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Who Am I? A Hanukkah Story From Chelm


8th Night of Hanukkah & Festival of Light Concert
 Sunday December 5th 2021



Who Am I? A Hanukkah Story

Adapted by Jordan Michels from
Let’s Steal the Moon,
Jewish Tales Ancient and Recent
by Blanche Serwer-Bernstein

Many Jews today can trace their roots back to what my grandparents called the ‘Old Country’. To them, the places they came from seemed worn out, superstitious and impoverished. They had come to the ‘New Country’ which was smart, modern, rational and scientific. Don’t you too sometimes think we are much better, more advanced and wiser than our ancestors.

But I suspect that if my grandparents were able to see the mess we have created, they would ask us to remember the ancestors as a blessing, and tell us with some colorful Yiddish that we might learn a great deal from the fools of the ‘Old Country’.

All towns have their fools, but Chelm, in particular, was full of fools. Not just any fools, but very wise fools who weighed very important matters.

For example, the 6th night of Hanukkah falls on the new moon of Tevet, the darkest night of the month, closest to the shortest day of the year. And so it was, that the wise folks of Chelm sometimes debated whether it was the Sun or the Moon which was more important.

Schloime, the baker, said, “Es muz zeyn di zun (it must be the Sun)!”, as it provides a bright light so we could work all day.

Itzig, the butcher, said, “Es iz di livOne! The moon must be more important as it can move the whole ocean. So, they made a wager. They debated until finally they decided to bring the matter to the Rebbe. Reb Leib was surely the wisest fool of all of all Chelm.

Reb Leib put his finger to head, scratched his beard and thought for some time. “It is the LivOne, of course! Does it not shaynen bay nakht when it is most needed? But the sun shines only during the day when it is light anyway, so it is not really needed at all.”

Well, as powerful an argument as this was, Schloime remained unconvinced, “We must consult a counsel of Rebbes.” Since Chelm had but one Rebbe, the wager stood.

One Shabbos, Schloime traveled with the Rebbe to Cracow. The baker had to get up before dawn to catch the early train home so he could begin baking bread for the townsfolk. The innkeeper, as instructed, woke him promptly before sunrise. Not wanting to wake the Rebbe, he got dressed in the dim light of the moon. The baker accidently grabbed the Rebbe’s long gabardine gown and slid his arms through the sleeves.

As he hurried through the cold streets to make the train, he wrapped his cloak about him for protection, never noticing the error.

When he arrived at the station, the baker stopped short before his own reflection at the station mirror. Seeing the long gown he exclaimed in anger, “Vas a schmegegge that innkeeper is! I asked him to wake me, and instead he woke the Rebbe!”

Ever since that morning at the station, the baker was plagued with questions of identity. “Ver bin ich (who am I) really? How do I know I am not a shvindl (an imposter)?'' So, he looked in the mirror. “I look like Schloime; I dress like a baker. I surely must be Schloime, the baker.”

Well, that seemed a perfectly sensible and satisfactory answer. At least until one Friday afternoon while preparing for Shabbos, when the men of the town took their customary Mikvah in the public baths.

Schloime was removing his clothes, including his baker’s hat and smock, when he had a frightening thought, “Without my clothing no one will recognize me. They won’t know it is I, Schloime, the Baker. I could be mistaken for Yosele, the shoemaker, and have to spend days at the cobbler’s bench. Or I might be taken for Moshe, the water carrier, obliged to carry heavy skins of water through the cold early morning streets.” Every Friday as he undressed for the mikvah this fear grew in him till he could bear it no longer.

Finally, he came up with a solution. “Before going to the baths, I vel bindn a roytn shtrik (I will tie a red string) arum meyn knekhl (around my ankle). This string will be proof of who I am.” Now, as he sat naked in the bath, when he began to worry, he simply looked down at his feet and seeing the string again felt confident as to who he was.

He enjoyed his Baths for several months. But then one day a terrible thing happened. As he was getting undressed, his pants caught the string and loosened the bow. He didn’t notice the string fall to the ground. Schloime climbed out of the baths feeling warm, clean and happy. He felt so happy he pinched himself to be sure it was really him. To be doubly sure, he looked down at his ankle for the red string. That would be proof beyond a doubt.

