"The story is clever and the characters are very real."
Children's Literature Review
Jason doesn't want to celebrate Hanukkah. He'd rather celebrate Christmas. But Jason gains a new perspective when he is transported back in time and welcomed as a friend of the Maccabees. He also gets to witness the miracle of the lights.
Children's Literature Review
Jason was disgusted. It was cold, and getting dark, and the darker it got, the more the Christmas lights came on. The wholeg darn street was twinkling by the time he got to his corner.
Plastic Santa Clauses and choir boys glowed on lawns. Six-foot candy canes gleamed on porches. Blue electric candles flickered in windows. Many-colored sparkles winked from pillars and doors. It made him sad. And it made him angry. He wished he didn't have to walk home from Hebrew school just as it was getting dark at this time of year. But every Wednesday he had to go, right after public school let out. By the time Hebrew school ended two hours later, lots of the houses he had to pass already had their lights on.
It really got to him. All the talk about shopping and parties and new bikes and computers and rollerblades, all those weeks of hoping and planning, bragging and comparing. Now that it was cold and wet outside, everybody had to spend most lunch hours cooped up in the gym, shooting baskets, and that meant lots of time to talk about Christmas. In the fall and spring, when the weather was good, all the guys would be out throwing forward passes or kicking goals or hitting line drives. No one would have time to talk about presents. In the fall and spring, no one was making their list and checking it even once.
He turned the corner and trudged up the street to his house. It's easy to tell which one's ours, he thought. Just us and the Fishers and the Burgers don't have any lights. And the Fisher kids even had one set of grandparents who had a Christmas tree.
But Jason knew that his folks were hopeless. He had asked, and his sister Lisa had asked, but he knew his folks wouldn't budge an inch on Christmas.
"It isn't our holiday," Dad would say. "It celebrates something in a different religion. It's all about something we don't believe. For us to celebrate Christmas makes about as much sense as a Christian observing Yom Kippur."
"But lots of people say Christmas isn't even all that religious," Jason would argue. "Some of my friends say that for their families it's mostly about presents and decorations."
"Maybe for some people, but it's really still a celebration of someone else's religious event."
Once when Jason was feeling especially ticked off, he'd raised the subject with Lisa.
"Give it up, Jase," she'd said. "Dad's not going to budge. I tried years ago. He's really into this miracle business."
"You mean that thing about the oil? Do you think he really believes that?"
"Probably not. Anyway, Rabbi Heller told us at teen group that the story isn't even in the Book of Maccabees. It seems to be a legend that developed later."
"See?" Jason had said irritably. "That's what makes me so mad. Dad can't really believe it. So why does he have to make such a big deal about it?"
"Listen," Lisa answered in the condescending, fake grown-up tone that really got on Jason's nerves, "this isn't about whether something really happened. How many people do you know who really believe in Santa Claus anymore? But does that stop anybody?"
Jason had thought about that a minute and shrugged. It had been years since any of his friends had really waited for the sound of reindeer on the roof, but they enjoyed keeping the secret going for the younger kids.
"Jason, listen to your big sister for once," Lisa had gone on. "I talked all this over with Mom a couple of times. She says for sure it's not about the oil. It's that the miracle is the whole thing. Or the whole thing is a miracle." She'd given Jason a more serious look than she usually did. "But here's the deal: there's no way Dad's going to give in on this. You might as well stop wasting your time trying to convince him."
So this year, at the beginning of yet another Christmas season, Jason knew better than to ask. It even made him a little ashamed that he still wanted to. He wasn't a little kid anymore; he was studying for his bar mitzvah. He knew in his mind that he shouldn't want Christmas, that he shouldn't envy the Christian kids.
But he knew in his heart that he did envy his friends who would find a mountain of presents under their sparkling Christmas trees. And his envy made him feel he was letting his parents down. So when people went around school singing. "'Tis the season to be jolly," he didn't feel jolly. When they sang "I have a little dreidel" in music class, he knew it really was sort of a consolation prize so that the Jewish kids wouldn't feel bad. It all made him feel confused and sad inside.
He pushed open the front door. Mom's voice came from the back of the house. "Jason? I'm in the kitchen, dear."
She was sitting at the breakfast bar, polishing the brass menorah. Her hands, the cloth, and the counter were smeared with black from the polish. There was a smoky smell in the air and a draft from an open window. It wasn't the warm sort of smokiness that Jason imagined must float up from mellow Yule logs. It was the greasy sort of smokiness that comes from scorched cooking oil.
Mom noticed his sniffing and laughed. "Isn't that silly?" she said. "I burned the oil for the first batch of latkes. The doorbell rang, and by the time I got back from answering it, the oil was black."
