A Candle in the Night (2001)

With night falling, it would take a miracle—and faith—to find her car before her strength and spirit were gone.

(originally published December 5, 2002 in the Jewish Journal. I was planning to call it "Dark Angel," but a black colleague felt that that would imply that angels are usually white.)

"WHY IS IT,” she wondered, “that I lose my car only when I’m carrying groceries?”

It was late December; soon the Los Angeles sun would vanish, and with it, she felt, her strength and spirit. Not a proud prospect for a woman who at 28 had chosen the path of faith.

A sigh escaped Chana’s lips. Here she was at Westside Pavilion, a large mall not two miles from her home. But without signposts, it might as well have been the Canadian tundra. For 40 minutes, she’d been aimlessly searching, a wandering Jew on an asphalt chessboard. Wherever she turned, her vista filled with indistinguishable rows of look-alike sedans. One of them, she knew, was her 1996 Toyota Camry. But which?

a line drawing of a Jewish woman juggling grocery bags with a menorah in the background

a line drawing of a Jewish woman juggling grocery bags with a menorah in the background

Yes, she should have jotted her row number in her Day-Timer. But there wasn’t time, she had told herself. That morning, a family had invited her to their Sabbath lunch, two days off. As she always did, she accepted on condition that she furnish some of the food. There’d be no time Friday to shop before sundown. And so, her 10-hour workday behind her, her mission was clear: get into the market; grab the goods; and head home to light eight Chanukah candles. 

Candle for one

This year, the Festival of Lights had begun in personal disaster. Chana had just lit her first candle when her phone rang. It was Martin, the East Coast “catch.” Like her, Martin was modern Orthodox—observant, but game for a good movie. Last week had marked their second date. It was a brokered date, or shidduch

Martin had used a matchmaker to find her. Now he was using a cell phone to lose her.

“It just wouldn’t work,” he explained through the static. Under pointed questioning, the truth emerged: Martin wanted someone more…statuesque. With five-two Chana, he felt he’d be getting the short end of the stick. 

She felt like telling him what he could do with his stick. In Orthodox protocol, dumping your shidduch by phone was a serious breach. She reminded him, mincing few words.

But then—straight from her heart—came an act of singular, spectacular generosity. “You want ‘tall and elegant’?” she said. “Have I got a girl for you.” In rapturous terms, she described her friend Riva, a five-nine beauty with a heavenly soul to match…and a Jerusalem address.

With warm thanks, Martin hopped the next El Al 747.

Chana’s friends were stupefied. “This jerk dumps you, so you hand him a goddess!” Was she a masochist? Out of this world? Or out of her mind? No matter. For six nights, lighting candles alone, Chana reminded herself: Things happen for a reason. In her faith, she had found peace.

If only she could find her Camry.

An unhelping hand

Weighing down her slender frame were two plastic grocery bags. One brimmed with soft drinks; the other was topped by a pallid-looking, whole kosher chicken.

Unsteadily raising her chicken arm, Chana stole a glance at her watch: 7:10 pm. Her Camry was nowhere in sight. She was sick with fatigue. Her shoulders seared with pain. Her calf-length skirt, worn for modesty, hampered her gait. 

Click-clack, click-clack. A high-heeled matron was approaching, clutching her keys. Well-dressed, late sixties, brunette to the last hair, she looked fresh from the beauty parlor. At last, thought Chana, a good Samaritan

“Excuse me,” she began, “I’ve lost my car. Could you maybe drive me around until I found it?”

The matron studied the Jewess’s garb, then stole a glance at the bags. Spotting the chicken carcass, her pupils widened. “Sorry, I have a funeral to attend.” Click-clack, click-clack

“They have funerals at night?” Chana called, incredulous. Then it hit her: She thinks I’m a Hebrew Hannibal Lechter.

Chana had never felt so alone. Holiday of Miracles? Where’s mine? In her heart, she knew that everything happened for a reason. First she was Martinized; now this. Why?

Ashamed, she lay down her load, leaned against an SUV, and let the tears flow. With her blouse’s cotton sleeve, she wiped her eye. Great: Now her mascara was running. 

A fine Chanukah this was turning out to be.

A prayer answered

At the far end of her lane, a long black sedan from the next lane turned. As it edged closer, she made out a wide grille topped by a round hood ornament: a Mercedes. When it stopped, the driver’s glazed window silently lowered.

Behind the wheel sat a tall black man.

“Is there some way I can help you?” he asked.

Behind him, a baby girl dozed in an infant seat. Beside her lay her guardian, a golden retriever puppy. “This man is a father,” Chana reflected. “He’s a mensch; he wants to help.” She poured out her woe. 

When she finished, the driver stepped out—six-four, she figured—and crouched beside her. “We’re gonna find your car,” he assured her. He swept up her bags and lay them gently beside the puppy. “Sit up front, with me.”

As the Mercedes snaked through the parking lot, they chatted easily, as if she were schmoozing with a Jewish friend. He was trying to lose weight; she was a helping professional and knew a good weight-loss therapist. She slipped him her card.

“Happy Holidays,” he said. “Which do you celebrate?” 

Great—a fanatic out to save me. That’s why he stopped.

“You know,” she replied carefully, “the one everyone celebrates this week.” It was three days past Christmas.

Here comes his hook; I feel it. Please, Camry, appear.

“I’m Jewish; are you?” asked the man. He grinned. “I thought my black skin may have thrown you.”

It had, she confessed—but she had black Jewish friends.

“Here—this is my Camry.” She began to remove her grocery bags, but he wouldn’t hear of it. 

“Go home, relax, and light your last candles.”

“Will you wait a second?” asked Chana. Closing her eyes, she recited a bracha—a blessing—in gratitude for his kindness. Then the black sedan pulled away, vanishing into the night lights.

Why did her first night begin with a slam-dunk? Why on the eighth did she lose her car…and nearly her faith? Why, at that moment, did G-d deliver to her a stranger—a black Jew?

She had no answers. Only two things was she sure of:

  1. A gentleman doesn’t dump a lady by phone. 
  2. She was going home to light candles…in the City of Angels.

© 2001 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

Click to leave a comment below.

Click to leave a comment below.