“WE WON’T DO IT.” Mrs. Leah Prager, a small and energetic woman, tilted her head back as far as she could, so she could gaze directly into the eyes of Mr. Henry Sax, bobbin-net manufacturer. “That menorah belonged to my parents, and my grandparents before them, may they rest in peace.”
Mr. Sax, a tall, stout, and quick-tempered man, looked over the head of the diminutive Mrs. Prager and spoke to the lady’s husband, Mr. Jonah Prager, greengrocer. “No disrespect to the dead intended, sir, I am sure. But times do change. We must change with them, or we shall be left behind.”
“I am not sure I understand what that has to do with my wife’s menorah, sir,” replied Mr. Prager. A man more accustomed to hovering at the margin of life than engaging it directly, Mr. Prager had summoned the wherewithal to answer the more-imposing Mr. Sax only after receiving a sharp nudge in the small of his back from his wife. “Surely, the Chanukah holiday is a testament to the Jewish people’s loyalty to our tradition. Is it not our refusal to change and turn Greek that we recall when we kindle the Chanukah lights?”
Mrs. Prager beamed at her husband’s unexpected eloquence, and shot a glance at their opponent, as though to say, “Answer that, if you can!”
However, Mr. Sax only glanced impatiently at his gold watch, which was attached to his waistcoat pocket by a heavy gold chain. In a few minutes the Evening Service at London’s Great Synagogue would begin. Already the male members of the community were streaming into the synagogue’s vestibule, glancing curiously at the threesome as they passed into the large hall that housed the sanctuary.
“I have no wish to engage you in a theological discussion, sir,” Mr. Sax replied, closing his watch’s gold cover with a sharp snap. “But your wife’s menorah is a disgrace to this congregation. It is high time it is replaced by one that is more dignified, and I intend to put the matter to a vote tonight.”
The wealthy manufacturer thrust his watch back into its pocket and strode into the sanctuary, taking his accustomed place at the front.
Mrs. Prager took her husband’s hand and squeezed it tight, hoping to impart another dose of determined courage to her spouse, who after his one sally had shrunk back into his own shadow.
“You will speak up, won’t you, Mr. Prager? You will make them see that our menorah should remain where it is, in the synagogue, next to the Holy Ark? That it should be lit on Chanukah?”
“Well, it is a little dented,” he said, avoiding his wife’s pleading eyes. He had never addressed a public forum before, and he had no wish to begin a career as a public debater at this late stage in his life. “That does not matter to us, knowing how we do its history, how your grandparents brought it with them from Prague. But to others, who are not so sentimental …”
“We are starting, Mr. Prager,” said the synagogue’s attendant, Mr. Koch, who stood at the doors to the main hall, ready to close them. “Are you coming inside?”
Mr. Prager, grateful for the excuse to end the uncomfortable conversation with his wife, pulled away his hand and said to her, “I will bring home a nice piece of herring for our tea.”
Mrs. Prager stood alone in the vestibule. A sudden draft made her shiver. She should go home, she knew, and sit by the fire in her small drawing room. She was susceptible to chills and colds. But she couldn’t bear to leave her spot, knowing as she did that the fate of her menorah was going to be decided that night.
“Is there anything wrong, Mrs. Prager?” a man’s voice inquired. “May I convey a message to your husband?”
She turned. Mr. Ezra Melamed, one of the community’s wealthiest members, had entered from the outside courtyard and was standing beside her.
“It is about the menorah, Mr. Melamed. You have grown up with it yourself, and lit it too. The synagogue would not be the same, without it standing in its accustomed place. You see that, don’t you?”
A muffled “Amen” could be heard through the closed doors. Mr. Melamed tipped his hat and said, “I beg your pardon, Mrs. Prager, I am late. But I will see that your views are heard.”
He hurried into the sanctuary. Mrs. Prager heard the doors close behind him, but did not see them, because her eyes were tightly shut.
“Please, God,” she whispered, “I did not complain when you took away my two babies. I did not question You, although I did not understand why they could not have lived—why our family will not have a continuance in the people of Israel after Mr. Prager and I have departed this world. But I did hope that my family’s menorah might continue to serve You, and that our memory would be remembered every year at Chanukah, when this holy congregation gathered around it to kindle the Chanukah lights. So, could You please, just this once, make a miracle for me. Melt the hearts of this holy congregation and make them cherish my menorah as much as I do. Let my menorah be victorious!”
Mr. Melamed sank into the comfortable grandfather chair with a grateful sigh. He declined the glass of wine offered to him by Mr. Samuel Lyon, clockmaker to the fashionable world and respected member of London’s Ashkenazic Jewish community, but did accept a cup of tea.
