A Great Miracle
Tonight is the first night of Hanukah and I am waiting for Conrad who is uncharacteristically late. For nearly a week he has been talking about stollen and bemoaning our collective inability to bake, so he must have stopped at the good German bakery to buy some and surprise me, and that is a good half hour from the house.
I have set out the menorah and put candles in it, but Conrad will want me to wait for him before I light them. It is a small thing he does for me, to share my holiday. Hanukah is a minor historical holiday, easy to prepare for and easy to keep, nothing like the importance of Conrad's Christmas. Each night for eight nights he will light the candles with me, and he will listen while I say the prayers, and when I make latkes or bring home a bag of sufganiyot, I know he will eat them with me.
And in exchange I will share his holiday with him. We put a cherry twig in a glass of water on St Barbara's Day, and the night of St Nicholas' Day, I put Conrad's winter boots by the door and filled them with apples and tangerines and bars of Hershey's chocolate. I know this is a child's tradition, but it makes him smile. On the table is an advent wreath with red candles - two lit so far - and every night we open another door in the advent calendar hanging on the wall. Soon we will buy a tree and decorate it with tinsel and candles and the ornaments Conrad has collected over the years, and we will make strings of popcorn and cranberries like American children do, and we will exchange presents on Christmas Eve, and this year for Christmas dinner we will go to his friend Margareta's house and eat roast goose and green beans and leeks and the sourdough bread her husband makes.
When we were younger, before the war, we never would have been allowed to live and practice our different religions in the same house. My entire family is gone, save a cousin who escaped to Brazil, for no other reason than our belief in the god of Abraham and Isaac, not the god of Barbara and Nicholas. I survived because I was stubborn and because I was lucky, and Conrad and I now have a life together because we worked hard for it, and because God in some fashion loves me. So will share Conrad's holiday as long as I can also celebrate mine, because I alone am left to do so, and because I owe my parents and my god that much.
And I must admit, my brass menorah with its white candles looks very pretty next to Conrad's green advent wreath.
The door bangs open and I hear him calling my name, annoucing his presence and spoiling his surprise.
"Oskar! I brought you springerle! And Christstollen, it smells lovely. Where are you?"
And then he is standing behind me, putting his cold, winter-coated arms around me and pressing his cheek against mine.
"You're cold," I tell him.
"You waited for me," he says.
"Of course I did. Take off your coat so we can light the candles and start the holiday properly."
"And then I will make coffee and we will eat! Dessert before dinner, like boys." He kisses me once before stepping away to hang his coat in the front closet and put the pastries in the kitchen.
When he returns, I light the candles and say the prayers over them and add the Shehecheyanu, which I always say on special occasions - "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season." Conrad watches me, smiling. He is fifty-six, my Conrad, and still handsome. I am a lucky man.
"I brought you a present," he says.
"Springerle, you said."
"Something else, too." He goes back into the kitchen and comes out with a small paper bag, which he hands to me. It contains a wooden dreidel, honey-colored and shiny with varnish, the Hebrew letters on the four sides painted gold and blue. When I was small, my parents would argue over whether or not I could play it with my cousins - my father insisted that it was gambling and forbidden, and my mother was just as insistent that it was only a game and I was only a boy and it would not turn me into a gambler.
I have a few small plastic dreidels, which I took from my office, but nothing as nice as this.
"Did you make this?" I ask. He just grins at me. "You did! How did you... the letters.... Conrad, it's beautiful." I take his face in my hands and kiss him. He wraps his arms around my waist.
"Nes gadol hayah sham," he says, after we pull apart. "A great miracle happened there. Happy Hanukah, Oskar." He is still smiling and I am inexpressibly proud of him. I kiss him again.
"Do you know, in Israel the dreidels say 'Nes gadol hayah po.' 'A great miracle happened here.'"
"Well," he says, "it did happen there."
"And in Munich, and every place we have lived since." And now it is his turn to kiss me.
I had my great miracle late in 1945, in what had become West Germany, when I swallowed my fear and knocked on the door of Conrad's parents' house, and he was there. Every day since then has been a smaller miracle and a gift and a blessing, and a reward for the faith that kept me alive.
It is indeed a small thing that Conrad and I share each other's holidays. It is a much greater thing that I have him at all.