Setting: Our story takes place in December 1954 in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York. It is six years before Rav Sholom Klass founded The Jewish Press. The community is populated almost exclusively by Jewish and Italian immigrants.
It was a cold, blustery, frosty winter week in late December of the only year between 1952 and 1956 when Brooklyn’s beloved Dodgers would not face off against the hated New York Yankees in baseball’s World Series. Yes, the New York Giants had made it into the ’54 Fall Classic, but in Brooklyn the Giants were six-feet-under. (Think: Bobby Thomson 1951, the “shot heard round the world,” and Ralph Branca who fittingly wore 13.) So it was a sad and miserable season in Brooklyn.
Sunday night, December 26, would be the eighth and final night of Chanukah. Jews like Bernie Scroogenstein worked Sundays in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. New York’s “Blue Laws” forced all businesses in the city to close on Sundays, but Sunday was not the Jewish Sabbath. So Jews opened their stores every Sunday, dutifully paid the $25 tickets the cops handed them each week, and thereby compensated for not working on Saturday.
Minus twenty-five simoleons.
Bernie Scroogenstein maintained a small shmatteh (garment) business. His business partner, Murray Jay (Streit) Beningerry, had died seven years earlier, and Scroogenstein now operated solo, assisted only by his clerk, Bob Cratchettowitz. With Chanukah’s last day set to begin at night, Cratchettowitz timidly approached his boss, hat in hand. “Mr. Scroogenstein, may I leave earlier today to light the Chanukah menorah candles with my wife and son, little Shimon, and join with them for a Chanukah party at my sister’s house?”
Scroogenstein was shocked. “Bob, you ask me that every year, and every year I say no. Why is this Hannukah night different from all other nights?”
Cratchettowitz answered meekly, looking down: “My little son, Simon — we call him by his Hebrew name “Shimon” and affectionately nicknamed him “Little Shim” — just came home from six weeks in the hospital. His diagnosis is dire, and this may be his last Chanukah. Please let me have this little bit of extra Chanukah time with Tiny Shim. It’s the final night of Chanukah.”
Scroogenstein yanked on a long gold chain in his vest to look at his pocket watch. “What time is your, uh, Hannukah?” He pronounced the word the way a non-Jew would, beginning with an “H” instead of the guttural.
“It begins tonight at 5:30 p.m. You always close on Sundays at 5:00, sir, and I was hoping maybe perhaps this one time I could leave at 3 p.m. It’s just two hours, sir. And I will make up the time.”
Scroogenstein was disgusted. “All right, Bob, just this once. And you WILL make up the time — plus.”
Cratchettowitz was ever so thankful. As he left the office, Scroogenstein muttered under his breath: “Bah humbug.”
Suddenly, a knock on the door. A customer? The cop with the $25 ticket? No, it was a cohort of three modestly dressed teenage girls.
“Sir,” they said. “We are here selling tzedakah (charity) stamps for a raffle to help support our new yeshiva. It’s Chanukah season, so we are hoping you will help.”
“That’s the Jewish Orthodox school that just opened?” Scroogenstein asked.
“Yes, you know of it?”
“I know of it, and I despise it. The last thing we need in America is Orthodox Jewish all-day academies. We already have once-weekly after-school programs at the Reform temples where they teach a few words of Yiddish, all about civil rights, and how to dance horas at bar mitzvas. The last thing we need now is Orthodox Jews here with all your crazy customs. How will we ever end antisemitism if we look and worship differently from the people around us? That’s why Reform Judaism was created in Germany in 1815 — to end antisemitism permanently. If you dress like the non-Jews and worship like them, they will treat you fine. So we Reform Jews cleverly installed pipe organs into our temples just like the churches. See? Just like the Goyyim. We stopped wearing those awful head coverings. We stopped worshipping in Hebrew or praying for a return to Israel. We declared Berlin our Jerusalem. And it worked because we were on the right side of evolving history. History is the proof of Reform Judaism’s success: Reform Judaism ended antisemitism in Germany, just as we predicted. Now you beggars want charity from me? Well, I give to the NAACP for Negro rights. I give to the ACLU to defend free speech for Nazis. So get out of here right now before I call the police! A yeshiva? Bah humbug!”
