On the night when four candles burned in the Hanukkah menorah, Malkah and the Rabbi’s wife were sitting on Malkah’s bed in the orphanage, playing with Honey’s kittens. 

“Could you bring the Rabbi here to see your kitten?”  asked Malkah. 

While her hands were stroking Honey, her blind eyes were turned up to the Rabbi’s wife.  It was very bold for a young girl to suggest a Rabbi should come somewhere or do something.  But when Malkah turned twelve, she got very bold.

“Bring my husband here?” repeated the Rebbetzin.  She sat in silence, and her silence meant, “I have to think about this.”  She retied her kerchief, then she reached past Malkah and picked up the biggest of Honey’s kittens, the yellow male. 

“Ari, Ari,” she crooned, calling him by his Hebrew name, which meant ‘Lion.’ “I know it’s your nap time,” she told him teasingly, “but you should wake up and meow goodbye to me.”

As she unrolled the furry ball with her finger, the kitten flopped over on his back, wrapped his legs around the finger and sank tiny, needle-sharp teeth into it.  Laughing, the Rebbetzin said to Malkah, “I was wrong!  The little lion just reminded me that nothing matters more than naps!”

Honey, on Malkah’s lap, watched her son out of shining green eyes and purred with satisfaction.

“The Rabbi should meet Ari,” persisted Malkah.  She reached out and touched the Rebbetzin’s lips, which was her way of saying, “This is important.”

Before the Rabbi’s wife could answer, the back door of the orphanage opened and Malkah’s friends, Hannah and Rachel, came in.  They greeted Malkah and the Rebbetzin with a kiss and picked up the kittens they had adopted.  These were two look-alike cats with black backs and white chests.  This left only one kitten on the blanket, the pretty little tortoiseshell that Malkah was keeping as her own.  She was the only girl among Honey’s children, and she was so lovable that Malkah had named her Song of Songs, after the greatest love poem in the Bible. 

When Rachel’s thumb came down and tickled Song’s cheek, the kitten turned her head and licked the thumb with great enthusiasm, while her tiny stub of a tail whipped back and forth.  “Every part of Song is sweet, from one end to the other,” joked Rachel.

“My father,” teased the Rebbetzin, “preached that of all the qualities God has, mercy and strictness are the most important.  Song shows us God’s mercy, and Ari expresses His strictness.  Song will never bite, and Ari shows us what’s right.”

“You just made up a rhyme,” grinned Hannah.

Going back to her first point, Malkah asked her friends, “Don’t you think the Rabbi should come here and meet Ari?”

Hannah and Rachel said nothing, but Malkah could hear their thoughts: All grown-ups live in a different world, a special one, and the Rabbi lives in the most special of all.  They were too shy to say, “Yes, we agree.” 

“Maybe he would come here,” the Rebbetzin said slowly. She was testing the words. 

Malkah could see stories when people talked.  In the sadness of the Rebbetzin’s voice as she spoke about her husband, Malkah began to see the Rabbi.  She saw him going about his usual occupations.

She saw him getting into a fine carriage to go to Warsaw.  She saw him sitting at a table heaped with dishes of delicious food and surrounded by other guests, all smoking big cigars. She saw him with a very fat, very blond man, both of them leaning on a shop counter, making deals with sharp merchants, and the Rabbi’s face looked as sharp as theirs. 

At the Rabbi’s feet, Malkah saw a wooden box on wheels with long cords attached to it.  She watched the Rabbi and the fat blond man pull it out of the shop and along the street between them.  Bump, bump, bump went the wheels over the cobblestones, and stamp, stamp, stamp went the fat man’s shoes. 

At the end of the street, the Rabbi and the Stamper opened the box, and Malkah could see it was filled with zlotys, Polish coins.  Ha! Ha! Ha! The two men laughed out loud and tossed some of the zlotys into the air, like children playing with their favorite toys. 

When one of the zlotys rolled into the gutter, a crippled man, who had made his home on the sidewalk, reached for it. But the Rabbi grabbed it up and tossed it back into the box.  He scowled at the cripple, and then he and the Stamper picked up the cords again and off they went, Ha! Ha! Ha!  Stamp, stamp, stamp!  And bump, bump, bump went the wheels over the cobbles. 

As Malkah looked at the Rabbi’s life, she looked for the Rabbi’s wife.  But she was nowhere to be found!  Feeling bolder than ever, Malkah touched the Rebbetzin’s hand, the hand that was tickling Ari.  “Please bring your husband,” she begged. 

The next day, the Rebbetzin told Malkah breathlessly, “He said yes!  I told him that we wanted him to visit, and he said yes.” 

