Hello, loyal readers and Feldheim Fans!
Today, I have a real pre-Chanukah treat for you—and it won’t make you gain weight! With his inimitable style, wit, and prolific pen, Hanoch Teller is more than a man; he is a legend. When I worked in the Feldheim Israeli office on Rechov Beit Hadefus many years ago, we were always struck with a fresh wave of awe when “THE” Hanoch Teller would enter the offices, motorcycle helmet in hand (I am told that the motorcycle riding days are over—no regrets!), putting the finishing touches on yet another masterpiece. Thousands of young women from seminaries across the country have been inspired and entertained by Rabbi Teller’s spellbinding classes, where he weaves countless stories together with timeless lessons.
So when it came time for the Feldheim Blog to enter Chanukah Mode, I thought, Hmmm, why not give our readers a story? This was almost immediately followed by, Hmmm, I wonder whom to interview. And that’s when the Eureka moment struck: Hanoch Teller + New, Never Before Published Chanukah Story = Wonderful Treat!
Here you go, folks, a true story, carefully crafted just for you by renowned author, lecturer, and teacher Rabbi Hanoch Teller. Better than doughnuts but just as addictive! Enjoy! And stay tuned for some more tantalizing Chanukah fare, coming soon to a Feldheim blog near you .
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Sarah and her family followed the streams of refugees fleeing war-torn Poland for safer territory as the First World War breathed fear into the heart of Europe. Their wanderings landed them in Vienna, where they joined thousands of homeless refugees who spent the nights in one alley or another.
Eventually, they discovered an empty apartment, dark and cramped, in the city’s Sixth District. The family was elated to finally have a roof over their head, but Sarah was keenly disappointed with the location. It was more than an hour’s trudge through snow and ice from that predominantly Christian section to the nearest shul.
One day, the non-Jewish landlord mentioned that there was an Orthodox synagogue nearby. News of a rent decrease would not have been more welcome. Sarah followed the directions to the Stumperfergasse shul but her excitement was quickly dashed by a glimpse of the “Rabbiner.” In a finely-brushed fedora and three-piece suit, he looked like he had just stepped from Mariahilferstrasse, Vienna’s posh shopping boulevard. To Sarah, a rebbe or a rav dressed the part: a streimel or a spodek, a caftan or a long coat ─ at the very least. Her consternation was clearly evident, for the woman next to her smiled and whispered, “Pay no attention to his attire. Wait until you hear the drashah.”
It was the Shabbos of Chanukah and Rabbi Dr. Moshe Flesch spoke about the heroism of the Maccabees and the role of women in the revolt against Greece. “Was it not Yehudis who was willing to sacrifice her own life in the time of the Hellenists so that future daughters would be able to carry on our tradition? This battle,” the rav thundered, “is not yet over. The war must be waged on all fronts and the women of today, like Yehudis long ago, must join in the struggle!”
Sarah was thunderstruck. She was certain that Rabbi Flesch was speaking to her! She was even more certain that he ought to be speaking to the young women of Krakow – but how would they ever hear his message? And then, in an epiphany, Sarah understood her task. She would be the conduit to carry this message – the message of Yehudis – from Vienna to Krakow. And why stop at Krakow? She would convey this message to all the daughters of Galicia, to those of Poland, indeed to every Jewish girl who had forgotten her heritage. On that day of Chanukah, Sarah Scheneirer committed her self to her mission.
Fast forward four years.
The Great War has ended and Sarah Schneirer and her family have returned to Krakow. The Chanukah season is quickly approaching and the seamstress hangs a sign in the window of her shop: “Inexpensive Dresses for Little Girls.”
Never was there a more effective advertisement. Dozens of mothers and their daughters crowded into the shop. “Dresses, we want dresses for Chanukah!” the children demanded. Suddenly, Sarah was transported two hundred miles to a synagogue in Vienna, where the story of the Chanukah heroine had been first introduced to her.
“Have any of you,” Sarah Scheneirer called out, “heard of the great Yehudis, from the Chanukah story?”
There was no response from any of the small patrons. Sarah tried again. “Whoever can tell me about Yehudis will get a special prize.” She waved her hand high in the air. “Whoever can answer my question will get a beautiful ribbon like this, to tie her hair.”
The girls, wide-eyed, gazed up enviously at the ribbon, but not one opened her mouth. An ocean of silence washed over the shop. Finally one mother whispered, “How could they possibly know who Yehudis was? They don’t go to a Jewish school that teaches about our holidays. They can tell you about the Apostles, and they can tell you about Easter, but if you want to know about Yehudis, then you have to ask the boys.”
“So then why,” Sarah murmured, “don’t we worry about our daughters’ education the way the men worry about their sons’?” She then turned to the girls. “I want you all to come back to my shop for the first night of Chanukah. There will be plenty of latkes and other treats. And then,” she added, her voice warm with passion, “then you will hear the story of Yehudis.”
Sarah Schneirer’s invitation was accepted on a wintry night. A blanket of snow covered Krakow’s cobblestone alleys, topped by a lacy spread of powder that had just dusted down. The air was cold and sharp, and the moon, nearly a quarter full, cast an eerie pink glow across the whiteness. Frosty needles pricked the young girls’ nostrils and lungs as they trudged towards Sarah Scheneirer’s shop. They hesitated outside the door; what sort of Chanukah party would the seamstress make?
A bright menorah beckoned from the window. The door opened, a burst of warmth from the wood stove enveloped them, and they bustled inside. The room was crowded with early arrivals, and many mothers had squeezed into the outer hallway. Still, no one complained and no one fidgeted. Inside, all was as silent as the snow-covered streets. Mothers and daughters sat spellbound as Sarah Scheneirer spoke. Yehudis and the Chashmonaim, Chana and her seven sons, all took life and played out their stories before the women and girls of Krakow.
That night a miracle occurred in Krakow. The news spread quickly: the so-called “simple seamstress” was a genius who could mesmerize anyone – even little girls – with her encyclopedic knowledge.
Thus was the Bais Yaakov movement born. Sarah Scheneirer’s dilapidated dress shop would soon be transformed into a classroom, the only vestige of its former function would be the blackboard, its sketches and measurements replaced by block Hebrew letters.
As the last little girl filed out of her shop, Sarah was too excited to sleep. She sat up late, writing in her diary: “Until now I was a seamstress for our little children. May the Almighty only enable me to prepare spiritual clothing for the souls of our girls.”