Scroogenstein got back to work, but soon another interruption. “Mr. Scroogenstein,” the visitor began. He was middle-aged, well-dressed, clearly not a Lower East Side store owner. “I am Rabbi Sh’ar Yashuv Tzion. I’m here this Chanukah collecting for the Jewish National Fund. We plant trees and restore the desert land in the new country of Israel. What better time to help Israel flourish than during the week of Chanukah, our holiday of rededication?”
Scroogenstein was beside himself with rage. He wanted to call the police but feared getting slapped with the $25 ticket they may have overlooked this December 26 Sunday. “Listen, buddy. I don’t like rabbis, the whole lot of them, and I don’t support Israel. I am no Zionist. I am a member of the biggest Reform Temple, and we do not want an Israel at all. It is pure trouble. I support the American Council for Judaism and Rabbi Elmer Berger, a visionary in our Reform Judaism rabbinate. We provide financial assistance to Jews who leave Israel. Now that’s a rabbi to believe in! No Israel — never. That country won’t last another year anyway, with all those Arabs around them. I support the NAACP and Negro rights. I support the ACLU and free speech for Nazis. That’s how we American Jews make allies. Look, don’t get me wrong: I don’t wish death on the Jews there, but I want nothing to do with them.. So get out of here! Israel? Bah humbug!”
It was now approaching 3:00 p.m., and Cratchettowitz was getting on his coat. “Happy Chanukah, Mr. Scroogenstein!” he smiled. The reply back at him: “Bah humbug!”
Scroogenstein closed shop at 6:00 pm. That darned superstitious Cratchettowitz had left him with extra work. As Bernie returned to Brooklyn, he saw along the streets’ window sills all sorts of menorahs glowing with the final night’s nine candles. The sight annoyed him terribly. He got home, made some dinner, and sat back to listen to Jewish composer Irving Berlin’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” No sooner had he dozed off to the music than he heard terrible moaning, the sound of chains clanging, and more moaning. A horrible apparition appeared, the embodiment of his dead former partner, Murray Jay (Streit) Beningerry, chained top to bottom, wailing in agony. “Woe! Woe is me! Oy vay iz mir! Gevalt!!” howled Murray’s Ghost.
“Is that you, Murray?” Scroogenstein asked.
“Nu, so who then, your shvigger [mother-in-law]?” the ghost rhetorically asked. “Do I look like Groucho Marx? Oy vay iz mir! Woe is me!”
Scroogenstein was trembling. “So what happened to you, Murray? You were the smartest guy I ever met. You knew how to turn a penny into a nickel, a nickel into a dime, and a dime into a quarter. You were a genius in the Art of Effective Altruism — always knowing how to seem to be charitable when you really were not. Gevalt, you knew how to signal your supposed virtue! I never saw such a cheap guy win so many ‘Humanitarian of the Year’ plaques from suckers who thought they were going to squeeze you dry!”
“Bernie,” Beningerry wept, “I abandoned my Jewish heritage along the way, and now I am consigned to Perdition, Gehennom. That is why I am here tonight, to warn you of your fate if you do not change your ways. It will be many times worse than mine. I have to go back now. I forget to take out the garbage cans. Oh, woe!”
And Beningerry melted away into thin air, his eyes screaming.
Scroogenstein was shaken but not stirred. “That was horrific. Murray was a goniff, but he was good at it. I can’t believe what I think I just saw. Must’ve been indigestion. It was probably the chopped liver I ate tonight. It said it expired in September. Also the lox in my bagel. It smelled kinda fishy.” Bernie went back to sleep, quite uncomfortable both gastrically and psychologically. As he started to dream, a visitor entered. It was the Ghost of Chanukah Past. He transported Bernie back sixty years to 1890’s Manhattan, the Lower East Side. He found himself looking into a tenement apartment. It was late December, and a glowing Chanukah menorah overlooked the fire escape.
“Who are these people?” Bernie asked. “They must be freezing. I guess that’s why they are lighting all those candles.”
