aired Dec. 20, 2014 on Dave’s Gone By. Youtube clip: http://youtu.be/kCMSKATJsJMs
Shalom Dammit! This is Rabbi Sol Solomon with a Rabbinical Reflection for the week of December 21, 2014.
Happy Chanukah, everybody; happy festival of lights, latkes and love. It’s the next best thing to Christmas, and at least when we go to shul, we don’t have to look at a statue of a guy bleeding to death and ruining our appetite.
Speaking of appetite, in honor of this joyful week, I am going to regale you with a story, a fabulous fable for the holiday. So children, gather `round. Or don’t, I don’t really care. Either way, I am going to relate to you the story of “Little Yomo and the Corned Beef Sandwich.”
The story is called, “Little Yomo and the Corned Beef Sandwich,” copyright 2014 by Rabbi Sol Solomon, all rights reserved. Use of this material in any form, written, digital or audio is prohibited by law and punishable by…I dunno…a year in Gitmo or something.
Little Yomo and the Corned Beef Sandwich.
Once upon a time, there was ten-year-old boy named – you guessed it — Little Yomo. He was a good little boy living in Boston with his mama, his papa, his know-it-all older sister, and the family cat, Noosh-Noosh. Little Yomo loved the Jewish holidays – or certain aspects of them. Finding the Afikomen on Passover, dressing up as a Ninja Turtle on Purim, dancing and gorging himself with candy on Simchas Torah. But most of all, Yomo loved Chanukah. The colorful candles on the menorah, the fun songs to sing, beating his sister seven times out of ten at dreidel and taking all her pocket change.
Little Yomo also loved seeing his family on Chanukah. Cousins and other relatives from miles around would come visit on the first and second nights to partake in the festivities around the front window. They would bring him presents or sweets, and they’d talk with him just like he was a grownup. He loved gramma and grampa, Cousin Ida and her boyfriend, Aunt Evelyn and her twins — who were two years younger than Yomo and great to play hide-and-seek with. Honest to gosh, there was nothing about Chanukah Little Yomo didn’t like . . . except Uncle Victor.
Uncle Victor. Respected in the garment district. Loved by his own grown children. Kindly if noticeably obese, Uncle Victor. Victor would always come both nights on Chanukah, and he always did the same thing to Little Yomo. He’d hold the boy by his shoulders and say, “Ooh, you’re getting so big. Pretty soon you’ll be bigger than me! Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha.” So funny.
And then Uncle Victor, reeking of aftershave, would reach into his back pocket and give Little Yomo the special gift that every child loves on Chanukah: gelt. Not real money, that would be amazing. But holiday money made of chocolate. Small gold coins – or, more precisely, golden foil wrappers covering chocolate disks made to look like coinage of old. Few gifts are so perfectly presented. It starts with the visual appeal of the golden-yellow bag of loot. Then, you cut the thin strings and hold your first coin, shiny and delicate yet so solid. And then peeling off the top wrapper, pulling it back to reveal a perfectly round circle of milk chocolate. And the final joy: hooking your fingernail under the lower foil to free the confection from its condom and taste the cocoa-ey bliss within.
Now, you might be asking, why would Little Yomo despise his Uncle Victor if the man was giving him delicious candy money twice a year? The reason was that Uncle Victor, as we’ve said, was a big fat man. A man who drove two hours from Pennsylvania to come visit Yomo’s family. And since Boston is freezing cold in the middle of December, Uncle Victor would roll up the window of his Buick Skylark and put the heat on, full blast, for the entire trip. All of this was fine for Uncle Victor, but by the time he would get in the house and greet little Yomo in his hilarious way, he was a cloud of sweat, body odor and Walgreens aftershave. Worst of all, when he’d reach in his back pocket to produce the Chanukah gelt, what would emerge was a bag of melted, crushed foil, covered with brown goo and smelling like horrible Uncle Victor.
