A Chanukah Postcard
By CHANA SHARFSTEIN
It was just a postcard with a simple message, but to me it was a wonderful Chanukah present. My thoughts drifted back to the beginning of the fall term last September.
The first night of classes, I had been looking forward to this course in Spanish literature and culture because it sounded so interesting. Besides, it was my final course that would fulfill the license requirements for my job as an English-as-a-second-language teacher.
That very first night, things went wrong. Professor Méndez appeared competent and interesting as he began his introductory lecture. I was surprised, however, that he was addressing us in English, since this was an advanced course. I raised my hand and questioned the professor on this point. The room grew uncomfortably still, and then, in a stern voice, Professor Méndez sarcastically answered that he was sure we weren’t advanced enough to be able to discuss history and literature in Spanish. This developed into a heated debate with everyone vocally taking sides, and of course, I was viewed as the instigator. The feelings of antipathy that developed that night grew steadily stronger during the term.
When we had the midterm exam, the professor had his opportunity to pay me back. I prepared thoroughly, but he gave me a B and wrote a note explaining that I had misinterpreted a question; I had analyzed the material rather than summarized it. I was really furious, but my family felt he probably was an anti-Semite, and anyway my class discussions had certainly placed me in an unfavorable spotlight.
Just about that time, a magazine arrived in which one of my stories had been published. It contained some cherished memories of the holidays from my youth. I brought the magazine to class to show some of my classmates. I had even planned to show it to the professor. That night, we had another disagreement, which positively settled the issue. At the end of class, I angrily rushed out of the room.
Halfway down the hall, and I’ll never know why, I turned around and went back. The professor was there gathering his belongings. He looked at me in surprise, and I showed him my article. He looked at it briefly, and then, quite unexpectedly, asked if he could take it home.
The following week, the professor asked me to meet him in his office after class. After we were comfortably seated, he began to tell me how much he enjoyed my article.
“He probably found it unique,” I thought to myself. “This might be his first exposure to Jewish life.”
My thoughts were suddenly interrupted. “It reminded me of my own youth,” I heard him saying. “It was during World War II, and we celebrated the holidays in secrecy, each year not knowing if there would be another, each year in a different place.”
It was a good thing that I was sitting, for his next question really stunned me. “How did you figure out that I was Jewish?” he asked. Professor Méndez a Jew? I just couldn’t believe it.
“My father changed our name during the war,” he continued, so we could escape to South America. “We trained ourselves to appear non-Jewish. We carefully studied and imitated the native Spanish settlers.”
We sat in the office and discussed Jewish life and Judaism for a while.
The following Tuesday afternoon, as I was getting ready to leave, one of my daughters presented me with a problem. She had received several Chanukah menorahs in her school with the instructions to give them to someone who would not otherwise light Chanukah candles.
“You can give me a menorah now,” I told her. “And find some wrapping paper.”
When I left for class moments later, I had a neatly wrapped menorah in the bag with my books.
I remained after class and presented Professor Méndez with the gift.
“Is it something special you baked or cooked?” he asked. I shook my head.
“Please don’t open it until you get home,” I said. “And please read the material inside. No matter what, keep it and think about it carefully.” As I left, I turned and called out, “Happy Chanukah.”
“Did you light the menorah?” I asked at the next session.
“No,” he said, “I told you I am not observant. My life has changed drastically since my early years.” He had placed the menorah on his desk at home, but he had not been interested in lighting it.
“Why?” I asked. “Isn’t it time that you took a stand? Light the candle to identify. There is no need to hide anymore. Come forward and find your real self.”
“Perhaps some other time,” he said. “Not now. But thank you anyway.”
And now, a year later, he had sent me a postcard. I reread the message, and again it filled me with joy. There were only four words in the short message, and that was all.
“The candles are burning.” And then he had signed his name, Professor Méndez, and under it in small letters, Yehuda Mendelovsky.
There are many kinds of battles and victories. The heroism displayed by you, Professor Méndez, is comparable to the battle of the Maccabees of old. When we light our candles tonight, I will think of your new little lights, those tiny flames representing victory.
CHANA SHARFSTEIN, an expert on Scandinavian Jewish history, is a noted author, educator and tour guide. Raised and educated in Stockholm, Sweden, she is a retired member of the New York City school system and a docent at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Center of Jewish History.