On the Sixth Night of Hanukah

First published in the Holiday anthology, Dying in a Winter Wonderland, edited by Tony Burton, 2008. Copyright, Helen Schwartz

Friday night, two days after Christmas, I drove into the parking lot of Temple Beth Shalom, off duty, but with my Glock in a shoulder holster. At the rabbi’s request.
A powdering of snow covered the cars already parked for the dinner before services. This year, Shabbat—the Jewish Sabbath–fell on the sixth night of Hanukah, and families came to create memories of the eight-day Festival of Lights. Jews held to Hanukah against the flood of Christmas good cheer so attractive to their children. Before my ex-wife moved with our daughter to St. Louis, I’d brought Terry to Hanukah services at the Temple.
I parked near the back, where the skull and crossbones had been spray-painted on the wall of the education wing, then squatted in front of the graffiti trying to figure out its meaning.
Billy Small, the captain of the police department’s bomb unit, walked up. “Hello, Bryant. You on duty?”
“Nope. The rabbi asked me to stay overnight, to back up the security guard, at least while the Temple’s hosting a bunch of homeless families.”
“The Hospitality Network. I didn’t know before that any Jewish groups were involved.”
“Yeah. Beth Shalom’s the only temple, so we usually take Christmas and Easter weeks when things are quieter here than at the churches.”
“Whattaya make of it?” The captain motioned with his chin to the skull and crossbones.
“Probably not terrorists—foreign or home-grown. There’s no writing—nothing about Jews or Israel, nothing in Arabic.” Synagogues and Jewish schools had been bombed in France, Turkey, and Tunisia since September 11, 2001. In the United States, threats and attacks against Jewish schools, cemeteries and temples had cropped up from New Jersey to California. The Temple had beefed up its security system and hired a guard for special events and weekends—Friday night services, Saturday when most Bar and Bat Mitzvahs were celebrated, and Sunday school classes.
“Why not homegrown? You know this part of the Midwest still has a Klan presence.” Small blew warmth on his ungloved hands.
“Message not clear. Is this place supposed to be poison or is it a death threat? Anti-semites aren’t subtle. Either the drawings are Nazi swastikas or they show hanging or bombs.” I looked at Small. No reaction. “This looks like amateur hour to me. Maybe some neighborhood kids. Could be against the Temple. Could be against the homeless.” I zipped up my leather jacket. “I’m going in now to check with the agency liaison, Joan Marin.”
“We’ll have a couple of cars around for the usual traffic control. After the parking lot clears, squad cars will check during the night.”
We shook hands and I walked around to the front, testing doors as I went–near the school and side entrances. Only the front door was open. I introduced myself to the security guard and found out where the homeless guests were having dinner since I knew the congregational Hanukah party would be in the community room.
I hadn’t been very active in the Temple since my divorce two years ago but I’d volunteered a couple times for the Hospitality Network. That’s when I met Joan, the social worker from the Temple who trained the volunteers and worked with the families during the day. On Sundays, I’d helped set up cots to turn Temple classrooms into bedrooms, one per family, plus two for the congregation’s Overnight Hosts. Each night a new crew of volunteers served as Dinner Hosts, another group hosted breakfast and put out supplies for the families to make bag lunches. Busses picked the families up daily and took them to the social agency. The parents worked on finding a job and a place to stay. At 6:00 p.m. back to the Temple. The next Sunday the families moved on to their next week-long stay. I couldn’t imagine being desperate enough to live under those conditions.
In the Youth Lounge, red-checkered tablecloths covered four bridge-sized tables, with families and hosts seated at three of them. A wet bar held heated steel pans of home-made barbecued chicken, green beans and Tater Tots plus little bowls of applesauce and a platter of giant oatmeal-raisin cookies.
One young woman, cocoa-colored with a dark-skinned baby on her hip, complained to the grandmotherly Dinner Host at her table. “I ast you all three times to take that crib outta my room. And it’s still there today. This baby used to sleeping with me.”
Joan Marin swept past me and confronted the teen-aged mother. “We’re leaving the crib in your room. It’s not safe for a ten-month old like Precious to sleep in your cot. What if you roll over on her in the night? Those are our rules, and you agreed to follow them.”
“Would you like some apple juice for your baby?” The grandmotherly congregant got up to fetch it, attracting the sullen mother’s attention and freeing Joan to bring me up to speed.
Joan wore a striped t-shirt and jeans. Her reddish-gold, slightly kinky hair stood up and out, controlled only by a large toothed clip in back. I figured Joan was in her mid-thirties, not bad looking, even though she didn’t bother with makeup. Joan dumped her hobo handbag behind the wet bar and pulled out the logbook, knowing I’d want a rundown of any problems during the week.