As his mama and papa pointed out again and again, it would be rude of Little Yomo to turn down a gift brought by a family member. So the poor child had to hold out his hand, smile his biggest, toothiest grin, and thank his uncle with a big a hug. And then, to prove how excited he was to receive this thoughtful gift, Yomo had to open the bag and eat three coins, while Uncle Victor beamed and pointed and watched. “Look at him,” Victor would say. “I know it’s spoiling his dinner, but he loves it so much.” Meanwhile, it was all Yomo could do to keep from vomiting against his teeth.
This ritual had gone on for years and years, since Yomo could remember, and probably even before then. Ten-year-old Yomo, however, had endured enough. It was Chanukah time once more, and not-so-little Yomo dreaded encountering Uncle Victor and his smell, his chocolate, his whole nightmarish persona.
So Little Yomo decided to do something about it. “I’m going to beat him at his own game,” the little boy told himself, in the way little boys tell themselves things. Three weeks before Chanukah, Little Yomo started saving up his allowance. He needed fourteen dollars. Oops – plus tax; fifteen, just to be safe. I’ll explain. Little Yomo set aside four dollars a week of his allowance for the Unkie Fund. He needed three more dollars, but it was no problem beating his sister at dreidel and getting the extra dough. Once he had it, the day before the first night of Chanukah, little Yomo took his bundle and walked – almost ran – the four blocks from his apartment to the Kosher delicatessen on Pelham Street.
“Shalom, Little Yomo,” called the owner. “Did your mama send you on a grocery run?”
“No Mr. Hersh,” replied the boy. “This is special. I’m getting a sandwich for my Uncle Victor.”
“Well, I’ve never met your Uncle Victor, but I’m sure he’s a terrific guy, and I’m gonna make him a beautiful sandwich. What would he like?”
“Corned beef,” said Little Yomo. “On rye with two pickles and Russian dressing on the side.”
“Your wish is my command,” laughed Mr. Hersh, impressed with Yomo’s gravitas.
Two minutes later, the deli man was handing Little Yomo a bulging bag and his change. And a free hot dog to go. “Yomo,” he said, “have a great Chanukah!”
“You too,” Little Yomo called back, skipping out of the store and eager to get home and continue his plan.
The corned beef sandwich, fresh and juicy, smelled so good in the brown paper bag, but Yomo resisted having a bite. He was saving every crumb for Unkie Victor. And when the boy got home, he ran to the kitchen, but his mother was there starting to fry that evening’s latkes.
“What’s that?” asked his mama.
“Oh, just something for Chanukah,” said the little man. “It’s for daddy’s brother.”
“Awww…Victor? I swear to HaShem, you are the sweetest boy.” Mrs. Birmbaum hugged and kissed her son, which made the boy blush and grimace at the same time and squirm to get away. “I’m gonna go up and do my homework,” said Yomo slipping out of his mommy’s reach.
“Wait, don’t you wanna put that in the fridge?” his mother called.
“I have to put the card with it first!” Yomo called back as he headed towards the sun room.
But Little Yomo had no Hallmark on his mind. Instead, when he was sure no one was around, and the sound of frying oil would mask the sound of his crinkly paper bag, he took out the corned beef sandwich and held it delicately between his fingers. Carefully, he lifted the slice of rye bread off the top. He then knelt down in front of what the family called Noosh-Noosh corner. That was just a nice way of saying the cat’s litter box. Little Yomo placed the rye slice face down on the litter and the rest of the sandwich in a heap at the corner of the box. He then sprinkled a light layer of clay dust over both and called the cat over from across the room. “Noosh-Noosh! Hey kitty! Come see.”
Noosh-Noosh swished her tail and hesitated, looking disinterested, as cats do, but eventually made her way over to her corner. Sniffing at the litter-littered sandwich, Noosh-Noosh gave a low purr, then lifted her tail, and her leg . . . and did her kitty-cat business. “Good girl, Noosh-Noosh,” exulted Yomo. “Okay, shoo!”
