The Menora That Ignited A Spark That Became A Flame
By Shneur Zalman Levin

Jeff had distanced himself as far as possible from his Jewish roots * A fated viewing of a menora lighting changed everything

Efraim Cohen grew up in a crowded apartment on the East Side of Manhattan. His parents were religious despite the tremendous difficulties involved in being observant in America seventy years ago. They were born in Vilna and came to the United States after the First World War.

Efraim was the middle child, between two sisters. Mr. Cohen zealously guarded his small family and made sure to convey Jewish values to his children. However, Efraim was torn between the Jewish education he received at home and the education he received at public school.

The lure and promise of America beckoned to Efraim, and when he entered his teenage years, despite his father’s efforts to keep Efraim within the religious framework of the family, Efraim left home. He left his parents’ house, as well as the traditions and mitzvos he had performed. Over time, he became ever more resentful towards anything Jewish. He did not want to look like a Jew and wanted no one to recognize his Jewish roots. He left New York City for Binghamton to get as far away as possible from a Jewish area, especially from religious Jews. He changed his name from Cohen, thus erasing his last connection to his Jewish origin. He even married a gentile.

Years passed and his estrangement from his parents began to bother Efraim, who had in the meantime changed his name to Jeff. He decided to get in touch with them, but they didn’t want to speak to him. He barely recognized the voice of his father. "We sat Shiva for you. I don’t want to hear from you again," he said and hung up the phone.

Twenty years passed. One day Jeff received a call from his uncle, informing him that his father had died and the funeral would be the next day. Jeff boarded the first available plane and attended the funeral. It was the last time he saw his two sisters, his mother, and the rest of the family; since then he hasn’t seen or heard from them.

After the funeral, Jeff returned home to his gentile wife and children. He disconnected himself from any connection whatsoever to Jews and Judaism. Every so often he would recall his youth, but those were fleeting thoughts, and he quickly returned to his routine without pangs of conscience or thoughts of regret.

Three grandchildren were born, and he was a proud grandpa. It seemed as though the end of his life would follow the same course.

* * *

The business district of Binghamton bustled with thousands of people. Many of them had come to do holiday shopping. In the center of the mall, a few workers had erected a giant menora, guided by the local shaliach, Rabbi Aharon Slonim. The management of the mall was very happy to cooperate with the candle lighting ceremony. They appreciated Rabbi Slonim’s work and realized that thousands of shoppers and hundreds of TV viewers would watch the ceremony and be attracted to the mall.

At candle lighting time, a long ladder was set up and the shaliach lit the candles. He explained that the Chanuka candles light up the spiritual darkness, commemorating the great miracle that happened to the Jewish people in the times of the Holy Temple. Thousands of people at the mall who were watching the menora lighting applauded. The ceremony was filmed and televised live on the local news channel.

Meanwhile, Jeff was sitting at home flipping through the channels on his television. Suddenly he saw a rabbi with a long beard and wearing a black hat standing in the mall lighting a menora. He almost switched to another channel but his finger froze in place. He watched the rabbi with curiosity, as images from long ago came to mind.

He remembered the Jewish East Side. He recalled the menora lighting at home with all the emotions and the ambiance accompanying it. It even seemed to him that he could smell the old house.

He listened to what Rabbi Slonim said: "The candles symbolize good deeds. Every good deed lights up the environment and chases away the spiritual darkness within the heart and soul of man."

The news broadcast moved on to some other news item, but Jeff did not hear. He stared at the newscaster but his head, mind, and heart were somewhere else. He spent a restless night. He could find no peace. The more he tried to forget and discard the past, the more the images from the past came to him.

The next evening he suggested to his wife that they go shopping at the mall. She agreed and took two of the grandchildren along. The mall was busy with thousands of shoppers hurrying about. At the appointed time, Rabbi Slonim went up the ladder to light the menora. People stopped for a moment to watch and listen.

Rabbi Slonim’s voice reverberated with the brachos. They didn’t all understand the words but Jeff remembered – "Who did miracles for our fathers in those days at this time."

"For our fathers?" wondered Jeff. "Do I have fathers? Where have I brought the chain of my fathers? Where did I bring my father? – to the grave!" Tears began to flow.

He sent his wife and grandchildren to one of the stores and quickly approached Rabbi Slonim. "Help me! I beg you! I cannot go on like this! Yet I cannot get up and walk away from my family, from my wife, children, and grandchildren. Please help me! Give me advice!" and he burst into tears again.

"I gave him my address," said Rabbi Slonim as he concluded the story, "and asked him to stop by the next day. He came the next morning. We are taught to begin our connection with a Jew with action, so I suggested he put on t’fillin. He agreed. Jeff-Efraim stood there in the corner for a long time, communing with himself and his Maker."

"After removing the t’fillin he said, ‘I put on t’fillin for five years after my bar mitzva, but it was a big burden which I did against my will just to please my father. Now I am doing it emotionally and with joy, and I feel a renewed connection to my father and to Judaism.’

"At the age of 70, Efraim began putting t’fillin on again, davening and performing mitzvos. The family issue is a tragic problem and will take time and patience to resolve, but that moment will come. He courageously began his path back home to Yiddishkeit. He cries over the years that passed so tragically, but he is determined to return in complete teshuva and live as a loyal Jew."


"I cannot go on like this! Yet I cannot get up and walk away from my family, from my wife, children, and grandchildren. Please help me!"


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