I loaded a plate with Tater Tots, added a chicken leg and stood with my back to the bar, like the new gunfighter in town sizing up the crowd. I didn’t feel like John Wayne. “How do they stand it,” I asked.
“It’s pretty grim, but it’s short term. These folks aren’t chronic homeless, they just need some breathing space to re-establish themselves.” Joan pointed with her chin at a family group at the far table. “Bill Thornton lost his main job, but they could hang on until he got laid off as night watchman. They just lost their home.”
I took the family in at a glance. A scrawny blond man in his 30’s in a white t-shirt and jeans sat next to a woman who looked older than him, dark hair drawn back in a bun, with three school kids sitting quiet, the oldest a sullen-looking boy about twelve. They sat in silence, eating but with no sign of enjoyment.
“I’ve never seen a man with any of the families before. I thought they were trouble.” I crunched on a Tater Tot.
“They can be, but we don’t want to break up intact families. Two wage earners give the family a better chance than one.” Joan opened the log and started her briefing. “It’s been a crazy week, not even counting Christmas.” She opened a diet Coke and pointed in the logbook. “Monday night the fire alarm went off around ten waking everyone. Fire Captain thought someone was smoking in one of the ‘bedrooms’ and that set off the alarm. Some smoke smell in the Thorntons’ bedroom.”
I looked back at Thornton. He caught me staring at him as his daughter nagged at him. She started pulling his sleeve and he pulled his hand back, as though to smack her. She ducked and fell silent. Then he opened her waxed carton of milk.
Joan, checking the log, missed the incident. “Christmas day, almost everyone got picked up to spend the holiday with relatives, but one of the families—mother and two pre-schoolers—hasn’t returned from her sister’s.” Her brow wrinkled as she paused. “There’s an abusive ex-boyfriend she’s mentioned. We haven’t been able to get in touch with them at the address she left.”
“You worried?”
Joan pressed her lips together. “I think the sister’s move was skipping out on the rent, not fear of violence. Anyway, that’s the agency’s problem. I don’t see a danger to the Temple and the rest of the guests.”
I nodded. If the boyfriend had attacked during Christmas, no reason to leave graffiti on the Temple yesterday. “Was anyone around Christmas Day?”
“The Office closed,” she said. “A security guard was on duty. One family from the Hospitality Network stayed in the Temple, and a couple of members took them out to dinner. No sense getting a whole bunch of volunteers going for one family.” Joan raised her head and pointed her chin toward the nearest table where a dark-skinned, tired-looking woman tried to feed a sickly child as her antsy nine-year old kept me under surveillance. The little girl’s hair had been divided into squares, with a little pig-tail in the center of each, fastened by a pink barrette. She looked up at us with a bold shyness.
“Hello, Tameeka. How’s your brother?” Joan said, then turned to me. “Tameeka’s mother took her little brother to the emergency room last night with a high fever.” She shut the logbook and put it away.
“He’s okay today,” the little girl said without much conviction. “Are you a policeman?” She flashed me a smile.
Joan jumped in. “Meet Detective Bryant.”
Tameeka got up, walked over. “Pleased to meet you.” She shook my hand. “I want to be a police officer when I grow up.”
Joan laughed. “Don’t count on it, David. Yesterday, one of the Overnight Hosts was an attorney and this morning she wanted to be a lawyer when she grows up.”
Tameeka placed her hands on her hips and cocked her head at the social worker, but her smiling pout showed she took Joan’s no-nonsense humor in stride.
“You going to the dinner in the Community Room,” Joan asked.
“Hadn’t planned to, but I’m not on duty here til eight,” I said.
“Let’s crash and see if there’s any potato latkes left.”
“Sure,” I said. My mouth started to water and I tossed the rest of my cookie into the waste bin behind the counter.
“What’s a laht-key,” Tameeka asked. “Can I go, too? I’ve never seen a Jewish Christmas party.” Her mother started to grab for her, recognized she’d have to get up and settled for a glare that spoke her disapproval.
Joan looked at me, then at the exhausted woman. “Would it be okay if we took Tameeka with us, Mrs. Brown. I’ll get her back by 8 o’clock, and if you’re asleep I’ll make sure she brushes her teeth.”
Tameeka’s mother smiled. “Thank you, Ms. Marin.” Her son reached out his spoon and started pounding on the table. She turned to Tameeka. “You mind Ms. Marin, you hear?”
The little girl jumped up and down, tucked herself between Joan and me, taking our hands as we headed for the community room.
“Do you know the story of Hanukah,” I asked, waiting for Tameeka to shake her head. “It has nothing to do with Christmas, you know.” Who was I kidding? Like all Jewish parents I’d had the difficult job of telling my daughter that Christmas was nice for Christians, but we were Jews and we celebrated Hanukah.