Jason nodded glumly while visions of scrumptious magazine illustrations danced in his head. Golden-brown Christmas cookies. Candy-studded gingerbread. Even sugar plums and flaming Christmas puddings, whatever they were. Not just some silly little fried circle of potatoes with applesauce. He didn't even like applesauce.
"But don't worry," Mom went on. "I threw out the burned stuff and used some fresh oil. The latkes are fine, just waiting in the oven. And I used Grandma's special recipe for the applesauce."
She stood the menorah on the counter and gave it a squint and a final rub. "We'll light the candles as soon as Dad gets home," she went on, as she carried the menorah into the dining room and set it on the sideboard under the window. He followed her and watched as she took a box of Hanukkah candles from a drawer and put it next to the menorah.
"The menorah looks nice, doesn't it?" she said, smiling. The chandelier lights glinted off the curving brass arms, but the menorah's shine was nowhere near as bright as the lights out on the street.
"Happy Hanukkah, dear," his mother said. She kissed him and went back into the kitchen.CHAPTER 2
By the time the fourteenth set of head-lights had streaked across Jason's bedroom window, he thought he'd try lying on his other side. It was awfully late, and he had discovered again something he had known for a long time: you can't get to sleep by trying to.
He felt dismal. He didn't know whether to be mad at himself, or his father, or things in general. The family had gathered around the menorah and recited the blessings and sung the songs. Mom had served the latkes and applesauce. Dad had gotten sort of worked up about the crispy little potato cakes.
"Really good this year, honey," he had said to Mom as he finished off his plate.
She'd laughed and told him about the burnt oil.
"Well, that's only natural," he had said with a grin. "This holiday is about burning oil," he'd gone on, warming to his topic. "Burning oil that does the job."
"Oh, Dad," Lisa had groaned. "Why do you have to make every little thing so important?"
"Well, what could be more important than remembering miracles?" he had said. "That's why we eat latkes — because they're cooked in oil. Because they remind us of the miracle of the lights. Even the letters on the dreidel say it: 'A great miracle happened there.'"
So what! Jason had thought. That was ancient history. This was here. What difference did some old legend make to him?
"But Dad, we talked about that at teen club," Lisa had said with a laugh. "The rabbi told us the story of the light lasting for eight nights is probably only a legend."
Dad had laughed himself. "Maybe so. But there's more than one kind of light. There's the kind that you can see with your eyes, and then there's the kind that you feel inside of you."
Jason smiled, though, when his parents gave him a nice pair of binoculars. Dad at least had picked up on his hints about wanting one for hikes with his scout troop. Then the family had played some rounds of dreidel and munched on some chocolate gelt.
Jason sat up in bed. Well, maybe I can have a Christmas tree when I grow up and have my own house, he thought. Dad's always saying that when I have my own house I can do things however I want to. But Jason didn't like himself when he thought that way.
He punched his pillow. Maybe another glass of water would help.
He climbed out of bed and shuffled toward the bathroom by the orange glow of the little hall night light. Mom and Dad and Lisa were asleep and the rest of the house was dark. Except ...
As Jason passed the top of the stairs, he thought he saw a light below. He was almost sure it hadn't been there the last time he'd gone for water. No, something was different ...
He stopped, bent over the bannister, and peered down the stairs. There definitely was a dim flicker.
Maybe something's on fire, Jason thought, moving quickly down the stairs to check. It couldn't be a candle, he knew. They had lit only one tonight, along with the shamash light, and both the flames had gone out hours ago. The little supermarket candles didn't even last an hour.
At the bottom of the stairs he saw that the light was brighter, and that it came from the direction of the dining room. The fire — if that's what it was — couldn't be very big yet; he hadn't even noticed any smoke. Maybe he could still put it out. He dashed into the dining room but stopped short in surprise.
There, in front of the sideboard where Mom kept the good silver, crouched a complete stranger. The cabinet doors were open, and the intruder was rummaging around inside. Light poured over the person from the lighted menorah on the sideboard. All nine candles blazed.
"Hey, what's going on here!" Jason barked, stepping into the pool of light. The intruder whirled around, startled.
It was a boy about Jason's own age, with thick, dark hair hanging to his shoulders. He looked jumpy, ready to bolt, but not sure which way to go.
"Who are you?" he snapped.
"Who are you?" Jason snapped back.
The boy looked very strange. A cloth band tied across his forehead held his heavy hair off his face. Above bare legs he wore a sort of short skirt made of rough, light-colored fabric; a shirt of the same material hung loosely around his body. He wore sandals with straps that wrapped almost to his knees. His deeply tanned face showed surprise, puzzlement, and eagerness but no fear.
"Why, I'm Aaron. I thought you were expecting me. I'm Aaron ben Moshe. I was sure you knew I was coming."
"Expecting you? I never heard of you!"
"But isn't this the Cohen house?"
"Yeah, but what's it to you? Talk, or I'll call the police."
