of Light Of A Small Candle
Shines In Valley Forge
The number of Jews who migrated to American shores in
pre-revolutionary times was very small. Yet most of those Jews joined
in the fight for freedom against Britain and fought on the side of the
Continental Army in the war for American independence.
I remember that difficult winter well. It was December 1777.
Shortages of food, inadequate clothing, and raging illness caused
untold suffering and tremendous hardship for the troops loyal to
General George Washington and the revolutionary cause.
In the winter quarters at Valley Forge, the troops sat and waited
for an extra blanket or for a crust of bread. They sat and wondered
whether General Washington would be able to force a British retreat.
Morale was low.
I never doubted the outcome of the war, for men have always
struggled against tyranny in the cause of justice. My father had told
me about his personal struggle against tyranny, how he fled religious
persecution in Germany and migrated to the American colonies, how
he hoped to build a new life in the new world.
When I joined the Continental Army two years ago, he gave me a
Chanukah menorah and candles. I remember him telling me, "These
candles are a symbol of man's struggle against tyranny. Light them
each Chanukah. They will direct you toward the path of freedom."
I carried the menorah and the candles in my knapsack wherever I
Tonight was the first night of Chanukah. I removed the Chanukah
menorah from my knapsack and walked away from where my
comrades sat. I wanted to be alone when I lit my Chanukah menorah.
I placed the menorah in the center of a small mound of snow. I
inserted one candle and the shamash (candle used to light the other
candles). I struck my one remaining flint, lit the shamash and the first
candle, and recited the blessings. Tears welled up in my eyes as I
imagined my father lighting his Chanukah menorah in front of the
parlor window in our New York apartment.
I sat down in the snow to watch the little flickering lights. From
time to time, I cupped my hands over the flames, protecting them
from the wind.
Suddenly, I felt that I was not alone. A man was standing over
me. I looked up and recognized General George Washington. He
spoke softly. "Soldier, are you lost? Why are you so far away from
your comrades? I noticed the flickering lights of your candles, and I
walked over here to see if you were in any kind of trouble. Why did
you light two candles so far from the campsite?"
I could hardly speak. I hastily jumped to my feet. General
Washington waited patiently for me to organize my thoughts.
"I am a Jew," I began haltingly. "Tonight is the first night of
Chanukah, our festival of freedom. Chanukah celebrates the
Maccabean victory over Greek tyranny more than eighteen hundred
years ago. When I joined the Continental Army, my father gave me
this Chanukah menorah. He told me to light the candles, that they
would help me remember the cause of freedom. I wanted to be alone
when I lit the candles, so I walked away from the campsite. I know
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 11, 1987
that your soldiers will also win their freedom, just as my people did
long ago. I hope that we will build a new land together."
I could distinguish a smile on General Washington's face in the
soft glow of candlelight. He stood with me for a few minutes, watching
the reflection of the nearly extinguished candles. When the flames
died out, he shook my hand and walked away. I sat down again near
the mound of snow and remained there for a long time that night.
When the Revolutionary War ended, General George Washington
was chosen to be the first president of the United States. I was
certain that he forgot the incident of the Chanukah lights at Valley
Forge, but it was imprinted in my memory forever.
As years passed, I settled on Stone Street, adjacent to the Dock
and South wards facing the East River. Each year during Chanukah I
placed my menorah on the front windowsill, as I remembered my
father had always done. The glow of the candles was noticed by all
One Chanukah night, I answered a knock at my door and found
President Washington standing in the entranceway. For the second
time, I could hardly speak. President Washington did not wait for me
to organize my thoughts. He initiated the conversation. "I was riding
this way, and I saw your Chanukah lights at Valley Forge, and I
recalled your inspiring words. I took a chance by knocking on this
door, hoping that you were the soldier who had inspired me. I have
been searching for you all these years. I am glad that I found you, for
I have carried this Medal of Honor with me. Please accept it as a
symbol of my thanks.
I extended my hand and accepted the box with the special Medal
of Honor. Inside the box lay a small, engraved Chanukah menorah
with the words, "Thank you for the light of a small candle."
Reprinted by permission from Time for My Soul: A Treasury of Jewish Stories For Our
Holy Days, by Annette Labovitz and Eugene Labovitz, 1979, Jason Aronson, Inc.