Garn Press Book Excerpts: The Smart One A Grandfather’s Tale by Author Ken Goodman – Chapter Four “Chanukah: December 1903”
The future is often foretold in stories of the past. As families flee the Debaltseve in Eastern Ukraine in 2015, Ken Goodman’s The Smart One: A Grandfather’s Tale takes us back to families fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe at the turn of the Twentieth Century. It is a compelling story of Jewish migration to America, which begins in Smorgon, now in Belarus, a former Soviet Republic, but at the time Smorgon was in Vilnius, a district of Lithuania, and a part of the Russian Empire. The book is beautifully illustrated throughout with fine line drawings by Ray Martens. “To understand who we are as Americans,” Ken Goodman writes, “we need to understand who we were and where we have been.” The Smart One: A Grandfather’s Tale does just that. It is a book to be read aloud at Chanukah and Passover, and at Yom Kippur, but also at other times by families of different religious and cultural traditions, who share with Duvid Mendel Gutman and his family an indomitable human spirit and hope for the future.
The Smart One: A Grandfather’s Tale
Recommended by Garn Press for Chanukah. 20% off the paperback book through January 2, 2017 on Amazon, just $14.35.
Purchase on Amazon, 20% off now through January 2, 2017.
Author: Ken Goodman
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-942146-11-7
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-942146-10-0
eBook ISBN: 978-1-942146-09-4
Garn Press Imprint: Imagination and the Human Spirit
The Smart One: A Grandfather’s Tale
Chanukah: December 1903
Next to Simchas Torah I like Chanukah best. Papa says it’s not an important Jewish holiday and it’s only because it comes around the time of Christmas that we make much fuss about it. Of course Kate and Anna have a different view. They say Chanukah is the story of Jews who fought the armies of King Antiochus. He was like the Russian Czar of those times. He wanted the Jews to dress and act like Greeks and bow down to the Greek Gods. Judah Maccabee and his brothers got all the Jews together to drive out the Greek soldiers. Kate says the Jews of Smorgon can fight the bosses of the factories and soldiers of the Czar.
Chanukah comes at the beginning of winter when the days get very short and the nights get very long in Smorgon. Around Chanukah, when we get up it’s dark and the sun is only up a few hours before it starts to get dark again.
Chanukah lasts for eight nights. We have a candle holder, a menorah, with places for eight candles and one more to hold the candle we light the others with. Every night we light one more candle in the menorah. One the first night, two the second night, until on the last night we light eight candles.
Papa says that we light candles to celebrate a miracle that happened long ago. When the Jews drove the Greek soldiers out of Judea, they found the Greek soldiers had made a mess of the temple in Jerusalem. When they cleaned it up, they needed to light the lamps in the temple but they could only find enough olive oil to last for one night. But a miracle happened. The oil lasted for eight nights until they could get more olive oil.
In Smorgon, Christian children get presents from somebody called Father Christmas. We get Chanukah gelt – money. Sarale and I would each get a kopek from Papa on the first night of Chanukah. Sometimes, if there were guests, they would also give us each a kopek.
On this particular Chanukah, when I was six and a half, I got an idea. I would get enough Chanukah gelt to buy myself a special toy I saw in the market. It was a hoop with a stick. You use the stick to make the hoop roll.
I said to Papa, “You need to give me two kopeks the second night and four the third night and eight the next night. Each night you should give me twice as many as the night before.”
“And how many kopeks would you have all together at the end?” said Papa.
“A lot,” I said. “Enough to buy a toy I saw in the market.”
“Can you figure out exactly how many kopeks you would have?” said Maish “If you got one the first night and two the second night what would you have?”
“Three,” I said.
And four more the next night? “Seven,” I said.
“So,” said Maish. “Double each night. How many will you have on the eighth night?”
I thought for a long time. And then I said, “255 kopeks.”
“That’s right,” said Maish. Everybody clapped for me.
“Very good, my clever boy,” said Mama. “There’s only one problem with your idea. We don’t have 255 kopeks. You’re lucky to get one kopek.”
Everybody laughed but I didn’t think it was funny. Papa has a saying. “It’s not a shame to be poor, but it’s not an honor either.” In America I would become rich but it wouldn’t hurt to start before I got there.