“A long time ago….”—out came the story-telling voice–“a wicked ruler conquered Israel and spoiled the special Temple in Jerusalem, by setting up false idols for the Jews to worship. The people revolted and drove out the bad guys. When the Temple priests restored order, all the holy oil was ruined except for one bottle, enough to keep the Eternal Light lit for only one day. It would take eight days to get a new batch of holy oil. But a miracle occurred and the one little bottle lasted for eight days. That’s why we light a candle each night for eight nights.”
“I like the story about baby Jesus better,” Tameeka said.
Smart kid, I thought. That’s why we’d made sure to give our daughter Terry a gift each night of Hanukah, a feeble attempt to counteract a month of Christmas carols everywhere and manger scenes and Santa Claus. Christmas was a seduction, not an attack. No one came to the Temple and turned off the Eternal Light (now electric); no one forced us to deck the halls with boughs of holly. I remembered my teen years when I wouldn’t say any part of the Temple services that I didn’t believe in one hundred per cent. In high school assembly, I enjoyed singing Christmas carols, but when we got to the chorus—“Christ the Savior is born!”—I mouthed the words. No sound came from my lips. I’d been taught Jesus was a good and holy man, but Jews didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah, the Savior.
Tameeka and I found two seats free at one of the ten large tables and pulled up another chair. Joan scoped out the latke situation at the buffet, gave a thumbs-up and signaled Tameeka to come. Barrettes bobbing, she almost ran to the buffet.
At each white-clothed table a special Hanukah menorah twinkled with a rainbow of candles. On the first night, we’d lit one candle. Tonight on the sixth night, six of the eight candleholders held burning lights, plus another candle off to the side—the shamos–used to light the others.
Joan arrived with plates full of the crispy potato pancakes. Tameeka carefully held one small bowl with applesauce and another with sour cream.
Her pink barrettes swished as she watched me, then Joan, load up our latkes with more calories. Joan cut off a big piece and offered the fork to Tameeka. She was busy making her own lat-key by the time the singing started.
Dreydl, dreydl, dreydl.
I made it out of clay
And when it’s dry and ready
Then dreydl I will play.
I picked up one of the little plastic toys in the center of the table. “Dreydl,” I said, and started the four-sided top spinning to Tameeka’s delight.
“Let’s play,” said Ethan, the boy her age sitting next to her.
I showed her that each side of the dreydl had a different Hebrew letter, and Ethan explained the rules of the game—what happened if each of the letters lay face up after the spin. Then he pulled the chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil from the center and passed them out to Joan, me, Tameeka and himself.
“Hanukah gelt,” I said. “Gelt means money. But this is the kind you can eat.”
The game began with the advantage passed back and forth between the two children until I got lucky and won the pot. Both children looked at me in outrage that an adult had played to win, but they kept quiet as I raked in the pile of candy.
The rabbi stood to announce that services were about to start. The crowd started to leave, and I split my take between the two children, to loud cheers.
“How did you like your first Hanukah party,” I asked Tameeka.
“Can I take the Hanukah stuff people left on the tables?”
“Just what you can carry in your hands,” Joan said.
Tameeka emptied the current contents of her hands into her pockets. “Ok,” she said, sweeping each table, but sticking to the rules Joan had set.
“I’m checking in with security before I go back to the hosting area,” I said.
“Okay, I’ll see that Tameeka gets settled before I leave for the night.”
“Thanks for coming by, Joan.” For the first time I felt awkward, very aware of Tameeka’s presence. Duh, I thought. Who was I to thank Joan? She ran the whole operation. My job was to reassure the two female Overnight Hosts—a middle-aged English professor and a young attorney new to the area.
Joan looked up at me, then turned to keep the pink-barrettes in sight as Tameeka finished her sweep.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” I said. “To let you know what happens.” And then we separated, my steps heading for the entrance.
**
By eleven o’clock, not a creature was stirring. The security guard stayed at the front entrance, with an occasional walk around the outside. I’d checked in with the Overnight Hosts and made sure all the guest families were in their rooms and had their doors locked. I dragged a comfortable armchair over to the alarmed door nearest the temporary bedrooms and pulled a paperback thriller out of my jacket.
I must’ve dozed off. Loud knocks on the glass door woke me up. A short black woman with a huge Santa-sized plastic zip bag over her shoulder rattled the push bar with two solemn, little kids standing by. A renewed snowfall had already dusted them with white.
“Come around the front,” I yelled, pointing to the main entrance. She nodded and started to trudge.
I called Joan on my cell phone as I headed toward the front. “I think the missing family just showed up.”
