I was born on the first night of Hanukkah. So you may understand why I have a special affinity for this holiday, my other birthday, which we celebrated with songs and stories and dreidel games after lighting the orange Hanukkah candles. (Back then, orange was the only color available.) Our decorations were homemade and our gift was “Hanukkah gelt,” a small amount of money to spend or save.
In honor of the holiday and the stories we tell, here is a favorite of mine. It was written by my father, Beryl Segal, some 60 years ago and published by the Bureau of Jewish Education of Rhode Island, in a longer form, in a booklet for schoolchildren. Enjoy.
The Neon Man and
The Chanukah Lights
Sometimes the smallest
lights are the brightest
The man on the neon sign was always busy.
Every thirty seconds he appeared tall and slim and green on the sign by the side of the road. He wore a top hat and he held a cane under his arm. He stood still only for the twinkling of an eye. Quickly and suddenly, the green neon man leaned forward, bowed low, tipped his hat and held out his cane. Then the cane began to twirl, and behold! It turned into an arrow pointing to the entrance of the building at his side. Then the green man disappeared and in his place, the sign spelled out in big red letters the word R-E-S-T-A-U-R-A-N-T.
On and off, all through the day and all through the long night. On and off, up and down, busy, busy, busy.
One winter’s evening, soon after the stars came out, the green neon man noticed little candle flames in a window of the house across the street. He was leaning forward then, ready to tip his hat, when his green eye caught the gleam of a small light and another light standing higher. But he was too busy to stop and look any longer than it took him to wave his cane in the air. No time. Up and down. On and off. A restless neon man by the side of the road.
The next evening, soon after the stars came out, once again the gleam of candlelight caught the eye of the neon man. Was it the same as the night before? No! This time there were two candles in a row and a taller one watching over them. The neon man looked again at the window. Yes, there they were. A strange sight. Tiny lights in a window on a winter night, on a window sill in the midst of so many other brighter lights. But who has time to wonder about the little candles? A neon man is always busy. Up and down. On and off. Green and red.
The next night there were three little candles in the row and the taller one watching over them. The mystery of the candles became even greater when, on the next night, the neon man counted four little flames and the raised candle. Each night there was one more candle in the row. If he were not so busy, he would stop to find out the meaning of those little candles, but time counts. No time to stop.
On the night when the neon man counted eight candles in the window of the house across the street, something happened to the sign by the side of the road. Suddenly the lights went out. The neon man was making his graceful bow just then, tipping his top hat with one hand and with the other twirling his cane in mid-air when all the life went out of him. He remained half bent over, a very embarrassing position for a neon man – busy, brilliantly green one minute and the next a bent down skeleton of dark glass tubes. Nothing to do but wait until something happens to bring life back to the busy neon man.
In his bent over position, the neon man was very close to the lamp on the corner. This was a good time to talk of many things.
“Did you notice the new little lights in the window over there?” the neon man asked.
The street lamp kept watching the street below and answered slowly, “Yes I did. They are not new lights.”
“Not new? I never saw them here before.”
“I did last year, and years before that. They were here before you came to this street and before I came to this corner,” the lamp replied.
“Why then didn’t I see them last week or last month or any time I can remember?”
“Those little candles don’t light up every week of the year. Only eight days each year, when the season comes around, do we see them. You will not see them again until one year from now, if you are still here twirling your cane.”
“What is their use? What do they advertise?” asked the neon man.
“They do nothing. They advertise nothing. They just tell a story.”
“I don’t understand this at all. They do nothing, advertise nothing. Tiny flames that can hardly light up a window, only one week a year and not all at once but one by one? What are they for? And why all the mystery?”
Slowly and calmly the street lamp began his story.
“These little lights have come up every year ever since I can remember and long before that, I was told. When I first saw the little candles in the window I began to laugh. I was very proud of myself and the light I threw to the street below. How tiny they appeared beside me. And I told them there is no need for you here. From now on I shall light up this corner. After eight days they disappeared. I was sure that I had chased them away.
“But as the months passed and the season of snow returned, they showed up again, one by one, until there were eight lights in the row, as they do every year. Now I know they will return to shine in the window of this house and many other houses long after I am replaced. They will return to tell their story year in and year out.”
“But what is the story?” the neon man asked. Before the lamp could say another word, the neon man turned green again. Up he jumped. Hat over his head, cane twirling in the air, then turning into an arrow showing the way to the restaurant below. The busy life of a neon man. On and off. Up and down. Busy, busy. No time to hear the story told by the eight little candles.
But the street lamp knows the story. And so do you. Don’t you?
Chag sameach, zayt gezunt, shalom.
GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-331-1360.