Don't Blow Out the Candles

By Barbara Diamond Goldin
Art by Tara Larsen Chang

Iris sat by the window watching the candles burn in the Hanukkah lamp, the one that had belonged to her great-grandmother in Poland. This menorah was the only one Iris had ever seen with a lion carved onto its shiny golden surface.

A Hanukkah StoryTonight three candles were burning, one on top near the lion's face, and two down below near the lion's feet.

Iris hummed a tune. It was a blessing her family chanted on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah before lighting the candles. Then she heard Benjy.

"Brum. Brum. Bruuuum." Her four-year-old brother raced into the living room.

"Oh no," Iris groaned. "He's pretending he's driving a race car again."

While bobbing his head up and down and turning an imaginary steering wheel, Benjy circled the sofa. "Brum. Brum. Bruuuum."

"Screeech." He stopped in front of the menorah and put on his brakes.

"I can blow out those candles in one puff," he boasted. "Oh no, you don't," said Iris. "No one blows those candles out."

"I can."

"No, you can't. I'll call Mama and Daddy," she threatened.

Benjy just stood there, eyeing first the flickering candles and then his sister.

"Why can't I?" he finally demanded. "You're not my boss."

"They have to burn down all by themselves so they can remind us of the Hanukkah story," Iris told him.

Benjy didn't budge.

"You liked the story last time Daddy told it," she tempted him.

"Does it have any car races in it?" Benjy asked.

"No," said Iris, exasperated. "It was before cars were invented. But there are bows and arrows and elephants in it."

"OK. Tell it to me." Benjy drove to the chair next to his sister's, got out of his imaginary car, and sat down.

"A long time ago," Iris began, "a lot of Jews were in a fight with a mean Syrian-Greek king and his soldiers. The king's name was Antiochus the Fourth. He was so mean that he wouldn't let the Jews eat what they wanted. He wouldn't let them celebrate the Sabbath. And he wouldn't let them do a lot of other things. But not all the Jews listened to the mean king."

"Not Judah Maccabee." Benjy waved his arm around in the air as if he were holding a sword.

"You remembered!" Iris said, glad to see Benjy as Judah instead of a race car driver.

Benjy nodded, pleased with himself. "Daddy said Judah was as brave as a lion, like the lion over there." He pointed to the lion on the menorah.

"And just like a real lion, he and his brothers and his father—all the Maccabees—had to hide in caves in the hills," Iris continued. "They threw rocks at Antiochus's soldiers. More and more Jews ran away to the hills and told Judah they wanted to fight the king, too."

"Too bad they didn't have some race cars and some trucks and—" interrupted Benjy.

"Shh," said Iris. "Listen. Every time the king sent his soldiers into the hills, Judah and the Maccabees jumped out of hiding to surprise the king's army. The soldiers would be so surprised that they would drop their bows and arrows and swords and spears and run away. The king got madder and madder at the Jews."

Benjy scrunched up his face and clenched his fists. "I'm mad, too."

"I thought you were Judah. Are you the king now?"

"No. I'll be Judah," Benjy answered.

"Anyway, the king was so mad he sent bigger and bigger armies with horses and elephants. He couldn't understand why his big army wasn't winning when Judah had such a small army."

"Do you think Judah was ever scared fighting such a big army?" Benjy interrupted.

"Maybe even lions get scared sometimes," Iris said. "But being brave means you keep trying even if you're scared. Judah didn't give up. He fought for three years and won!"

"Yay for Judah!" Benjy cheered. He patted something imaginary next to him.

"Is that still your car?" Iris asked.

"No. It's an elephant I captured from the soldiers," answered Benjy.

Iris smiled. "So," she continued, "Judah and his followers were happy when they marched into Jerusalem. They couldn't wait to say thank you to God in the Great Temple. But when they saw the temple, they were sad. Everything was broken and full of garbage, and a statue of the Greek god Zeus stood in the holiest of places."

"Poor Judah," said Benjy, shaking his head.

"They cleaned up the temple and made new curtains for the holy ark. Then they looked all over for the oil to light the temple menorah."

"Did they find it? Did they?" Benjy sounded worried.

"They found only one jar of the special oil," said Iris. "They thought it would last for just one day. But it burned longer, for eight days. They had time to get more oil from the north where the olives grew. Everyone was happy because of the miracle of the oil and the miracle of being able to pray in the Great Temple again. They danced and sang, and Judah called this holiday Hanukkah, the Feast of Dedication."

"Is that the end?" asked Benjy, hoping for more.

"Just that these lights on the menorah remind us of Judah's lights in the temple. You won't try to blow out the candles now, will you, Benjy?"

"I won't," he promised, sitting quietly and staring at the menorah in the window. The slowly burning candles lit up the lion's face, and it seemed to be smiling.