She gave me their names. “Their room’s still made up. Tell her I’ll be by to sort things out tomorrow morning.”
The security guard, finished with his outside rounds, had opened the door for the family by the time I got there.
“We’re back,” the mother said as she knelt to pull down the hoods on the slightly too-big parkas her sons were wearing. Snowflakes in her cornrows were melting, glittering in the lights.
Just then the older Overnight Host scuffed in with the Directions folder clutched to her purple flannel bathrobe. She took charge, insisting on seeing identification and calling Joan to confirm arrangements. Professor Hirschberg then ordered us to our respective duties, staying behind to reset the security alarm with the aid of the Directions. Twenty minutes later, order restored, I picked up my thriller.
When I woke up, the lights were off, with only the red EXIT sign giving a feeble light. Silence. What had waked me? I stayed unmoving in my chair, except for the creep of my right hand toward my shoulder holster.
Then swearing and a hopping motion caught the sensors’ attention and turned on the lights. Bill Thornton cursed, twisted and fell to the floor. He lifted himself and pulled a small blue dreydl from beneath him. I swept aside the rainbow scatter of tiny tops on the floor near the door and held out my hand to Thornton, but he stood on his own. I took the dreydl from him, noticing the smell of cigarette smoke on his clothes.
The Professor in Purple shuffled in as fast as her scuffs allowed, clutching the Directions manual. Tameeka in her pajamas peeked around her.
“Thought I heard something,” Thornton said. “That alarm system.” He pointed to a box just above eye level to the right of the door with more blinking lights than I remembered from earlier in the evening. “I was a night watchman. Blinking means it’s not armed.”
So the door had been open for several hours and Thornton figured he could grab a smoke. An infraction of the rules, but Joan could take care of it tomorrow.
“Could I check with your Directions manual, Professor?” Looking a bit sheepish, she handed it over and exited. Tameeka had disappeared.
As Thornton turned to go, I noticed a streak of black on his cheek and a bulge in the side of his Pacers jacket.
“What’ve you got there?” I patted down his jacket over the bulge.
Thornton pulled away. “Leave me be. Me and my family’re getting out of this Jew hell hole. Right now.”
I held on to him. In the struggle, an aerosol can fell from his jacket. I turned it with my foot to see the label—black spray paint. I snapped cuffs onto Thornton, glad his family wasn’t around to see his arrest. I called into the station, requesting a squad car and told them to put me on active duty.
The security guard came back to check out the noise.
“The alarms aren’t armed. Keep an eye on him.” I nodded toward Thornton, now standing with his back to the door. I picked up the spray can, bagged it, and labeled it.
A police car pulled silently into the parking lot with its lights flashing.
“I know how to arm it,” the security guard said, pointing his head to the panel of lights. “Sorry I didn’t catch it earlier.”
Where was the police officer? He must’ve taken a look around, especially out back. Then I saw two figures approaching. Since the door was unarmed, I pushed it open. No alarm.
“Look what I found in the parking lot.” An officer pushed Thornton’s older son in before him. “Is he one of your ‘guests’? He was near the graffiti and someone’s added a Klan sign.”
The boy’s face impassive, he avoided looking at his father and stuffed his fists into the pockets of his jeans, a black smear on his right hand. Some black paint streaked up his jacket, across his cheek and into his hair—as though someone had interrupted him while he was spraying.
“His father had the can of paint when he came in,” I said, “and some paint on his cheek.”
Twenty minutes later, things were quiet once more. I’d called Joan and she talked on the phone with Mrs. Thornton. The patrol officers took Thornton and his son to the station, but the rest of the family stayed on, at least until the police and the agency could sort everything out tomorrow. The Security Guard armed the alarm system, and I returned the Directions with an update to Professor Hirschberg.
Case solved. I could go to the station and write up a report. But first I picked up all the dreydls I’d swept to the side.
A pig-tailed head, minus pink barrettes, peeked around the corner from the classroom hall. “I saw him go out,” Tameeka said.
“For a smoke,” I said, putting the dreydls in my jacket pocket. “While I was asleep.”
She nodded.
“You should have got me up, Tameeka. As long as the alarm system was off, someone could leave or break in without anyone knowing. Police work in teams, you know.”
Tameeka avoided looking at me. I walked her back to her family’s room.
I put my hand under her head and raised it toward me. “You set a clever trap with the dreydls, Tameeka. I hereby award you the Order of the Dreydl for bravery and smarts.” I dropped the blue dreydl into her hand. “Now get some sleep, young woman.”
She turned the knob with the quiet skill of a cat burglar and smiled up at me. “Happy Hanukah, Detective Bryant.”
“Happy New Year, Tameeka.” I vowed to myself that I’d keep track of this little girl and her family. Never too early to start recruiting.