April 22, 2024
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April 22, 2024
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When Chanukah Was … Different

Nellie leaped out of bed at the first sign of sunlight poking in between her window shade and the wall.

In just 12 short hours, Nellie’s favorite night of the year would finally arrive.

She dove headfirst under her parents’ fluffy covers and nearly knocked them onto the floor as she bounced around, bursting with excitement.

“It’s the first night of Chanukah, Imma!” Nellie shouted. “Abba! It’s finally here!”

Rubbing his tired eyes, Nellie’s father smiled and said, “It sure is, honey, but …”

“I can’t wait, I can’t wait, I can’t wait!” Nellie sang as she sprang to her feet and jumped so high she nearly went through the ceiling.

“Nellie,” her mother said, “you know, tonight, for Chanukah, we’re going to …”

“I know exactly what we’re going to do, Imma. The same things we do every year. The perfect way to celebrate Chanukah.”

Nellie thought back to all the previous Chanukahs she could remember. The first night was always the best night, because that was when Bubbie and Zaydie came over to celebrate.

First, Nellie would help Bubbie make potato latkes. They would peel and grate a thousand potatoes, crack a million eggs, and mix until their muscles were as big as mountains!

Next, Nellie would fill all the fluffy sufganiyot with sweet, sticky raspberry jelly while Bubbie and Imma sprinkled powdered sugar all over the kitchen.

After dinner, Zaydie would take out his special dreidel, the one he got as a gift for his bar mitzvah a hundred years ago. It was made out of wood and had a gold handle, and the multicolored letters looked like a rainbow as they spun around and around. Zaydie was very good at spinning, but, somehow, Nellie always ended up with all of the delicious gelt.

Then, Nellie would pick her favorite colors from the box of candles—blue and white—and sing the blessings loud and clear as Zaydie lit the shamash and the first night’s candle.

Finally, just before Bubbie and Zaydie left, the whole family would sing Nellie’s favorite Chanukah songs.

It really was the perfect way to celebrate, and Nellie couldn’t wait to do it all over again.

As she took a deep breath, she collapsed onto the bed and thought about how wonderful Chanukah would be this year. Maybe, she was finally old enough to light the candles herself. Could Chanukah actually get even better?

Nellie’s father cleared his throat and put his hand on her shoulder. “Honey, your mother and I love Chanukah, too, but this year, it’s going to be a little …

… different.”

Nellie laughed. She was sure this was another one of Abba’s silly jokes.

“It’s true, sweetheart,” said Imma. “You know how we haven’t been able to get together with Bubbie and Zaydie for the past few months? Well, sadly, that isn’t going to change just yet. So, just for this year, Chanukah will be a little … different.”

There was that word again.

“Different?” asked Nellie. “This is the worst day of my life! Hanukkah is going to be terrible!”

“Terrible? How could Chanukah possibly be terrible?” asked Abba.

“Last week, you said we should try a different place for pizza night, Abba. And even you said the pizza was terrible. It had too much crust and not enough cheese. It was different and it was terrible. And yesterday, Imma, you said you had to take a different route to the grocery store, and you said traffic was terrible. It was different and it was terrible. Now, the same thing is going to happen to Chanukah,” cried Nellie.

“Whoa, honey, that’s not true. Just because something is different, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be terrible,” said Abba.

Nellie looked up with tears in her eyes. “It doesn’t?”

“Absolutely not,” said Imma. “Just think about it. When we go for ice cream, you always take forever to decide between a chocolate cone and a strawberry milkshake. Those two things are very different, but they are both delicious.”

“I guess that’s true,” Nellie admitted.

“And at the zoo,” said Abba, “your favorite animals are the lions and the penguins. You’d have a hard time finding two more different creatures, but each one of those is amazing.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Nellie mumbled, still unsure about what would actually happen that night.

Later that afternoon, Nellie’s mother called her in from the backyard. “Follow me, and no peeking,” she said as she covered Nellie’s eyes and led her into the kitchen.

“Bubbie!” Nellie screamed when she opened her eyes. Imma had started a video call with Bubbie and set up the kitchen with everything they needed to make Bubbie’s famous potato latkes. “I hope you’re ready to use those muscles, Nellie,” said Bubbie with a smile. “Ready!” said Nellie as she showed off her muscles for Imma and Bubbie.

Nellie and Imma grated, cracked and fried for hours while Bubbie did the same thing in her own kitchen. They shared stories, told jokes, and even made up a few rhymes to help Nellie remember the steps. “Tap, tap, tap, ’til the shell goes ‘crack,’ then you pull the sides apart and the egg goes splat!” Nellie cheered as she opened up the eggs.

When the latkes were fried to a crispy golden brown, Bubbie said goodbye and told Nellie to let her know, after dinner, how the latkes turned out. Nellie loved cooking with Bubbie and Imma, but she missed being able to share the first fresh latke with Bubbie. So far, Hanukkah did seem … different.