Also seated in the Lyon drawing room were Mrs. Rose Lyon, the matriarch of the family, and their eldest unmarried daughter, Miss Rebecca Lyon, the soon-to-be-well-known Authoress (and, Reader, the chronicler of this tale). The younger members of the household were already in their beds and presumably fast asleep, having come down with colds due to the unseasonably cold and foggy weather; although one of them, Master Joshua Lyon, did have the alarming habit of sneaking downstairs and listening to conversations that did not concern him.
“Will you stay for dinner, Mr. Melamed?” asked Mrs. Lyon.
“Thank you, but my cook will be offended if I do not eat the meal she has prepared.”
Mrs. Lyon did not press her visitor to change his mind; she knew he was that rare person who eschewed the prattling conventions of society for the plain truth. Therefore, if he said he did not wish to stay for dinner, she could consider her duty as mistress of the house done and return to her needlework.
Mr. Lyon, aware of a rumbling in his stomach, cast an encouraging eye over at their guest, hoping Mr. Melamed would broach the subject that had brought him to Devonshire Square, that pleasant corner of London where the Lyon family had their abode. It was clear that Mr. Melamed wished to speak about something, and equally clear that for some reason he hesitated to begin.
“You were very late this evening,” Mrs. Lyon said to her husband, breaking what had become an awkward silence. “Was the leader of the prayer service very slow?”
“On the contrary,” replied Mr. Lyon, stretching his legs toward the fire. If he must be hungry, at least he could be warm. “I am convinced that Mr. Strauss skips every fourth word, otherwise he could never recite the prayers so quickly. But afterward we had to decide what to do about the synagogue’s menorah.”
“I was saying to Mrs. Franks just the other day that we must give it a good polish before Chanukah,” said Mrs. Lyon. “Which reminds me, Mr. Lyon, we must purchase more candles. And sweets for the children.”
“This year you need not worry about polishing the Prager menorah,” said Mr. Melamed, rousing himself at last. “Tonight, the synagogue members voted to replace it with a new silver menorah donated by Mr. Sax.
“It is a rather remarkable example of the silversmithing art,” Mr. Lyon added.
Miss Lyon, who always delighted in the new, immediately asked about the Sax menorah. But to her great disappointment, her father had not made a drawing and she was prevented from making further inquiries by her mother, who asked, “Why does the synagogue need a new menorah?”
“Progress, according to Mr. Sax,” replied Mr. Lyon. “Our community has grown and prospered …”
“Only some,” Mrs. Lyon corrected him. “I am sure there are many more poor Jews now than when I was a girl.”
“That may be, but Mr. Sax feels that the ritual objects used in the synagogue should reflect the position in society occupied by those who have prospered.”
Mrs. Lyon considered this for a few moments. “I am sure I am not against progress,” she said, “but what about poor Mrs. Prager? Will her feelings not be hurt when she finds out?”
“I am afraid they will,” said Mr. Melamed. “That is why I would like your opinion, Mrs. Lyon, as another woman with a sensitive heart.”
Mrs. Lyon acknowledged the truth of this compliment with a nod of her head.
“I understand how Mrs. Prager would be distressed by this sudden banishment of her family’s heirloom from its place of honor by the Ark,” Mr. Melamed continued. “But perhaps we can soften her pain by suggesting the Pragers donate their menorah to the orphanage. The menorah would then still be exhibited in a public place and lit every year. And it is no small thing to gladden the hearts of orphans.”
“That is an excellent idea,” said Mr. Lyon, glancing at his wife for confirmation.
But that good woman was vigorously shaking her head. “It is kind of you to concern yourself with Mrs. Prager’s feelings, Mr. Melamed, but I cannot think the orphanage is the solution. You know how children are. The bigger and shinier a thing is, the more they are impressed. I can see them being enthralled with Mr. Sax’s menorah, if it is as impressive as you say. But I cannot see them valuing the Prager menorah, which is a dear but very humble thing. Do you not agree, Rebecca?”
Miss Lyon blushed. While it was true that she had never paid much attention to the Pragers’ menorah, she did not like to see herself compared to the children at the orphanage. They were all very sweet, but several years younger—for she was almost at the marriageable age!
Her blushes were not observed, though, because Mrs. Lyon suddenly shivered and said, “I fear no good will come from your evening’s work, Mr. Melamed.”
“You are mistaken, dear,” said Mr. Lyon, coming to the defense of their guest. “We all voted on the matter.”
Mrs. Lyon shook her head again. “Everyone listens to you, Mr. Melamed. If you had spoken more vigorously on behalf of Mrs. Prager’s menorah, you would have prevailed.”
“Perhaps,” he replied. “But what is done is done. And I cannot agree that what has been done will cause any lasting harm.”
“I hope you are right,” said Mrs. Lyon, ominously thrusting her needle into the recalcitrant cloth.
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