Most nights of the year we had potatoes for dinner. Mama took the skins off and boiled them. Some night that’s all we had, with, maybe, a piece of black bread and a little butter. One of Maish’s friends wrote a song about potatoes too. In Yiddish potatoes are bulbas. Here’s the potato song:
Tuesday and Wednesday bulbas
Over and over, bulbas
Shabbos for a real treat,
A bulba kugela
Sunday once again bulbas
A kugela is a little kugel and a kugel is a pudding. You can make them from noodles or matzah but I liked potato kugels the best. Mama’s kugels are crispy and brown on the outside and soft in the middle. During the eight days of Chanukah, Mama makes delicious pancakes from potatoes. We call the pancakes latkes. For potato pancakes you peel the raw potatoes and then rub them over something Mama calls her “ribeisen.” It’s a piece of metal with lots of little raised edges to cut the potatoes into fine pieces to make the pancake batter. I got to help rubbing the potatoes. You have to be careful how you hold the potatoes or you can scrape some skin off your fingers too.
Mama adds eggs, chopped up onion and salt and pepper to the potatoes. Then she drops spoonfuls into hot fat in her heavy iron frying pan. She knows how to make them so that they’re crispy and golden brown all over. We eat them with sour cream or fresh apple sauce that Mama makes from apples our neighbors grow.
Every evening during Chanukah is like a small party. At sundown we’d light the right number of candles and Papa would say a Chanukah prayer. Then we’d sing a Chanukah song and have our potato latkes. And then Sarah and I and some of our friends would play a game of dreidle. You can play dreidle for money. But Mama only lets us play for nuts. First everybody puts a nut in the middle. Then you spin the dreidle. When it stops the Hebrew letter that shows on the top of the dreidle tells you to put two in, take two out, take half, or take all. Sarah and I play and sometimes our other sisters play too. Sometimes, even Mama and Papa play with us.
Chanukah is not a holiday where people get to stay home from work so Kate and Anna only got to be home on Friday night. So on Friday night we had a really big party. Maish came and brought a beef brisket, a wonderful kind of meat that Mama cooked to go with our potato latkes. Some of my sisters’ friends came over after dinner and a few gave Sarah and me Chanukah gelt. After we had dinner and lit the Menorah, Maish taught us a new Chanukah song.
While we were playing dreidle, I kept wishing we were playing for kopeks instead of nuts. All the Jewish kids got a few kopeks for Chanukah gelt. If we played dreidle for money, I could win all their kopeks. Of course, I could also lose. Anyway Mama wouldn’t let us play for money.
But then I got a really great idea. I thought of a way to get the other kids’ money without playing dreidle. Every Thursday afternoon all of our neighbors started getting ready for Shabbos which starts on Friday night. It was the job of one kid in each family to bring a live chicken to my Papa to kill for their Friday night dinner. There’s a special way to kill a chicken for it to be kosher and only somebody like Papa was allowed to do that.
None of the kids liked carrying a live chicken upside down with its feet tied together. The chickens squawked and tried to peck them. And they didn’t like watching Papa kill the chickens.
Sometimes they would bring the chickens to me and I would take them to Papa to kill and then I would bring the chicken back to them to take home. Sometimes they’d give me a cookie or a pretty rock for this. But this Chanukah they all had Chanukah gelt. So I decided that each kid would have to pay a kopek for my help with the chickens.
It worked fine. At first the kids didn’t want to pay me their Chanukah gelt so I just said, “So carry your own chicken to my Papa.” So then they paid me a kopek for each chicken.
Papa was a little surprised when almost every chicken he killed that afternoon was brought to him by me. “How are you so lucky to get this job?” he asked. “I’m just helping my friends,” I said.
“The other kids don’t like to watch you kill the chickens.”
“You’re a good boy, my yingele. You’ll have lots of friends if you help them when they need your help.” I didn’t tell Papa I made them pay me. What’s the difference if they pay me or not? I’m still helping them.
Finally, one Thursday, which was market day in Smorgon, I had enough to buy the hoop. With my own Chanukah gelt and the money I got from the other kids for the chickens, I had 25 kopeks. Not very many of my friends had any toys they bought. What they had were homemade. They’d all be surprised when they saw me rolling the hoop as I ran by them.
When Mama took me with her that morning I asked her if I could go to Yussele’s house to play. But when I got there I told Yussele we were going to the market. I told him I had enough money to buy a hoop and we could play with it after I bought it.
