Commentary Magazine


Hanukkah 1995

We are waiting for the child to arrive and take its place among us.

There is much preparation for the arrival. Guests are assembling in a way that reminds me of the ancient wise men of the East, though they are hardly all from the East, there are many more than three of them, and they are not coming on camels. We greet each of them, and they, in turn, clink their glasses, have a bite, and draw their breaths in peace. Then they raise their glasses to the child, the bringer of light whom we await.

Next to its small cradle we sit, dispensing with words, while the one day’s supply of oil burns for eight. The child is still to come, still barely the image of us who are already formed, still capable of becoming anything at all. It could come any day now: in the form, as it happens, of a little girl, whose name might be Zsuzsa, Vilma, Franciska, Magda, or something else. The little coat, hat, and soft blanket stand in expectation, as do the siblings and the grandmothers, friends, and neighbors—and I, the father, a grandfather in age. More than anyone else, the one who carries her is waiting, because this little one is long and heavy, and has not turned her noggin downward, so her mother feels it pressing against her heart.

Now is the beginning of winter, when we step onto the crackle of dry, brown leaves as we walk out of the house-gate, when the shivering mama cat on the porch curls up with her five black and white kittens, when the streets grow dark in the afternoon, when grim prophecies sound at home and abroad. At this season the self-conscious person tortures himself (if not others), thinking he has neglected something that can no longer be set right, because what happened, after all, cannot be set right; it is frozen into time’s vault, filed away in the storehouse of the cosmos. Today, or tomorrow, you can do good—but not yesterday.

At times like this it is common, too, to await the arrival of the one who might know what we still do not, the one who will set us on a new road, mark a new beginning for the grand experiment. At times like this we await the next breath, the next bite of food, the next touch, the sun’s next zenith and nadir, the next moment of self-abandon, the message, the walking papers, the verdict, the gate’s opening, the darkness behind and the light ahead, the dousing of lamps, the moment of repose. Our hope is that someone else will do it—that the next generation will do it for our own.

Perhaps they will be more humane than we, more clear-sighted, more courageous, kinder—in a word, more perfect (though we would also not deprive them of the gift of frailty). They are, after all, born of us, but handsomer, more winning, with an advantage provided by their new-formed bodies and their simplicity. This person, still zero years of age, will surely set us right, no matter how much she may fling about in protest; she will acquit us of enormous charges, even as she sews unforeseen stitches into the great family carpet.

We wait, then, and make preparations, focusing our attention on the hour of arrival, though we still have the strength to rejoice on these dark, lengthening mornings at those who are already here, those who still live among us as well as those carried far off by the winds. I have the strength to be glad that I have lived to see this day, this eternal today, on which, at my advanced age, the past assumes greater importance than the future, and planning is obscured by reminiscence.

Even should such imaginings of the future be pure illusion—because my race may now be truly run, because this coffee and this toast may be my last breakfast—I nevertheless retain the right to gaze over the barrier-gate, out over the romantic juncture of the century’s and the millennium’s end. It takes self-control to peer optimistically into the third millennium. All that we have lived through will be, for this new arrival, the history of the former century. All that happens to her will be, for me, the next century’s novel, now coming into being thanks to my children.

I see before me the faces of our dead, the expression with which they would look upon the newborn, if only they could stand here around her bed. My father would be ninety-eight. He would not say now what he said on the night of his death: “Now, my son, you see that a man’s life amounts to nothing.” I understand the differences between us, and know how I perpetuate him, both in the way my mind works and in the way I clasp my hands behind my back when I walk—just like one of my sons.

For now, the mother still carries the child within her, but later, the little one will carry us, knowingly or not, and will pass us along to as yet nonexistent strangers, who will bear a ridiculous resemblance to us.

I owe to this living creature about twenty years of my attention and cultivation, and she—let me be honest—could receive no greater gift. We will have a little more to do: one more place setting at the table, one more free will with its irritating and enchanting aspects. The eyes of my mother, eighty-nine, are sparkling now. She was a bit weaker over the summer, but is now, to all appearances, growing stronger. People need to have someone to give to, and the stork is happy to oblige them by depositing a package somewhere in the vicinity. Now, bundled with our expectation of the little one in swaddling clothes, we anticipate many other events—the breast’s unbuttoning, the cleaning and wiping up and caressing—and by this time next year we will be holding her hand, which will try to free itself from our grip, and then, seeking safety, creep back.

If all goes well she will be returning our smiles by spring, and by summer will be scampering after her brothers on all fours; by fall, she will be shaking the bars of her walker or crib—Out! Out!—and a year from now, during the holiday of light and expectation, she will be making her own way, performing ever more complex operations, with goals of her own: Over there! In! Up! Down!, wanting to go in every direction, to spin, drop, swim, fly, grab, kick, spread out. This little lady will have needs: she will want nothing less than the entire world. It will not be hers, probably, but why throw in the towel at the outset?



“So many messiahs!” I say to myself as I peer through the fence of the kindergarten, so many exceptional, anointed persons, designed by fate to be undying candle flames for those around them. We will listen to the affairs of her life—there will be many things to tell of—and laugh, if she wants to make us laugh, and wonder at the clever maze she spins, and at her sense of humor in telling a story. And she will sit on our knees and laugh at the same silly things her siblings did, and probably we ourselves did, once.

We are awaiting a playful person, who will take joy in things that others find tortuous. For she will know the way to the bottomless well, the unwinking light, the undying fire. We await a little woman whose soul will dominate over fatigue, which means that even if she has nothing, she will be rich.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest