November 21, 2002
Once Upon a ‘Nail’
A fable about making Latkes out of nothing.
The joyous holiday of Chanukah is replete with miracles and storytelling. Judy Aronson, Jewish educator in New England, loves telling stories at Chanukah. "The best are handed down from generation to generation. And they change in each retelling," she said. "I first heard the 'Miracle of the Iron Nail' in a youth group in Hartford, Conn., when I was 8 years old. Every time I tell it, I add a little something, take a little something out. It's the same way I cook," she said, mischievously.
This is the story -- I couldn't help but add a little, take a little out:
A long time ago, young Jewish boys were stolen from their families to serve in the Czar's army. Stalwart soldiers would sneak into their villages at dusk, and march from house to house, wreaking havoc and leaving a trail of brokenhearted parents.
The boys were taken far away, and ordered to forget about their families -- especially what it was like to be Jewish. They grew up as soldiers and followed in the footsteps of their captors.
One night, a terrible blizzard blew through the camp, uprooting tents and hurling boys from their beds. Yehuda, Moshe and Reuven found themselves in the pitch-black night in the middle of nowhere. They wandered for days.
Finally, they came to a small Jewish village, looking ragged and pathetic. Instead of taking pity, the villagers ran for their lives, warning each other. "Hide everything in sight, especially your children!" But one housewife wasn't fast enough, and as the soldiers passed her house they peered into the window and spotted a chanukiah.
Reuven suddenly remembered the holiday he hadn't celebrated for so many years, and said to Yehuda and Moshe, "Dear friends, it's Chanukah, remember the delicious latkes our mothers used to make? What I wouldn't give for a latke." The memory brought tears to their eyes.
They trekked through the town, hoping somebody would give them a latke. They knocked at every door but the only response they got was, "We have no food! Go away!"
Moshe and Yehuda pleaded with Reuven. "Nobody wants us, we might as well go back to the army. At least they'll feed us." But Reuven was adamant -- they mustn't lose faith.
He knocked at the next house. Miraculously, the door opened. When Reuven saw Nechama, a beautiful housewife, instead of asking for food he stood up straight and announced, "I come bearing food -- some latkes for Chanukah."
"How can you possibly have any food?" she asked.
"Because I brought the magic iron nail. All I need is a pot," he replied.
Against her husband's wishes, Nechama ran into the kitchen and fetched a pot. Reuven led her to the Town Square. He held up his hand and shouted, "Look everyone, I have a magic nail. I'm putting it in the pot. I'm going to make the finest latkes you've ever tasted."
The villagers scoffed. Someone picked up a stone and threw it. Undaunted, Reuven stirred the pot. "All I need is an onion." Nobody moved. Finally, Nechama's neighbor dropped an onion into the pot, then quickly retreated.
Reuven was ecstatic. "We have a pot. We have an onion. Now all we need are a few potatoes." A little girl ran up, dragging a sack of potatoes, and dropped them into the pot.
The three soldiers began dancing. So did the villagers, who started peeling, chopping and grating. "Now all we need is some salt. And matzah meal," Yehuda appealed.
When someone fetched the foodstuffs, Moshe enthused, "We're going to make it. All we need is some oil." And the oil flowed.
Boruch built a fire in the middle of the square. Rochel brought a fry pan and poured in the oil. Gila fashioned the mixture into latkes and dropped them into the pan, one by one.
The oil started to crackle. The latkes started to fry. Everyone was gleeful, full of the spirit of Chanukah.
The mayor addressed Reuven, Moshe and Yehuda. "We've learned there are good soldiers in the world, not just ones who will harm us," he complimented them. "You've brought us the most wonderful Chanukah gift we've ever had."
Reuven eloquently assured him, "Because you have been so kind, your people will live in peace forever more. No soldiers will harm them ever again."
"All Jewish stories have a deeper meaning," reflected Aronson, a graduate of Brandeis University and Harvard Divinity School. "It's the community that makes the latkes, the people that create the celebration. If nobody had contributed anything, all they'd have was an iron nail. Because everybody cooperated, they not only had a feast, they had peace of mind forever more."