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Mark BinderA Chanukah Tale of Chelm

By Mark Binder
Story of the Month

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“Chanukah’s early this year,” Shoshanna Cantor said to her husband.

The merchant looked up from his morning newspaper. “What did you say?”

Shoshanna blew on her tea. “I said that Chanukah’s early.”

“How is that possible?” her husband suddenly demanded.

“You think it’s my fault?” The merchant’s wife shrugged. “You want me to explain what it took hundreds of rabbis hundreds of years to decide?”

Isaac Cantor began frantically rubbing his beard. “But that means that I’m late!”

“How can you be late?” his wife smiled. “You’re right here.”

The fat merchant jumped up from the table and began pulling at his hair. “I haven’t placed my orders yet… That mean that the suppliers… the manufacturers… the whole distribution system…”

“What are you talking about? Isaac, sit down. Your heart is going to explode. Look, you want another piece of toast with schmaltz?”

“Who can eat at a time like this!”

Shoshanna Cantor was dumbfounded. Isaac always ate. For him, a small breakfast was five hard-boiled eggs and half a loaf of toasted bread smeared with schmaltz and maybe a little bowl of chopped liver. “It’s breakfast time. You have to eat. If you don’t eat breakfast, you’ll starve.”

Even in the midst of his frenzy, the merchant paused, looked at his belly and answered, “It would take a long time for me to starve.”

“So? You shouldn’t start today,” his wife said, sensibly. She patted his chair. “Sit down. Tell me what the problem is. I’ll cut you some strudel. It’s got nuts and chocolate.”

With a sigh of resignation, the merchant plopped down. His chair creaked in protest, but did not collapse.

He smiled as his wife cut a slab off the long crisp pastry. Even after all these years he liked watching her. That was a good thing. And she made the best strudel in the world. That was a very good thing.

She set the plate in front of him. He took a bite. Mmmm.

“So?” she said, nudging him with her elbow.

“So, it’s the Chanukah presents. Ever since the Schlemiels invented Chanukah presents, I’ve been making a fortune selling them. But the problem is that I thought Chanukah was late this year. It was late last year. So I haven’t done any of the groundwork. I haven’t done my ordering. That means that I don’t have any stock in the warehouse, and I don’t have any stock on its way. And you know what? No presents for the kids!”

Shoshanna wrinkled her nose. “I meant, so how’s the strudel?”

“Oh?” He took another bite. “B’lishush azsh ushual.” A few crumbs shot out of his mouth.

After he swallowed, he spoke again. “What am I going to do?”

“Are we going to go broke?” his wife asked.

“No. We’re doing all right.” He quickly knocked wood.

“So, relax,” his wife said. “Don’t worry about it. Nobody in Chelm is going to die because they’re not getting a Chanukah present.”

“The villagers will get presents,” said the merchant. “They just won’t get them from me.”

This idea offended her. “Why wouldn’t they get them from you? You’re their merchant.”

“They can’t buy something I don’t have!” he answered.

“True.” She paused. “But so what?”

“So, if the villagers shop somewhere else, they’ll see that other people have merchandise that may be better than mine. It may be less expensive than mine. Then they’ll start going to this other store and they won’t come to my store. Then I’ll be out of business, then we’ll go broke, and then I’ll starve.” By now he was wailing.

“Isaac,” his wife said, patting his shoulder. “I wouldn’t let you starve.”

“It’s like my cousin, Richard in America said. ‘You have to keep up with the Joneses.'”

This puzzled Shoshanna. “Who are the Joneses?”

“They live next door to Richard in Brooklyn. They’re always getting the newest and the latest and the best and the biggest. Richard’s making a fortune because everyone else in his neighborhood is trying to keep up with the them. All he has to do is ask Mr. Jones what he just bought, and make sure he’s got plenty of those in stock.”

The merchant’s wife nodded. “That’s a good business plan. Why don’t you do that?”

Isaac Cantor shook his head. “The Joneses are in Brooklyn. In Chelm all we have are the Schlemiels.”

Shoshanna Cantor sighed. “Listen, Isaac. The whole point of Chanukah is to celebrate of one of the few times Jewish people actually won a military victory. We light some candles at the darkest time of year, eat fried food and play games with the children. It’s got nothing to do with presents.”

“Now it does!” her husband shouted. “That’s the point. People have begun to expect gifts, and I don’t have them!”

“Come now. You have lots of things in your store that could be gifts.”

“But my inventory is all old. People want new. They want exotic. They want expensive.”

His wife stared. “Are you sure you’re talking about Jewish people? Look, I have an idea. Why not create a new fashion where the gifts that we exchange are made locally? You can create a little space in your store so that Reba Gold can bring in some hand-made boots, Reba Cohen can offer some of those lovely scarves that he keeps in a pile in his workshop, and the Shimmel sisters can sell some of their goat’s cheese. You offer to wrap it up in a nice box made by Reba Schlemiel and put a ribbon on it.”

“I…” Reba Cantor opened his mouth, but before he could speak, his wife popped the last bite of strudel in.

She said, “You always told me that anybody can sell anything as long as it’s got good packaging. Prove it.”

The merchant chewed thoughtfully.

Epilogue: Two months later the season was over, and the villagers of Chelm agreed that it was one of the best Chanukahs ever. Everyone sold wares to the merchant, who sold gifts back to them with ribbons and bows.

And Shoshanna Cantor was thrilled with her husband’s gifts. Every day of Chanukah, instead of working late, Isaac came home early wearing a different ribbon in his beard.

Contributor Mark Binder is an author, award-winning storyteller, and founder of the American Story Theater. He lives in Providence, RI, and is available for workshops and performances. Find out more about his new hard-bound edition of A Hanukkah Present, a collection of 12 stories and a novella.
Early: A Chanukah Tale of Chelm © 2007, All rights reserved

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