Commentary Magazine

Cedars of Lebanon: Chess at Chanukah

Z. F. Finot was the pen name of Dr. Z. F. Finkelstein, who was born in Lvov in 1886. For many years he was a resident of Vienna, where he was editor of Die Stimme as well as correspondent of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Long active as a Zionist, he wrote a book on Theodor Herzl, Schicksalsstuden eines Führers—A Leader’s Hour of Destiny. In 1938 he moved to Jerusalem, where he worked as a free-lance journalist and founded the Austrian Settlers’ Association. He died in Jerusalem in September of this year. The present selection was found in Allgemeine Wochenzeitung der Juden in Deutschland, a weekly published at Düsseldorf by and for German Jews, and has been translated by me from the original German.—Harry Zohn



It is Chanukah and people play chess—a game that can be continued even when the Chanukah candles have been lit. There are three festivals, in fact, on which Jewish merriment may hold sway even at the sacred places dedicated to the Torah: namely, Simchas Torah, Chanukah, and Purim. So people sat in the klaus, which was located on the very edge of the ghetto, and tirelessly played chess. This royal game was the most popular of all—no other so stirred feelings to tempestuous passions. Judah Halevi once called a chessboard a reflection of higher reality. The game provided a satisfactory battleground for brains sharpened over generations by hair-splitting pilpul, and it furnished diversion from the gloom of the everyday world.

A few benches and tables, in a corner a desk with old folio volumes, and on the east wall a closet for the sacred Torah scrolls—this was the klaus, the seat of the Rabbi and his disciples. From early morning the rhythms of Jewish small-town life echoed here: an eternal coming and going from the street, where life rolled along in lazy waves of bargaining and haggling. The klaus was the spiritual center, where all the pent-up hopes of a national life squeezed into a narrow space found a meaning and an expression.

Only on holidays did the nightmarish pressure of care and anxiety give way for a while. During the Chanukah days, there was added the distant echo of a heroic combat filling souls with pride and joy. “Nes gadol haya sham—a great miracle took place there.” Perhaps it was a reflection of the Jewish fighting spirit of yore which especially attracted the epigones to hold chess tournaments at Chanukah time. The best players entered the tournaments, and the winners, by way of reward, were even called up to an aliyah during the religious services.

Right after the first morning prayer, the race for opponents began. From the cluster of congregants, a few figures soon detached themselves: with crafty smiles on their faces, they looked around for players who would be a match for them. Everyone knew who the impassioned players were; in a trice they had gathered in a corner of the klaus, around a little table upon which the master of this room, the shammes, had placed a chessboard.

Only two can take part in the game, but each match starts off with the yelling and squabbling of the spectators crowding round. One of the players, an elderly Hasid with a face shaded by thick hair, phlegmatically props his head on one hand while he lights his pipe with the other. His opponent, a man with a pointed nose and bulging eyes, meanwhile closely watches the Hasid’s first moves. While they play, their two backs rock in rhythm as during prayer, and soon there comes the murmur of a monotonous intoning: “Gey ich aher—geyt er ahin—If I go here, he’ll go there.” Suddenly the Hasid picks up a chessman and jerkily pushes it forward. The crowd, pressing constantly closer to the table, yells: “Mottie, vi ahin kricht ir?—Mottie, where do you think you’re going?” Screaming out warnings or cheering the players on, the crowd has its own influence on the game. “Vi loift ir, Tipesch?—Where are you running to, Tipesch?” someone suddenly says in a warning voice. “Antloift, der rosh iz in a sakuneh—Get out, the King is in danger!” comes back from the other side.

The center of gravity of the game visibly shifts to the surrounding kibitzers, who scream in rhythm with the game’s ups and downs, while the silhouettes of their swaying heads throw flickering shadows on the whitewashed walls behind them. Suddenly there resounds a short, clipped shout: “Check!” like the hissing of a snake. A scream—at once of horror and of victory. But the danger has been averted for the moment. The Hasid nervously tugs at his beard; his cheeks turn brick red, his hands grope uncertainly about the chessmen. One can see by his tense expression that the end of the game is near. As if it were a matter of life and death, he pushes the pieces forward, visibly resigned. “Pooh, a mitzieh—some bargain,” mocks the Hasid, who has already recognized the superiority of his opponent. The old Hasid has obviously underestimated the young upstart. He puts his pipe in his belt and with his elbows pushes away the kibitzers who have been crowding too close to the table.

Meanwhile, the veins swell out on his opponent’s forehead, looking like charcoal smudges in the murky gloom of the wintry light that comes through the windows.

Antloift, antloift!” the crowd’s shrill warning comes again. The eyes of the old Hasid are aglow, for this time the cry is meant for him. He stares at the bloated hands of his opponent as if to paralyze them. Suddenly he opens both eyes wide: “The king is lost!” At the same moment the whole room resounds with cries of “Checkmate, checkmate, checkmate!”

The old Hasid is shaken as by an electric current. Ponderously he raises his massive body from the chair, but presently he straightens up with pride, whips his pipe from his belt, and mockingly cries out to his opponent: “Pooh, it’s Chanukah, the time when miracles happen. A return game tomorrow, Reb Yid!” He hurries out of the room. Another pair of players rush to occupy the chess corner. The obliging shammes meanwhile passes out dreydls, pastry, and drinks to the new arrivals for the sanctification of the Chanukah festival.

Dusk approaches: new players and new spectators keep coming in. Outside is heard the shouting and singing of children at play. They come up to the low hut of the klaus and bang against the window with their dreydls. Inside, the game is still on. “Gey ich aher—geyt er ahin. . . .” The sing-song of the chess players sounds like the chorus of the unassuaged longing of many generations, on these twilit days of Chanukah.



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