WE wanted him?  Malkah’s heart beat faster. “Why did she say ‘we’?” she wondered.  “The Rabbi hardly knows me.”

But before she could say a word, the Rebbetzin added, “He’s bringing his business partner.  They’re going to meet Ari and then go on to Warsaw to close a deal.  Since tomorrow’s Christmas Eve, I thought the man would be with his family, but my husband said he doesn’t bother about Christmas.” 

“Is the other man short and fat with yellow hair?” asked Malkah.  “And does he walk like this?”  Stamp, stamp, stamp! Her little feet pounded the floor.

“Yes,” said the Rebbetzin in amazement. She waited for Malkah to explain how she knew him, but the girl went back to playing with Song and dodged the unspoken question. 

The following morning, Malkah heard the brisk, no-nonsense steps of the Rabbi at the front door. Behind him came the stamp, stamp, stamp of his partner.  And last of all came the Rebbetzin’s dreamy walk.

“Well,” said the Rabbi, when he saw the three girls, who all stood with bent heads to show their respect.  “I understand there’s a Very Important Kitten in this room.”  He did not introduce the Stamper, and the man stayed in the background, although Malkah heard him make a sound halfway between a laugh and a snort when the rabbi mentioned the kitten.

Stepping aside from her bed, Malkah took Honey into her arms.  The four kittens were tumbling over one another on top of her blanket, as the Rebbetzin reached down and picked out Ari.  She walked him over to her husband so he could see the kitten closely.

As the Rabbi looked into the tiny furry face, he said to his wife in a voice that trembled, “When I was a little boy, about four years old, I crept under the prayer shawl of the saintly Rabbi Ari.”  He stopped in confusion.  “Oh, I forgot. That was your father.” 

There was silence for a moment.  Malkah could feel him staring at the Rebbetzin, as though he had forgotten her too for many years.

His tone changed after that.  It got softer. “I peeped up at him through his beard as he was praying, and the light that I saw beaming from his eyes” – he broke off, because his voice was choked with tears.  Then he coughed and continued.  “That is the same light that I see shining out of the face of this little cat.”

Malkah, standing next to the Rabbi, felt his wife’s arm go around his shoulder.  As they leaned together without speaking, Malkah saw a beautiful thing.  His heart and her heart moved together, until there was only one heart. 

Malkah had completely forgotten the Stamper, until she heard him blowing his nose.  “The priest who gave me my First Communion had eyes like that,” he said. And his voice too was full of tears.

They all stood in a happy silence, until the Rabbi put Ari on his shoulder next to his collar.  In his excitement, the little kitten rolled over against the Rabbi’s neck, leaped up, and bit his ear.

Instead of being annoyed, the Rabbi cried out like the Prophet Hosea, “’I am the Lord your God Who fed you in the desert.  When you ate your fill, you became proud of heart and forgot Me.  Therefore I will be as a lion to you.’”

Malkah heard in his voice that he was mad at himself for all the time he had wasted.  He was mad that he had stuffed himself and his money box, forgetting his prayers, his wife, the poor and the children who needed him.

Then the Rabbi cheered up.  “My wife has brought into our family the Lion of Judah!”  And they all heard how proud he was of his wife. 

After he settled Ari back on his blanket, he turned to the Stamper and said, “Now that we’ve honored the little Lion, I’m going to let you go on to Warsaw by yourself.  Whatever you decide is all right with me.”

Malkah heard the man’s shoes shuffle backwards.  “Rabbi, if it’s all the same to you, I’m staying here too.”  He added shyly, “My wife likes me to go to Mass on Christmas Eve with her and the kids.”

“Agreed,” cried the Rabbi. “Mazel tov and Merry Christmas.”

“Before you leave,” said Malkah to the Stamper with mischief in her voice, “Would you like Ari to give you a little Christmas present?  He can bite you the same way!  He’s got lots of bites left in him.”

“You remind me of my Bronya,” the man chuckled.  “She’s about your age, and she always got something fresh to say as well.”  As he stamped out, he called back to the rabbi, “You better keep an eye on that girl.  She’s a bold one.”

“She’s a wise one,” answered the rabbi.  And Malkah could hear the smile in his voice.

“Thank you,” she said softly to the Rabbi.  “I never got a smile as a Hanukkah gift before.  Can I give you one back?”  And she gave him a smile as bright as a menorah on the Eighth Night with all its candles flaming. 

(The story of a boy who crept under the prayer shawl of a saintly rabbi and saw a spiritual light shining out of his eyes is told in Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim.  But that version doesn’t include a cat!)

© Lynn Butler Schiffhorst 2007

In the Middle of a World...

"In the middle of a world that has always been a bit mad, the cat walks with confidence."

Roseanne Anderson

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