Little Yomo whisked the cat away and then, with the tips of his fingers, lifted the soggy sandwich out of the box with one hand and the top slice with his other. Once the delicacy was put back together, Little Yomo wrapped it, stuffed it back in the paper bag, and deposited said bag in the fridge. Washing his hands thoroughly – which, for a little boy, is about four seconds with an eye-dropper’s worth of soap – Little Yomo ran upstairs to do homework . . . and wait.
The hours crawled until, finally, the sun set, and guests began arriving. There was Aunt Evelyn and her girls. There was Cousin Ida, talking a little weird because she’d had a stroke that August. And the neighbors from down the street. And Mr. Claremont, the token goy, from dad’s office. But no Uncle Victor. Not when Yomo’s sister was going around serving appetizers. Not when the family sat around the big-screen TV watching a rerun of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Not even when the assembled gathered by the living-room window, and said the special prayers. Not even when mama lit the shamash and handed the big candle to Yomo and warned him, as always, “tilt it, so the wax doesn’t drip down your hand.”
Yomo obeyed and began lighting the first candle of Chanukah. Just then everyone heard the squeak and clatter of the screen door. “Did I miss the latkes?” came the familiar voice. “Uncle Victor!” shouted Yomo. And then, Ow!”, for, not paying attention, Yomo held the shamash vertically and let a teardrop of blue wax drizzle down his finger.
With barely contained excitement, Yomo placed the candle back in the menorah and ran to greet his Unkie Victor. “Sorry, everybody! Traffic was insane,” Victor sighed.
“You should’ve taken Horseneck Beach,” cousin Avrum said. “I-91 is a disaster at rush hour.”
“I know, I know,” said Victor, grabbing his beloved Yomo by the shoulders. “How’s my favorite nephew? Ooh, you’re getting so big! Next year, you’ll be bigger than me! Ha ha ha, ha ha ha!” So funny.
“I think you know what I have for you,” grinned Unkie Vic. “Lemme just reach. . .”
“No, wait!” cried Yomo. “Stay right there!”
Uncle Victor made an astonished face and shrugged at the family. “You’re not the only one who can give gifts,” laughed Mrs. Birnbaum. “Yomo has a surprise for you.”
“Ooh, I love surprises!” Victor yelled, loud enough for Yomo to hear.
“Be right there!” Yomo called from the kitchen, where he had opened the refrigerator, dumped out the sandwich, unwrapped it, slapped it with Russian dressing, and shoved it into the microwave for 55 seconds. “Come on, come on!” squealed the boy, hopping back and forth on the balls of his feet.
At last, Yomo heard the familiar ding. He popped the door open and reached for the sandwich, burning his fingers slightly in the process. He placed the corned-beef edible on a plate and scurried back to the living room where the grownups were already talking grown-up stuff.
“Uncle Victor!” shouted Yomo, louder than he wanted to. “Happy Chanukah!”
“Oh, my goodness!” responded the man, feigning amazement but also honestly thrilled to see a corned-beef sandwich presented before him. “Thank you, Yomo! Much as I love your roast turkey, Susan, a corned-beef sandwich is from another planet,” kvelled Uncle Victor.
“Enjoy,” beamed Mrs. Birnbaum. “Yomo was so excited to get it for you.”
Uncle Victor held the plate with the warm sandwich. He sniffed and smiled in ecstasy, smelling only the juicy Kosher beef, sliced thick and liberally drizzled with Russian dressing. Perhaps a thinner man without asthma would have noticed a faint uremic stench to the sandwich, but not Unkie Victor. With his meaty paw, he lifted half the sandwich off the plate and brought it to his wet, porcine lips.
“Don’t you dare!” came the voice. Ah, that voice. The voice of Aunt Dora, Victor’s wife of 38 long, long years. “If it’s a heart attack you want, go ahead, eat the sandwich. But personally, I’d rather see you live a few years longer.”
“But darling,” Uncle Victor sighed. “It’s Chanukah. And the boy — ”
“Yomo is an angel,” Aunt Dora nodded, grinning at the crestfallen child, “but what does he know from cholesterol and prediabetes?”
“But I’ve been so good,” whined Unkie Victor. “What’s half a sandwich? Two bites!”