“No, Bernie,” the Ghost replied. “These are your grandparents — your Bubby and Zaydie — and they are celebrating Chanukah. They just arrived in America among the 3,250,000 Jews who would arrive on these shores between 1881 and 1914. They are lighting the menorah, and that young lad who just got the eighth candle to light is your father, Sidney.”
Scroogenstein could not believe his eyes. “My Zaydie and Father wore yarmulkas and recited brokhos (blessings)? Are you kidding me?”
The reply: “You come from proud observant Jews. Your grandparents sacrificed mightily to preserve their religion in the New World. But your father slacked off after your Zaydie died.”
“So what happened to me?”
The Ghost whisked Scroogenstein off to another site, some thirty years later. It was at a park bench overlooking scenic Central Park. Bernie was on a knee, proposing to Rebecca Levy.
And she turned him down.
“Bernie, I know one day you will be a rich shmatteh king, and I really do care for you, but I just can’t marry a guy who never stops telling jokes that mock Judaism and rabbis, and who hates the Zionist enterprise to create a Jewish homeland. I just can’t. I want something different for any children I ever have.” She started crying. And so did he.
“But, Becky, I love you,” he pleaded, tears welling in his eyes. “I know,” she answered. “And I love you, too. That is what makes this so hard.”
Scroogenstein begged the Ghost to take him away from there.
Before Scroogenstein could absorb what he had witnessed, a new apparition — the Ghost of Chanukah Present — whisked him ahead to 1954. It was the home of Bob and Sarah Cratchettowitz. They were seated around a table with extended family eating and laughing. A menorah was kindled, and Little Shimon — Tiny Shim — led everyone in singing about a dreydl made of clay. The child was quite feeble, and his voice cracked. But his infectious smile never left him, and he especially lit up when his Bubbie (grandmother) gave him Chanukah Gelt in the form of gold-foil-wrapped round chocolate “coins.”
The Ghost next transported Bernie across the Atlantic. The trip took seconds. He found himself in Israel — formerly known by Jews and the entire Zionist movement as “Palestine” ever since the Romans had renamed Israel two millennia earlier, with its name restored when the country was reestablished six years ago in 1948. People were walking from their respective caravans, each a kind-of small trailer converted for living, and they all soon gathered in the large dining area shared by everyone in the moshav (settlement) community. They all gathered to celebrate Chanukah with singing, lighting, and dinner.
“What are they so happy about?” Scroogenstein asked the Ghost. “They are surrounded by Arab Muslims who want to murder them. They are living dirt poor. The land has bare infrastructure, nothing like America. Don’t they know how much of life they are missing?” he asked.
“Do you?” came the terse reply.
And then the Ghost of Chanukah Future swept Scroogenstein back to America circa 2022.
The first stop was an American college campus. They saw a group of Ivy League college students spray-painting swastikas on dorm room doors.
“What is going on?” Bernie asked, shaken.
The Ghost responded: “Those are Jewish students, members of ‘Jews for Peace, BDS, and Palestine,’ and they are painting swastikas on the doors of the student president of campus Hillel and the student body president who tweeted that she is a Zionist, posted a photo on Instagram of herself at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and posted herself on Tik Tok singing Hatikvah (Israel’s national anthem) with a group of Jewish college kids on Birthright.”
“I may not be a Zionist,” said Scroogenstein, “but these animals — Jews yet! — are painting swastikas like White Supremacist neo-Nazis?”
The Ghost simply asked: “Bernie, was there no American Council for Judaism and Rabbi Elmer Berger to teach them? Were there no Reform Temple after-hours schools to preach to them against Zionism and for the Jews to cede sovereignty ‘for peace’?”
The Ghost then transported him to a posh home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There was a huge Christmas tree with all the trimmings, a mantle decked with boughs of holly, a mistletoe, Mariah Carey Christmas carols in the background, and even a Santa Claus. Someone tapped a spoon on a crystal champagne glass. It was the host and his wife. She was wearing a tasteful gold cross necklace. Their three children were with them, all excited with Christmas glee, all wearing little cross necklaces.
