From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

The Pretzel Lady’s Hanukkah

Our work brings people face to face with love. To us what matters is an individual. To get to love the person we must come in close contact with him.

Mother Teresa

Those wonderful little people who sold those huge salty pretzels near every school were very much a part of New York’s long past.

I remember the lady who sold pretzels near our school in the Bronx. Regardless of the weather, this sweet little old woman stood on the corner with her basket of pretzels trying to earn her way. Our pretzel seller looked like someone’s grandmother. She had the most beautiful silver-gray hair I have ever seen, and her small round face, almost like a cherub, was always a bright red in the freezing winter months.

I’ll never forget the year we were finishing up school on the last day before the winter vacation. It also happened to be the first night of Hanukkah.

The air was brisk and the flakes fell, tickling our nose and ears. As we walked toward the corner, there she was. We always saved two cents for a stop at the pretzel lady. It was almost like a ritual.

The pretzels were covered with a white sheet of paper to protect them from the weather. The old lady had a scarf covering her head with a knot tied neatly beneath her chin. She wore a heavy sweater with a shawl covering her shoulders.

On this day, we made our usual stop. She smiled warmly as we approached, and said, “I saved the warm ones for you. I have them wrapped in paper. I know you like the pretzels warm.”

We felt so proud, getting this VIP treatment. After we made our purchase, she said softly, “Have a wonderful, happy Hanukkah, children. Dress warm and stay healthy. Don’t get sick from the snow.”

As we walked away, my little brother Berel commented sadly in between chomps on his pretzel, “She must be a pretty poor lady.”

“I guess so,” I added, chewing away as the snow continued to come down with full fury.

Berel was concerned. “Do you think she made enough money today selling pretzels to buy candles for a Hanukkah menorah?” he questioned.

“Gee, I dunno . . . ,” I sighed, getting a little more concerned.

“Mamma’s got an extra box,” he volunteered. “I’ll run home and get the candles; you go back and tell her to wait for me.” He began to run to our house.

I ran back to the corner where she sold pretzels, but she was gone. I looked around and saw her trudging through the snow about a block away, lugging her heavy basket of unsold pretzels. She continued for about three more blocks and then turned into an alley between two old apartment houses. By the time I reached the alley she was gone, but there were fresh tracks in the snow that led to one small door in the basement section of one of the buildings.

I looked in a window and, sure enough, there she was. There was a bare wooden table on one side of the small room and two orange crates she used for chairs in another corner. Near the broken-down sink were two little gas burners. There was a coffeepot on one burner. On her table was a small, inexpensive Hanukkah menorah.

I started to walk back to the street to find Berel. By the time I reached the school, Berel was standing on the corner. “Where’d ya go?” he shouted. “I thought you ran out on me.”

I explained what had happened and reassured him that I knew where she lived. We began to run back to the alley. When we got to the door we knocked, but there was no answer. We knocked a little harder, but still no answer.

Berel ran to the window, then shouted, “She’s lying on the floor!” I ran to the window and could see her stretched out near the sink.

We tried to open the door, but it was locked, so we ran out to the street to get help. Just then a man was passing by. We told him what we saw, and he followed us into the alley and looked through the window. He tried the door, then with all his might he broke the door down. We ran into the apartment. Everything smelled from gas. He shouted, “Quick, open the window.” He ran to the stove and shut off the gas jet. The pot of coffee she had been boiling had run over and put out the flame, but the gas continued to flow.

The man dragged the old lady toward the door for fresh air. He began slapping her face, and suddenly she started to come to. In a few minutes she was able to sit up and she asked what had happened. When the man explained, she started to smile and offered us a free pretzel. She had recognized us.

The gas fumes were cleared out, and we closed the window. Berel took out the package of Hanukkah candles and told her we had an extra box and thought she might need some.

She smiled warmly and said that she wanted to pay us for the candles, in pretzels. Berel had put away three pretzels thus far, so we politely refused.

She put two candles in the Hanukkah holder that was set on the table. She said a prayer and lit the candles.

As a warm glow filled the room, the man noticed a very old book on the shelf. He picked it up and looked at it curiously. Most of the pages were frayed and the binding was gone. It looked like junk.

As he began looking through the book, she said, “That’s a very old book. Old like me. Worthless!”

The man continued to look at the book, then said, “Would you sell me this book? I’m a book dealer. I sell old books, and I would be more than happy to give you two hundred dollars for this book!”

The woman looked at him with disbelief. “It’s an old book. Do you think it has any value?”

“Will you sell it to me?” the man asked again.

“Let me give it to you. After all, you saved my life,” she said.

“Oh, no, that would not be fair. You would be taking away my mitzvah,” he retorted as he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a handful of bills. He counted out two hundred dollars, handed them to her, then gave my brother and me five dollars each. “This is my Hanukkah gift to you boys for being so alert and thoughtful.”

We walked from the house together as the snow continued to fall. The man said he was late and ran ahead of us. We watched as he moved through the snow swiftly. When he reached the corner, he passed a garbage can, paused for a second, then threw the old book into the can and continued on his way.

It was then we realized that he did not want the book, but wanted to do something for that little old woman without embarrassing her.

We never did see that man again, even though we were certain he lived in the neighborhood. We never knew who he was, but he certainly made one old lady happy that Hanukkah.

Arnold Fine
Submitted by Beverly Merson

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