December 5, 2002
Candle in the Night
For Chana, the Festival of Lights had begun in personal disaster. She had just lit her first candle when her phone rang. It was Martin, the East Coast "catch." Like her, Martin was modern Orthodox -- observant, but game for a good movie. Last week had marked their second date. It was a shidduch, a brokered date. Martin had used a matchmaker to find Chana. Now he was using a cell phone to lose her.
"It just wouldn't work," he explained through the static. Under pointed questioning, the truth emerged: Martin wanted someone more ... statuesque. With 5-foot-2 Chana, he felt he'd be getting the short end of the stick.
Chana, 28, felt like telling him what he could do with his stick. In Orthodox protocol, dumping your shidduch by phone was a serious breach. But Chana came out with an act of uncommon generosity. "You want 'tall and elegant?'" Chana said. "Have I got a girl for you." She described her friend, Riva, a 5-foot-9 beauty with a heavenly soul to match.
Chana's friends were stupefied. "This jerk dumps you, so you hand him a goddess?" Was she a masochist? Out of this world? Or out of her mind? No matter. For six nights, lighting candles alone, Chana reminded herself that things happen for a reason. In her faith, she had found peace.
Now if only she could find her Camry.
It was the eighth night of Chanukah. Soon the Los Angeles sun would vanish, and with it, she felt, her strength and spirit. Here she was at Westside Pavilion, a large mall not two miles from her home. But without signposts, it might as well have been the Canadian tundra. For 40 minutes, she'd been aimlessly searching, a wandering Jew on an asphalt chessboard. Wherever she turned, her vista filled with indistinguishable rows of look-alike sedans. One of them, she knew, was her 1996 Toyota Camry. But which?
Weighing down her slender frame were two plastic grocery bags. One brimmed with soft drinks; the other was topped by a pallid-looking, whole kosher chicken.
Unsteadily raising her chicken arm, Chana stole a glance at her watch: 4:10 p.m. Her Camry was nowhere in sight. She was sick with fatigue. Her shoulders seared with pain. Her calf-length skirt, worn for modesty, hampered her gait.
Click-clack, click-clack. A high-heeled matron was approaching, clutching her keys. Well-dressed, late 60s, brunette to the last hair, she looked fresh from the beauty parlor. At last, thought Chana, a good Samaritan.
"Excuse me," she began, "I've lost my car. Could you maybe drive me around until I found it?"
The matron studied Chana's garb, then glanced at the bags. Spotting the chicken carcass, her pupils widened. "Sorry, I have a funeral to attend." Click-clack, click-clack.
"They have funerals at night?" Chana called, incredulous. Then it hit her: She thinks I'm a Jewish Hannibal Lecter.
Chana had never felt so alone. Holiday of miracles? Where's mine? In her heart, she knew that everything happened for a reason. First she was Martinized; now this. Why?
Ashamed, she lay down her load, leaned against an SUV and let the tears flow. With her blouse's cotton sleeve, she wiped her eye. Great! Now her mascara was running. A fine Chanukah this was turning out to be.
Then, at the far end of her lane, a long black sedan from the next lane turned. As it edged closer, she made out a wide grille topped by a round hood ornament: a Mercedes. When it stopped, the driver's glazed window silently lowered. Behind the wheel sat a tall, black man.
"Is there some way I can help you?" he asked.
Behind him, a baby girl dozed in an infant seat. Beside her lay her guardian, a golden retriever puppy. "This man is a father," Chana reflected.
"He's a mensch; he wants to help." She poured out her woe.
When she finished, the driver stepped out and crouched beside her. "We're gonna find your car," he assured her. He swept up her bags and lay them gently beside the puppy. "Sit up front, with me."
As the Mercedes snaked through the parking lot, they chatted easily, as if they were old friends, schmoozing. "Happy Holidays," he said. "Which do you celebrate?"
You know," she replied carefully, "the one everyone celebrates this week." It was three days past Christmas.
"I'm Jewish. Are you?" asked the man. He grinned. "I thought my black skin may have thrown you."
It had, she confessed -- but she had black Jewish friends.
"Here, this is my Camry," Chana said.
"Go home, relax and light your last candles," he told her.
"Will you wait a second?" Chana asked. Closing her eyes, she recited a bracha in gratitude for his kindness. Then the black sedan pulled away, vanishing into the night lights.
Why did her first night begin with a slam-dunk? Why on the eighth did she lose her car -- and nearly her faith? Why, at that moment, did God deliver to her a stranger -- a black Jew?
Chana never saw her savior again, but she herself got engaged last month.
And by the way, Martin and Riva, the couple Chana set up, also married -- she threw them a sheva bracha.
Paul Franklin Stregevsky writes personal essays about family life, relationships and values. His essays can be found at www.actsofkindness.org/inspiration/essays.html .