.
"Once they got the temple back, they could only find enough holy oil for the temple menorah² to last for one day, but it lasted for eight days, which was long enough for them to make more."
"Very good, boys. I have some more information to share about this holiday--an historical fact you might find quite interesting. Does anyone know why playing dreidel is part of the holiday celebration?"
Mr. Lainer pulled a small, wooden top from his pocket. It had four sides, with a different Hebrew letter on each face.
"To help us remember the miracle of the oil lasting eight days?" one boy volunteered.
"Sure, Nathan, that is part of it. The letters on the dreidel do stand for "Nes Gadol Hayah Sham"-a great miracle happened there. However, the main reason was to protect the Syrian Jews from the government that forbade them from practicing their religion."
That got their attention. All eyes were glued on Mr. Lainer.
"You mean, like us, sir?" Eli asked in amazement.
Mr. Lainer nodded. "When Jews were under Syrian control, it was against the law to study Torah, just as it is here in Communist Russia. But, just like us, they followed God's commandments--his mitzvot--and studied anyway."
"But what does that have to do with a dreidel?"
Smiling, Mr. Lainer continued. "A student would always keep a dreidel in his pocket. If the police came by, he would close his book, pull the dreidel out and pretend to be playing."
Mr. Lainer then pulled several dreidels out of his pocket, giving one to each boy. He allowed them to play a while before having them put the dreidels away and get back to the lesson.
"Let's review the three blessings that are said over the Hanukkah candles tonight. Turn in your prayer books to page..."
Mr. Lainer turned with a start as he heard an insistent, repetitive pounding on the door. He put his books in a closet, stuffed his dreidel back in his pocket and went cautiously to the door.
A glance through the peephole relieved his fear of the authorities, but the look on his dear friend Slava's face did not calm him completely.
He let Slava in, locking the door behind him. The two men sat at a card table and spoke in hushed tones.
"Maxim, your nephew Joshua was arrested-they caught him reciting his morning prayers."
"Oy vey! How are Marina and Igor taking it?"
"Not well--they weren't home, but neighbors saw it and let them know. Igor and Marina want Nathan with them. I've come to take him home."
"Understandable. I'll get him right now."
He turned to his students, and found them sitting on their prayer books, intensely playing with their dreidels.
Mr. Lainer smiled in spite of himself.
"You boys learn quickly, and it is a good thing. Nathan, you need to go home with Mr. Linksy."
Nathan grabbed his things and left.
"Now boys, we must be especially careful. Joshua was caught praying this morning, and has been arrested."
The entire group gasped.
"Do not give up the faith, boys - but do it safely. We must keep Judaism alive. Do your mitzvot, but do them carefully, and in secret."
Another boy raised his hand.
"But, Mr. Lainer, aren't we supposed to light our menorahs** and put them in our windows?"
Mr Lainer nodded.
"That kind of display, Alex," Mr. Lainer sighed, "would not be wise."
* * *
* Deuteronomy 6:4, JPS
** Hanukkah candelabrum