Just as Nellie, Imma and Abba finished cleaning the kitchen, they heard the doorbell ring. “Who could that be?” asked Abba as he winked at Imma. Confused, Nellie followed her parents to the door. As Abba slowly opened the door, Nellie felt her heart pounding. She was suddenly overwhelmed with the thought it might be …

“Just a box,” Nellie sighed as she noticed the small package on the doormat. “Just a box?” said Abba, surprised. “Don’t you know that good things come in small packages?” Imma reminded Nellie. “That’s true,” said Abba. “Let’s see what’s inside.” Nellie figured she might as well take a look. “OK.”

Just as Nellie knelt down to open the box, Abba’s phone rang. “Zaydie!” screamed Nellie as her grandfather’s face filled the screen. “I see you got my delivery, sweetheart,” he said with a smile. “This is from you, Zaydie?” Nellie asked. “Sure is. Go on, open it up.”

Nellie’s face lit up as she pulled the most incredible gift out of the box—a beautiful dreidel, just like Zaydie’s. It had multicolored letters, a gold handle and everything. It was perfect. Zaydie proudly held his own dreidel up on the screen and asked, “Want to play?” “Yes, yes, yes!” cried Nellie as her parents put two gigantic bags of chocolate gelt next to her.

Nellie and Zaydie spun their matching dreidels like experts. It was the longest game of dreidel they’d ever played and, somehow, Nellie ended up with all the gelt, just like she did every year. Nellie was thrilled, but she had a hard time peeling the foil off of her chocolate coins. Zaydie usually helped her with that. When Zaydie said goodbye, Nellie realized, once again, that Chanukah was … different.

When it got dark, Nellie and her parents ate a delicious Chanukah dinner of potato latkes and salad, but Nellie didn’t have much room for salad after all that chocolate gelt. For dessert, Abba brought out a big box of sufganiyot he had picked up at the local bakery. Nellie tried the first doughnut. It was pretty tasty, and it had plenty of raspberry jelly, but, just like everything else, it was … different.

After Nellie and her father split the last doughnut, Imma took the big silver menorah off the mantle and Abba got the candles from the cabinet. He asked Nellie to pick two candles, one for the shamash and one for the first night. As always, Nellie chose blue for the shamash and white for the first night. With the two candles in her hands, Nellie went over to the window in the dining room, where they always lit the Chanukah candles. “Come put on your coat, honey,” said Abba. “Tonight, we’re going to do something a little … different.”

Imma handed Nellie a coat and a mask to cover her nose and mouth. Imma and Abba had their own coats and masks on, too. Nellie had worn that mask—the blue one with pictures of planets and stars—to school and the park, but she never wore it at home. She wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but she put on her coat and mask anyway. After all, one thing she knew for sure was that this night was … different. Once they were outside on the front porch, Nellie saw that her father had set up a little table with a glass case on top of it. Her mother slid the menorah inside the case—a perfect fit.

Just as Abba struck a match and lit the shamash, Nellie heard a voice coming from the street behind her. “I think, this year, it’s Nellie’s turn to light the candles.”

Nellie’s eyes lit up like a flame as she turned around to see Bubbie and Zaydie standing at the edge of the front yard. “Bubbie! Zaydie!” Nellie screamed as she nearly jumped out of her shoes. “I can’t believe you’re here!” Noticing that Bubbie and Zaydie were wearing masks on their faces, too, Nellie realized she couldn’t run over to give them hugs and kisses. For a moment, Nellie felt a bit of sadness, but she was so happy to see her grandparents that she didn’t mind if they had to stay a few feet away.

Abba handed Nellie the candle and assured her, “You’ve got this, honey.” Nellie sang the blessings beautifully as she carefully lit the white candle for the first night of Chanukah. After her parents and grandparents answered “Amen,” Nellie started singing “Chanukah, Oh, Chanukah,” and everyone joined in.

As they sang, Nellie realized the music was getting louder and louder. She looked over at the next house and saw that the Grossmans were lighting their candles outside, too! Not only that, but four of their relatives were standing on their front lawn. As Nellie looked up and down the block, she was amazed to see dozens of candles glowing brightly and people outside every house singing along. Even the neighbors who didn’t celebrate Chanukah recognized the tune from the radio and joined in.

Although everyone was wearing masks, Nellie could tell they were all smiling from ear to ear. She looked at her grandparents and she saw tears of joy forming in their eyes. It was the most spectacular Chanukah celebration any of them had ever seen. The first night of Chanukah certainly wasn’t what Nellie had pictured that morning, but it most definitely was not terrible. Nellie knew she would always remember that magical night as the night when Chanukah was … different.

Sam Frommer resides in Bergen County with his wife and their three young daughters. He is a screenwriter, a retired fantasy golf champion, and the author of “William Pen and the White Cloud Conundrum.”

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