The market was not far from Yussele’s house in Smorgon. We found Mrs. Levinsky, the lady who sold toys and I was about to give her my money, when I felt Dvoira’s hand on my shoulder. “Mama,” she said. “Look who is here.” And there were Mama and Sarale too. They were shopping for our Shabbos dinner.
I tried to put the money back in my pocket but Mama caught my hand. “Duvidel, where did you get so much money?”
“It’s his Chanukah gelt,” said Yussele. “I got three kopeks.”
“There’s a lot more than that here,” said Mama. “Duvidel, tell me the truth. How did you get so much money?”
“I wanted to get this hoop,” I said. “So I made each kid pay me a kopek to bring the chickens to Papa. They didn’t mind paying me.”
Dvoira took my money and counted it. “There’s 25 kopeks here,” she said. “That’s as much as the girls who work in the bagel bakeries make in a whole day. And they have to work 15 hours for that.”
Mama turned to Mrs. Levinsky. “Nu, Malka, how much is this toy, It doesn’t look like it’s very well made. It probably isn’t even new.”
Mrs. Levinsky looked Mama in the eye. “That hoop comes from the best factory in Minsk,” she said. “I go to the fair in Minsk and bring back only the best made toys. I usually sell it for 40 kopeks, but for your clever little boy, who earned his own money, I’ll only charge 25 kopeks.”
“Never mind,” said Mama. “He doesn’t have to buy your hoop. We’ll go to Mrs. Shapiro who has better toys and better prices. Sell it to some foolish person that doesn’t know any better.”
I would have been worried because I really wanted that hoop. But I knew what Mama was doing. It’s called bargaining. So when Mama started to walk away, Dvoira and Sarale and I went too.
“All right, take it for 20,” Mrs. Levinsky said. “I’m losing money but you’re a good friend.”
“It’s not worth more than five,” said Mama. “Come, Duvid Mendel.” And she kept walking away.
After another ten minutes of going back and forth: 18-6, 17-7 I finally got the hoop for 10 kopeks. I paid Mrs. Levinsky and counted 15 kopeks I had left. I was so happy I had my hoop and I could buy a lot more stuff.
“I saw a knife that I can keep in my pocket,” I said, and I started to run toward the knife stall. But Mama’s hand caught my collar and pulled me back.
“Hold out your hand with the money,” she said. I did what she said and she took 10 kopeks from me. “This is what you give your family to help us give you food and a warm place to sleep.”
“Kate and Anna give Mama all of their pay and she gives them back what they need to spend each week,” said Dvoira. “I do that too when I do work for our neighbors.”
I knew this was only right and I still had five kopeks. “I’m going to buy some candy,” I said.
“For one kopek you can buy enough candy to share with Yussele and your sisters,” Mama said.
“But if I spend five kopeks I’ll get a lot more,” I said.
“No,” said Mama. “The candy will be gone in no time and you’ll have nothing to show for your money. You must think of something that’s more sensible.”
What could I buy with my four kopeks? Yussele thought I should buy another toy but Mama said one was enough. Then Dvoira said, “Follow me. I know just the thing for my clever little brother.”
She led us to the bookseller. “But can I get a book for 4 kopeks?” I said.
“Only an old torn one,” said Dvoira. “But you can buy a copy book to write in. You can keep track of all the money you make with your ideas and you can practice your writing. I’ll help you.”
So that’s how I got the copy book that I’m writing in now to remember what happened to me and my family in Karka and Smorgon.
Mama finished her shopping and I was proud that she had my 10 kopeks to buy extra things for our Shabbos dinner. Then we took Yussele home and he and I took turns rolling the hoop so his family could see my new toy.
When we got to our house, Papa heard the story of the money I made and the hoop and copy book I bought. I could see he wasn’t too angry. But he took his time before he talked to me and he spoke in a very serious voice.
“Our neighbors pay me to kill their chickens,” he said. “They are generous with us and share what they grow. You must not make their children give you their Chanukah gelt for helping them bring me chickens. We’re all poor here and we help each other. Your friends should enjoy their Chanukah gelt. They only get it once a year.”
I promised Papa I would not make my friends pay for my help. I also promised I would let them have turns playing with my hoop. And I did. Three turns for one kopek.
Recommended by Garn Press for Chanukah. 20% Off through January 2, 2017 on Amazon, just 14.35.
Purchase on Amazon, 20% off now through January 2, 2017.