The first Christmas I spent away from my family was also the first I would spend with my future wife. I was a young reporter at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, just six months out of college, and I didn't rate time off at the holidays. But she was still in school, so she was free, and she is Jewish, so she had no pressing engagements.
Hanukkah and Christmas overlapped that year. It would also be the first Jewish holiday we spent together, and I was eager to demonstrate my willingness to get in the spirit. I made a six-sided star to go on top of the tree, but obviously, that was not enough. I needed a menorah.
I found one without too much trouble, but the candles were a different story.
Many of my fellow gentiles may not know this, but menorah candles are a very specific diameter and shape that, so far as I know, is not used in any other context. In Baltimore, they are easy to find. In Little Rock, not so much. I looked in the store where I bought the menorah. Nothing. I looked in the grocery store, in the aisle with a couple of dusty boxes of matzo. Nothing. I looked in stores that sold nothing but candles. They had no idea what I was talking about.
Then a coworker offered a suggestion: Try a synagogue. I pulled up on a sunny afternoon and found the rabbi outside washing his car, which he said his son was going to use later that day to take his driver's test. The rabbi said they did have menorah candles, but that the Judaica shop was closed. I explained my plight, and he agreed to open it for me.
We went inside, he grabbed a box and said that would be $3.50. I handed him a debit card. He asked if I had cash. I didn't. He didn't have a credit card machine. "Ah, take them," he said. "You'll pay me back next year." I thanked him profusely and went home. I didn't even get his name, and he never asked me mine.
That Chrismukkah was a great success, but for the kindly rabbi, things didn't end so happily. True to my word, I did go back the next year. I spoke to a woman in the synagogue's office and explained that I wanted to buy some candles and said that I needed to pay the rabbi back. "What rabbi?" she asked. I described him, and the circumstances of the year before. "Oh," she said. "I'm sorry, but he died."
I felt terrible. I handed the woman some extra money and bought a roll of Hanukkah wrapping paper in a fit of guilt. Surely the rabbi had more pressing moral questions on his mind at the end of his life, but I couldn't help but worry, had he gone to his grave thinking I would never come back?
A dozen years later, my wife and I are celebrating our first Chrismukkah with our daughter (though due to the vagaries of the lunar calendar, the holidays were separated by two weeks). We have a beautiful stained glass menorah in our bay window, and the house is decorated in shimmering silver and blue. I made latkes and brisket, as I now do every year, and pureed some for the baby, who loved it. The rabbi probably never gave me a second thought after I left that day, but every December, I think of him.
—Andrew A. Green