"The police? You mean the government authorities? Please, not that!" Aaron said urgently. "That would waste my whole trip. I had a really hard time getting here. I've never been here before, and everything is strange. I even had trouble getting inside, until I found an open window. Then I found this lamp" — he motioned to the menorah — "and I lit it so that I could start looking for supplies. But I couldn't find anything."
"Why are you looking for stuff in my house?" Jason demanded.
"Well, like I said, I thought you knew I was coming. They told me back at headquarters that people named Cohen — members of the priestly tribe — would want to help our cause. But now you say you're going to call the police. If I wanted to be arrested by the authorities, I'd have stayed at home in Judea!"
"Judea?" Jason said in confusion. The only time he'd heard of Judea was in Hebrew school. It was an old name for a part of Israel. "Don't you mean Israel? Do you mean you came from Israel?"
"No, not Israel," Aaron answered brusquely. "Judea. Occupied Judea. Occupied by the Syrians."
"You're crazy!" Jason said. His mind reached back to what Mrs. Lerner had told the class. Now he wished he had listened better. "You can't be coming from there now! That was a thousand years ago! Two thousand maybe!"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Aaron said coldly. "It sure seems like now to us. One thing I do know: if we don't get help, our revolt will fail."
"Your revolt? What revolt?"
"Don't you know anything?" Aaron looked annoyed. "The revolt of the people hiding in the hills. The revolt of the rebels fighting for our freedom — for our right to live and practice our own religion in dignity."
"Listen," Aaron said, "if you don't think that's important, I can go somewhere else. If you don't think it's worth fighting for, I'll stop wasting my time. We think it's important enough to risk our lives. The Syrian pigs are trying to destroy our people and our way of life. They want us to worship their filthy Greek idols. They make us keep their holidays and don't let us celebrate our own. They kill people who circumcise their sons or worship God in our way. They've got the people so scared that lots have already given up our religion."
Jason, confused, searched Aaron's flushed and excited face. The strange boy seemed perfectly sincere and his story sounded familiar, somehow. Jason tried to think of where he had heard it before. Whatever Aaron was up to, Jason felt sure that it must be important and that he meant no harm. "I don't understand," Jason said at last. "Why did you come here?" "They sent me through the lines to get supplies and help. There aren't that many of us in Judea who stand with the Maccabees."
Jason's head was reeling. "You're with the Maccabees?" This Aaron was totally weird! And even weirder, if he was from far away, from a long time ago — how could Jason understand what he was saying? How could Aaron understand him? Yet somehow they could speak to each other.
But Aaron's excitement was catching, Jason realized. He suddenly noticed that his own heart was racing so fast that he could hardly get his words out.
"You want my help?"
"You're a Jew, aren't you?" Aaron asked simply.
"Sure I'm a Jew. But what can I do?"
"Plenty. We need supplies: food, bandages. We need people to join us. If we don't get help soon, our army will fall and we'll all die and our religion will die with us."
The desperate urgency of Aaron's voice began to convince Jason to help this strange, anxious boy get what he needed so he wouldn't let down whoever he thought was depending on him. If those people weren't the Maccabees, then who could they be? And what was really going on? Jason knew it might be risky to find out. But he knew he had to take that chance. He just had to know what Aaron was mixed up in.
"Okay," Jason said. "I'll do what I can."
"That's great," Aaron said, a smile cutting the tension on his face. "Thanks, uh ... Thanks a lot."
"My name's Jason. You were right — I'm Jason Cohen."
Aaron put out his hand in a gesture of gratitude, but Jason didn't stop to shake it. He was already on his way to the the hall closet, where he grabbed his backpack off the floor. For good measure he also grabbed the bag lying next to it, an old one that Lisa now considered too geeky to take to high school. In a moment Jason was in the kitchen, stuffing the packs with bread, cheese, bananas, peanut butter, whatever he could find. Aaron watched in puzzlement as Jason grabbed a bag of bagels from the freezer.
"What's that?" Aaron asked, reaching tentatively toward the plastic bag.
"It's bagels — a kind of bread."
"But the pieces seem to be inside some kind of a sack," Aaron said. "And yet I can still see them."
"What do you expect? It's plastic," Jason answered, sticking the package into the backpack and moving on toward the bathroom.
"Plastic?" Aaron asked as he followed.
Jason was too busy scanning the medicine chest to answer. He scooped up bandage strips, adhesive tape, gauze pads, a roll of cotton, antibiotic cream, tissues, a washcloth. Aaron watched curiously.
"There," Jason said at last, "food and first aid supplies."
"Could we also take along some of the amazing oil you use here?" Aaron said. "Getting oil for our lamps can be a real problem."
Excerpted from Jason's Miracle by Beryl Lieff Benderly. Copyright © 2000 Beryl Lieff Benderly. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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