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OKAY, STOP ME IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS ONE, BUT THERE WAS THIS MOUNTIE AND THIS RABBI...
HOW MURPHY MET SAMMY
It was a typical Kansas winter, which means that you couldn’t predict what the weather was going to do. In Wichita neighborhoods, most of the snow from the latest fall had melted, beyond the patches on the north side of the houses and the occasional remains of a snowman. However, the temperature was in the teens, with threats from the TV weather people that it might get into the single digits before nightfall. It was the sort of day to stay indoors and play games on the floor of a nice, warm living room.
That was just what five ferret kits were doing, and the living room of choice was, indeed, nice and warm. Considering that the family contained four growing ferret boys, the living room was remarkably neat (but, oy, their bedrooms!). Because it was the Hanukkah season, a menorah was placed on the dining table. It held two candles; the third would be lit at Sundown.
The five young ferrets were sitting in a circle, with a large plastic bag next to them, and the oldest was holding a small, four-sided top and talking to the youngest, a Dark-Eyed White kit holding a black skullcap in his lap.
“Okay, Sammy, each player starts out with ten markers – nuts, raisins, coins, chocolate or whatever. We’re playing with chocolate coins tonight. Each player puts a marker in the pot, and they each take turns spinning the dreidel, and depending which side it falls on, the player either wins the pot or loses part of his stash. Do you understand so far?”
Sammy, the little kit, gravely nodded, with that level of seriousness that only a young child could achieve. He was listening carefully to every word his cousin Aaron was saying.
“Good. Now, each side of the dreidel is marked with a Hebrew letter – Nun, Gimel, Hey or Shin. If the dreidel falls on Nun, nothing happens and the next player spins. If it falls on Gimel, the player takes the whole pot. If it falls on Hey – BRRRRRRR!!”
The front door had opened, and the cold and wind had come in uninvited. An adult ferret, bundled up so only a very pink nose was visible, came in with some plastic grocery bags and quickly shut the door. Coats, woolen caps and scarves were quickly removed, to reveal that the newcomer was a pretty jill. “Mama!” Sammy hopped up and ran over to her.
“Hello, my little one.” Sammy’s Mama knelt down and gave him a hug and a kiss, and said to the others, “Hello, children.”
More or less in unison, the four boys replied, “Hello, Aunt Miryam!”
Miryam gave Sammy another hug and asked, “I hope I haven’t interrupted anything important. What are you children doing?”
Aaron said, “Mama says it’s too cold to play outside, so we’re teaching Sammy the Dreidel Game! I’m just now telling him what the different letters mean.”
“I see. It’s a bit early in the day, but I see nothing wrong with playing the game now.” She could see that the plastic bag was marked with the logo of a Wichita candy store; the store was popular with the Jewish ferret community, as it specialized in kosher, lactose-free chocolate. “Playing for chocolate coins? You certainly have a lot there. What do you think so far, Sammy? Do you think you’ll enjoy this game?”
“Oh, yes, Mama! Aaron makes it sound like real fun!”
Miryam smiled. “I’m sure it will be.” She picked up her grocery bags. “I’ve got some food for tonight’s meal. Boys, where is your Mama?”
“She’s in the kitchen, Aunt Miryam!”
“Thank you, Aaron. I’ll go help your Mama, then. You boys enjoy yourselves.”
Sammy held up the skullcap and said, “Mama, would you put Grandpapa’s yar-mul-ke up for me?”
“Yes, I will, little one.” She took it from him and placed it on the table next to the Menorah. As she headed for the kitchen, Sammy sat down again in the circle and said, “What does saying ‘Brrrrr’ have to do with the Hey letter?”
Angelica was already preparing latkes for the evening meal. She looked up and said, “Hello, Miryam!” She gave her husband’s sister a warm hug. “Were you able to find some meat for supper?”
Miryam set the grocery bags on the counter. “Oh, yes. I got some lamb, and the butcher had some goose as well, so I splurged.” She rustled through the bags and came out with a small bottle. “I picked up some olive oil as well.”
“Oh, good. We can always use more olive oil.”
“So, was Sammy a good boy while I was shopping?”
“Oh, yes. He always is.” Angelica stepped to the kitchen door and looked out to the living room. Sammy was practicing with the dreidel, spinning it on the floor. “He’s always a pleasure to watch.”
“Thank you. It’s a big help.”
“Um… Miryam?” Angelica turned away from the door. “I was wondering. Do you think Sammy should be playing the Dreidel game at his age?”
“I don’t see why not. He’s already showing interest in Jewish tradition.”
“I know, but tradition or not, it’s gambling. When Sammy loses, his coins will be taken away. He may not be old enough yet to understand why. Won’t he be upset when the other boys take the coins away from him?”
“I’m not worried about my Sammy. It’s not like he hasn’t known loss before – you saw how he handled it when his Grandpapa Levi died.”
