Excerpt: Ner Li

Ari sighed heavily, watching his breath mist in the freezing air in front of him. His scarf felt uncomfortably damp from where it lay across his mouth, but the alternative was to freeze off the lower half of his face, so he ignored the discomfort.

“Ready to head inside, boy?” Ari asked. He tugged on the end of the leather leash precariously held in his thickly gloved hands. Goober exploded out of the snow bank he had been investigating and circled around Ari twice in excitement. “Gah, you’re such a goober, Goober!” Ari complained as he twirled awkwardly around in his heavy snow boots on the snow-slicked pavement to untangle his legs from the leash.

Goober was the best kind of dog, a mutt, and he enjoyed the snow and the cold weather so much that Ari hadn’t been able to help taking Goober out for a walk. There had to be some husky or malamute in Goober’s DNA—he had the gray and white coloring and the vast amounts of fur—but it was so mixed up with whatever other breeds that the vet couldn’t say for certain what Goober was. His ears were floppy instead of sharply pointed and he had big spots of dark fur along his back like a shepherd, but his eyes were bright blue and happy. He was everything Ari had ever wanted in a dog, so when Goober had whined at the door to go out into the snow, Ari had obligingly bundled up and found the leash.

It was gently flurrying around them as they turned around at the corner and started to walk back home. Goober danced along at Ari’s side, snapping at the snowflakes and scurrying off to stick his nose into every snow bank along the road. Whenever he liked what he smelled, Goober lifted a leg to mark his territory. It made for slow progress, but Ari liked to admire the Christmas lights in the houses as he walked by.

A few of the houses in his neighborhood went for austere decorations. A simple glowing candle in each window, a wreath on the door, and maybe a few white twinkling lights circling one pine tree. It was beautiful to see through the gently falling snow. Most of the houses, however, didn’t hold back. They had lights in green, red, white, and any other color they could get their hands on. Every inch of their houses glowed like a neon sign straight from the Vegas strip. The chaos hadn’t stopped there, of course. A blow-up Santa waved merrily at Ari as he walked past the O’Malleys’ yard and a sled pulled by reindeer appeared to be in mid takeoff on the Sillers’. The Chens’ house had a landing strip in lights on the roof leading to a fake, blow-up chimneystack.

Every house also had a beautiful Christmas tree festooned in lights, garlands, and ornaments somewhere in a front window, glowing brightly out onto the street for Ari to see as the sun set behind the heavy clouds overhead.

Only one house in the entire neighborhood was dark: Ari’s. The pole light in the center of his lawn was on, illuminating the driveway so Ari and Goober could get back to the house without slipping on the icy pavement, but there were zero lights and decorations anywhere. It looked like the Grinch house or Mr. Scrooge’s disdainful abode, and Ari hated that his house stood out so baldly as the one non-festive place.

Could Ari have found cheery blue lights or a glowing Jewish star to hang? Absolutely. But he didn’t celebrate Christmas, and it felt disingenuous to put up lights anyway just to fit in. To pretend that he wasn’t different than the rest of the neighborhood was lying, but it was also the exact opposite of the values of Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that fell around the same time as Christmas.

Hanukkah was yet another story of how someone wanted to kill the Jews simply because the Jews were Jewish and therefore different. The main difference in this story from others like Purim or even the Holocaust was that the Jews lived in Judea—ancient Israel—and had the ability and the drive to fight for their homes and way of life.

When Haman tried to kill all the Jews in the story of Purim and when Hitler tried to kill all the Jews during the Holocaust, the Jews lived in the Diaspora, places that—while they were homes—were not Israel. Jews were not allowed access to weapons like swords or guns. They couldn’t join the army or local militia and if found with a weapon could be executed for some trumped up charge—anti-Semitism at its most virulent.

In Judea, when the Syrian army descended and demanded that Jews abandon the Torah and instead worship idols and eat pork, the Jews resisted. Thousands of Jews who refused were killed. Under the command of the Maccabees, the Jewish people were able to fight back against forcible assimilation until the Syrians were defeated.

How could Ari bow down to modern Christian assimilation by putting up lights or a tree when his ancestors five thousand years ago fought just that for the very survival of Judaism? So his house was the only dark one on the street. At least the snow was beautiful.

Ari walked up the driveway with Goober dancing at his side. He had to remove his glove in order to hit the buttons on the keypad to activate the garage door and gratefully stepped out of the cold once the door had rumbled to a stop overhead. He hurried past his parked car to the inside door, hit the button to close the garage, and groaned as warmth started to seep into his bones again. Ari took Goober’s leash off, hung it on the hook in the garage, found a towel to try to get as much of the clumped snow out of Goober’s fur as possible, and tried getting his boots unlaced while Goober eagerly whined to go inside.

It took a few muttered swears and some finagling, but Ari finally got them both dry enough to head inside. Goober galloped over to his big, fluffy bed, where he collapsed happily with a heavy sigh.

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