The String was not there. He panicked. “Maybe I’m not me! And if I am not me then who am I?'' He became paralyzed with terror and there he sat, sobbing and shaking.

Meanwhile, The Rebbe was getting himself slowly from the bath. Reb Leib, being old and bent over with back pain, walked hunched with his head near the ground. From this perspective, he was always coming across odds and ends, which he would pick up and inspect. As he climbed out, he saw such a shtopn on the floor and picked it up. “What a nice piece of royt shtrikl (red string),” the Rebbe said to himself. “Perhaps, I can use it for something later.”  Since he was naked, thus without pockets, he tied the string around his ankle for safe keeping and shuffled towards the changing area.

There he found the baker calling out in tears, “Ver bin ich (Who am I)?!”

Through his tears, Schloime was unable to recognize the Rebbe, but only saw a blur. But one thing was clear. The man had a red string around his ankle. Schloime said, “It is clear from your ankle that you must be Schloime, the baker. But, do you have any idea who I might be?”

The Rebbe was very confused by this emotional rant, but as Schloime slowly explained what had happened, the Rebbe began to understand. He explained to Schloime, “I am Reb Leib. It is you that is Schloime. I found your string on the ground.”

As the Rebbe returned the string to its rightful owner, Schloime immediately tied it around his ankle, this time with a double knot. Feeling much better, he told himself, “I will never take this off again!”

The wise Rebbe had some advice for Schloime. “You might be better off to be less concerned with proving who you have been, and instead try to be more curious about who you are becoming. Ask Hashem, the nameless One, ‘Who shall I be today?’ And then patiently await your answer.”

The very next morning was the seventh day of Hanukkah. Schloime woke early. As he did his morning prayers, he remembered the Rebbe’s words and added a new prayer, “Hashem, Nameless one, what shall be my name today?” And then he walked out the door.

He hadn’t gone a block before he ran into Itzig, the butcher. “Shalom, gut morgn meyn fraynd. Vas tut zikh (What’s up)?”

Itzig replied, (Gornisht (nothing). And oh yes, I will need zex Challas und zex kikhlekh (cookies), one for each of my kinder to celebrate the last night of Hanukkah tonight.”

Suddenly, Schloime felt his prayer had been answered. “God has spoken to me through your lips, Itzig. Hashem says, “Schloime, bake for Itzig, and his beautiful kinder. Today I veys in meyn harts (I know in my heart) that I am Schloime, the baker, on my way to bake Challas und kikhlekh for you and your kinder. Yo, adank adank (Yes, thank you, thank you)!”

“And today, I realize that you have won the bet. The Moon is indeed more important. Hashem is the Transcendent One, but it is us, here in Chelm, that do God’s work. Similarly, the sun produces all the light but it is the moon that does the hard work of reflecting, so we can see at night.” 

“Here, take my red string.” He bent down and carefully undid the knots and handed it to Itzig. “This string has been most precious to me, but I won’t need it anymore.” And as Schloime walked off towards his bakery, he called back, “Itzig, bring the family over for a Hanukkah celebration tonight.”

Itzig stood stunned for a while holding the string. As he stood there silently contemplating the logic of the baker, he felt the rising sun warm his face and heard the sounds of Chelm awakening. As Townsfolk began to fill the streets, he felt the pull of the new day's work awaiting him. He thought to himself, "Maybe the baker was right all along. It's the sun that is more important! As it rises every day the sun re-creates the new day. Itzig put the string in his pocket and walked on to his butcher shop.

When Itzig got home after a good day’s work his kids greeted him at the door. Papa, we are making candles for Hanukkah. Do you have any supplies for us?

Being a butcher, Itzig had lots of lard to make candles from. “But what shall I give them for a wick?” Just then he remembered the red string in his pocket. Here is your vic meyne kinder, enough for neyn likht (nine candles). One for each night plus a shammas to light them.”

That night the two families lit the nine candles. They ate the kikhlekh and played games. As the red string wicks burned away in the Hanukkah candles, the butcher and Baker never thought again about whether it was the sun or moon that was more important.

They knew that the most important light was right here. The light of joy in their hearts and the light of hope for a better world.


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