“You’d better listen to her,” said Mr. Birnbaum. “You know your wife won’t let you live it down till next Shavuos.”
Panicking, Little Yomo piped up, “But it’s just bread and meat. It’s not bad like candy or soda. Can’t Uncle Victor have just a little, pleeeease?”
“I’m sorry, darling,” Aunt Dora said, kneeling in front of Yomo. “When you’re older, you’ll understand that I’m doing what’s best for your daddy’s brother. I your Uncle Victor to live a long, long time.”
“Sure, so she can torture me for years to come,” sighed Victor, surrendering the plate to his sister-in-law while looking, with just a hint of affection, at his martinet wife. “But I am so appreciative, Little Yomo, that you thought of me. Ooh, what a beautiful gesture, am I right?” called Uncle Victor, looking around at the assembled.
“I think,” said Mrs. Birnbaum, “that Yomo deserves a reward. A tasty reward.”
“Oh, the gelt, of course,” said Victor, reaching for his back pocket.
“No,” Yomo’s mother responded. “Our Little Yomo loves corned beef almost as much as you do. Let him eat it the sandwich.”
“Don’t you think that’ll ruin his dinner?” asked Aunt Dora, concerned.
“He can have leftovers tomorrow,” laughed Yomo’s father, not noticing the increasingly pale young man to his left. “A hot corned beef sandwich is not to be denied – even for my wife’s turkey.”
“But dad, it’s okay. We can leave it for tomorrow.”
“I wouldn’t hear of it,” boomed Uncle Victor. “In fact, I would take it as a personal insult if you didn’t gobble down every morsel of that juicy, spicy, fragrant, magnificent sandwich.”
“Victor, take your pills,” said Dora.
“Go ahead, Yomo,” said Mrs. Birnbaum. “We don’t want to be rude.”
“Yes, mom,” gulped Little Yomo. “Oh boy. Corned beef.”
With trembling hands, Little Yomo approached the plate that his father had put on the coffee table. Holding the sandwich and his breath, Little Yomo took a big bite, and then another, and another. Finishing half a sandwich as quickly as he could.
“Look at him go!” announced Mr. Claremont. “He eats like a big boy.”
With further familial encouragement, Little Yomo wolfed down the remaining section of the corned beef sandwich. His eyes watering, his gag reflex tested to the hilt, Yomo took a bow and made his way to the kitchen, where he poured and emptied three glasses of Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda in quick succession.
The rest of the evening passed without incident as Yomo joined the family in holiday festivities. However, the next morning, poor Yomo was not feeling so well. He felt even worse by the afternoon, and worse still when his mother left the second Chanukah party to rush the boy to urgent care.
Not wanting to admit his deception, Little Yomo left the doctors guessing, which only made his treatment more difficult. The next day he was hospitalized, and on the fourth night of Chanukah, Little Yomo, emaciated, green and septic, slowly closed his deep brown eyes and died.
Two days later, all the family wept at his funeral. The Rabbi spoke and said God has His reasons for pulling little boys up to heaven decades before their time. Uncle Victor began a short speech but found himself too overcome with emotion to continue.
Eventually, the whole mishpocheh braved the frigid winter weather to gather at the cemetery. The Rabbi sang prayers in Hebrew and continued extolling the virtues of this tragic young mensch. When it was time, he handed a heavy steel shovel to Yomo’s father. The distraught Mr. Birnbaum stood for a long minute before willing his wobbly legs to the foot of the grave.
“Wait,” called Uncle Victor, his face blurry with tears. “Ooh, to go with him. Something he always loved.”
The assembled shivered in silence and then shuddered each time at the sound: plink, plink, plink –the sound of rock-hard, frozen chocolate coins hitting the lid of a small pine box. The end.
Happy Chanukah everybody! Again, this story is copyright 2014 by me, and I have lawyers, so don’t even think of infringing.
This has been a Rabbinical Reflection from Rabbi Sol Solomon, Temple Sons of Bitches in Great Neck, New York. Chag Sameach.
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