Bernie asked the Ghost, “What is this? It looks like a nice family Winter Party, no?” (Bernie Scroogenstein, remember, is a middle-aged man absorbed in the ethnic Jewish culture of 1954 East Flatbush Brooklyn.)
“These are your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Bernie. They all are Christians. Your son married a non-Jewish girl he met while skiing in Colorado. She underwent a Reform “conversion to Judaism” so that you would not cut your son, her husband, out of your will. Remember? It was like the Reform Judaism “conversions” that Marilyn Monroe didin 1956 and Elizabeth Taylor did in 1959. It has no meaning in Judaism; even you know that. When you died, he inherited. She ended the charade. As even you know, the religious line follows the mother, and that made all your grandchildren non-Jewish — your great-grandchildren, too — and that ended the Scroogenstein Jewish line after an unbroken chain of 3,300 years dating back to the Exodus and Mount Sinai.”
Bernie was trembling with anguish. He never had been religious and even had mocked Judaism and rabbis, but it still mattered to him that his kids marry Jewish and maintain a Jewish line. Now it all was ended. He asked: “How could my descendants abandon our roots? I don’t get it. I don’t know much Jewish history, but I know that Jews stared down Crusaders, Inquisitors, and Nazis, ready to die rather than give up their Jewish identity. And mine just gave it all up at a ski chalet?”
The Ghost of Chanukah Future responded: “Did your children go to yeshiva, Bernie? Instead, they had once-weekly after-school programs at the Reform temples where they were taught about civil rights and how to dance horas. They learned to dress without yarmulkas and to worship accompanied by pipe organ music.”
The Ghost next brought him to an intersection in Brooklyn, where three Black youths were pummeling and bloodying two Orthodox Jewish women on the street.
“I can’t believe my eyes,” said Bernie. “I gave to the NAACP. Murray Jay (Streit) Beningerry, my partner, got plaques from CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. Didn’t these people ever hear about Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and how those two Jews were killed in Mississippi in 1964 while registering Negroes to vote? How could any Negro be antisemitic? We built the NAACP. Henry Moskowitz co-founded them, and Kivie Kaplan was their president for ten years. We rented out homes to them when no one else would. We sold them appliances and home goods — even food — on credit when there were no credit cards, and no one else would extend them credit or even let them into their stores. How could Negroes — of all people — be antisemitic? Don’t they at least have leaders to tell them what’s what?”
“Yes,” replied the Ghost. “They have leaders. Al Sharpton. Louis Farrakhan. Kanye West. Ilhan Omar. They have leaders.”
Finally, the Ghost brought Scroogenstein to a Jewish cemetery in Long Island. They saw a neglected, chipped tombstone sprayed with a swastika. It was Bernie’s. A few yards down, there was a grave with a small little tombstone. It was for Little Shimon, Tiny Shim. And another a few rows over for Rebbitzen Rebecca Levy, mother of eight.
Scroogenstein began weeping. With red eyes, he looked at the Ghost and asked “Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the things that May be only?”
The Ghost did not answer. Silently, he brought Scroogenstein back to 1954 Brooklyn, back to bed.
The next morning Bernie woke up and ordered a large kosher turkey to be sent to the Cratchettowitz home, with a card anonymously wishing them a Happy Chanukah. He wrote a check, making a substantial gift to Torah Umesorah, the national society for Jewish Day Schools — yeshivas — marking ten years since their 1944 founding. He wrote another to the Jewish National Fund to plant a forest in Israel in memory of Rebecca Levy. When Bob Cratchettowitz showed up at work that morning, Scroogenstein called him into the office and said that, for as long as Tiny Shim lives, he — Bernie — will cover all the boy’s medical bills, and he immediately wants Little Shimon to visit with the leading medical team at Mount Sinai Hospital.
As he canceled his memberships at Temple Emanuel and the ACLU, he joined the local Young Israel Orthodox synagogue. Bernie Scroogenstein said to himself: “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” That night he recited a kaddish for Murray Jay (Streit) Beningerry and mouthed the words; “Thank you, Murray’s Ghost, for remembering me.” And he took out the garbage.
*Adapted by the writer for The Jewish Press
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