“That’s a good point. He’s such a strong boy for as young as he is. But I know my children. Aaron is serious about the Dreidel game. He’s a very good player, and he plays to win. The first time he played, my youngest son lost all of his markers to Aaron and threw such a tantrum. I’ve told my boys to go easy with Sammy, but I don’t know what they’ll do.”
“Sammy will be fine. Now, where are my brother and my husband?”
Angelica smiled. “I got a phone call from my Ira about half an hour ago. He and Jakob were still at the synagogue. It seems that our husbands got involved in a heated discussion with some others on Judaic dietary laws.”
“Oh? What was the point of contention?”
“From what Ira said, Old Abraham got into an argument with some other men about whether or not Ferretone was kosher. Old Abraham says that it isn’t.”
“I’m not surprised. Did Ira say where he and Jakob stand on the subject?”
Angelica sighed. “Ira said that he expressed the opinion that the whole thing was ridiculous and that people should get on with their lives.”
Miryam chuckled. “Ah, my ever-practical brother. No doubt that didn’t go down very well. What about my husband?”
“Well… Jakob expressed the opinion that it depends on –“
“No, no, don’t tell me. ‘It depends on how you kill it.’ My husband and that silly joke!”
“That didn’t go over well, either, Ira said. I think that we’ll be lucky if we see our husbands before Sundown tonight.”
Miryam shook her head. “Angelica, they’re getting into an argument with Old Abraham! We’ll be lucky to see them before Sundown tomorrow night!”
The two ladies laughed over the foibles of the menfolks and got down to the serious business of preparing a Hanukkah dinner. Things got quiet in the kitchen – and in the living room. About half an hour later, a voice in the living room said, “Doggone it, I’m cleaned out now!”
Miryam smiled at her brother’s wife. “It sounds like your oldest is doing rather good for himself.”
But Angelica was looking at the kitchen door and not smiling. “But – that’s strange – that was Aaron’s voice.”
The two ladies looked at one another and Miryam said, “Maybe we need to check on them.” They went into the living room.
As they entered the living room, Angelica was saying, “Boys, is there anything – oh.” She and Miryam stood and stared.
The young ferrets were still sitting in a circle, and Angelica’s four sons were staring at Sammy. The little kit was turning the wooden dreidel around in his paws. The plastic bag was empty, and all of the chocolate coins were in a big pile by Sammy’s side.
Sammy looked up at Miryam and smiled. “Mama, this game is fun!” He frowned. “But I don’t like playing for stuff. I don’t think it’s fair to win things and take them from other people.” He put the dreidel down and began sorting the chocolate coins into five equal piles.
When he was done sorting, Sammy scooped up one pile and pushed the other four forward. “Here you guys go! I don’t think that I want to play anymore today.”
As Sammy stood up and picked up his chocolate coins, Angelica could have sworn that she heard her oldest mutter under his breath, “Glad to hear it,” but she couldn’t be sure.
…All of which says a lot about what kind of person Sammy is, and what kind of person his cousin Aaron is.
Time passes. Hanukkahs come and Hanukkahs go. The dreidel has been spun many times.
Miryam – older but still beautiful – watched as her husband filled two fluted glasses with Ferretone wine and handed her one. Jakob then raised his voice. “Excuse me, my friends – may I have your attention?”
The noise of the crowd around them died down and everyone looked at Jakob. “I wish to propose a toast!”
Waiters circulated around the room, refilling everyone’s wine glasses, as Jakob continued, “I wish to propose a toast to the synagogue’s newest Rabbi! I don’t need to tell you that I know him as well as anyone in this room, and I can confidently say, based on past experience, that he will be a good leader and a good teacher – not to mention a hard worker. I know that this synagogue will be proud of him –“ A catch came to Jakob’s voice. “– as proud as a Father and Mother already are of their son.
“Friends, to our Rabbi, to our son – to Sammy.”
The whole crowd of ferrets lifted their wine glasses and repeated, “To Sammy!” and drained the Ferretone wine.
A Dark-Eyed White ferret, wearing a simple black yarmulke with red trim, stood in the center of the room with his head bowed down. If it were possible for a ferret to blush, his face would have been bright red. As it was, he couldn’t quite control a shy smile.
Sammy fiddled with the prayer shawl draped over his shoulders and finally looked up at the crowd of friends and well-wishers around him. It took him a few seconds to swallow whatever it was that caused the lump in his throat, and then he began to speak.
“I – I want to thank you, Papa, for the toast. Indeed, I want to thank you and Mama for all that you have done for me over the years. I started out as nothing more than a little piece of clay, and what I have become – what I will become – is based on the vessel that you have molded from that clay.
“I want to thank all of you for believing in me enough that you selected me for such an important position. I am very honored to be associated with this fine house of prayer. I don’t feel like your leader. I feel like I’m your servant – a servant for all of you. I will do my best to serve you all well. I ask that you think kindly of me, and forgive me if I stumble, and help me when I ask. This synagogue is not mine – it is ours, and together, we will continue to make it something to be proud of.
The applause was loud and long. After a few more toasts, the gathering in the synagogue basement settled down to congratulating the new Rabbi, chatting with old friends, sipping the Ferretone wine and raiding the buffet. Rabbi Sammy shook hands, accepted slaps on the back and exchanged hugs and small talk with so many folks.
The Rabbi looked around at the sound of the quavering voice calling his name and saw an old ferret slowly hobble toward him from across the room, leaning heavily on a stout cane.
Old Abraham had been the oldest ferret in the synagogue’s congregation when Sammy was born, and he still was. No one had come along to challenge Old Abraham’s position in all that time, and it was becoming clear that the only way anyone could claim the title would be by default.
The old ferret had been born a Panda Blaze, but was now mostly gray. He used a cane because his health was feeble and his bones were fragile, and he was always ready to let you know it, especially when there was something he wanted you to do. For the longest time, the most striking aspect of this elderly ferret was his eyes; it was said that they were sharp enough to split a bagel at fifteen paces. Then a cataract developed in the left one. What that meant was that the right eye compensated by honing its edge to twice its previous sharpness. Now the children said that Old Abraham’s one eye could bring down flies at 100 yards. Lying to Old Abraham’s face meant taking your life in your hands.
“Sammy! Congratulations on becoming a Rabbi! Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving ferret!”
Sammy smiled and said, with much deference, “Thank you, Sir.” Everyone in the congregation called Old Abraham “Sir”, with much deference and verbal capitalization. Even the Rabbis – especially the Rabbis that have served the synagogue over the years. The Rabbi that oversaw the Jewish ferret community in Wichita and most of central Kansas called him “Sir”. Sammy suspected that you’d have to go pretty far up the chain of command to find someone who didn’t call Old Abraham “Sir”.
“Yessir! I see you and I see your Grandfather! I can remember him when he first became Rabbi, and he stood right here and he looked then just like you do now!” Old Abraham tapped his paw on Sammy’s chest. “You’ve got a lot of heritage to live up to, youngster, so you better watch yourself and not foul things up! But I don’t think you will. You’re a good boy – always have been – and I think you’ll make as good a Rabbi as your Grandfather. At least as good as your Grandfather!”
“I –“ Sammy felt like his heart was about to burst from his chest and fly away on white wings. “I – thank you very much. Sir.”
“You’re welcome, Sammy.” Old Abraham took a healthy swig from his glass. Whatever the liquid was, it was not the color of any wine Sammy had ever seen. The old ferret held the glass up. “My own concoction. A mixture of Ferretone cocktail and fermented raisin juice. I love the stuff, but I’ll have to be careful how much I drink today. Otherwise it’ll be embarrassing when I go to Confession.”
It took a moment for this to register with Sammy. “Um – Sir? We’re not Roman Catholics.”
“I know that. So?”
“Well, Sir – I don’t do Confessions!”
Old Abraham brightened up. “Oh, well, if that’s the case, I can drink all that I want, right?”
“Um – I guess so.”
“Oh, very good! See ya!” Old Abraham tottered happily away, leaving Sammy with the vague feeling that he’d just been had.
Someone slapped Sammy heartily on the back, and he heard a familiar voice say, “Congratulations, little cousin! You made good!”
Sammy smiled at his cousin, “Hello, Aaron. Thank you, I guess I have. And thanks for all of your support over the years.”
“Aw, what have I done?”
“Oh, you’ve taught me some things about Judaic tradition. For one thing, you taught me the dreidel game.”
Aaron chuckled. “Not as much as you taught me.”
Sammy smiled fondly at his older cousin. “So, Aaron, you’ve reached a milestone of your own. Now that you’ve graduated from college, what are you going to do with yourself?”
Aaron shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. I’m in no hurry to start serving the 9-to-5 grind. I figured I’d take a year or so and do some traveling. Actually, I was thinking of going North and touring Canada.”
Sammy nodded. “Sounds good. Canada is a nice place from what little I’ve seen. Any place in particular up there?”
“About the only place I figure I have to see is Niagara Falls. I want to see it from the Canadian side. And I’ll have to see it quick, too.”
“Oh? How come?”
Aaron looked serious. “I’ve read that erosion is pushing Niagara Falls downstream, and they figure that it’s gonna reach Lake Erie in about 8,000 years. I think I’d better see it now before it’s too late. Now if you’ll pardon me, I hear a glass of Ferretone wine calling me.”
Sammy shook his head as he watched his cousin walk away. He thought maybe that he’d been had again, but with Aaron you could never be sure.
The conversation had set Sammy to thinking. Niagara Falls… Actually, that sounded like an interesting place to take a vacation. He’d keep it in mind for the future.
END OF PROLOGUE