In the winter of 1843, my great-grandfather Chaim Leviant, then a youngster of 15, was driving his grandfather Moshe’s horse-drawn sleigh along the snow-covered roads not far from Kariukovke, a shtetl in Ukraine. In another hour or so the first light of Hanukkah would be kindled at the house of Chaim’s grandparents, where the entire family was gathered to sing songs, play dreidel, and eat Grandmother Dobbe’s crispy potato latkes.
The snow had finally stopped. All was silent, except for the little bells in the horse’s harness; the horse’s hooves made no sound in the deep snow.
Chaim had just delivered food to a poor Jewish family in a neighboring shtetl. His grandfather Moshe was a wealthy man who supplied the local sugar factory with beets. He owned his house, but leased the land on which he grew the beets, for Jews were forbidden to own land in Czarist Russia.
Suddenly, Chaim glimpsed something on the edge of a snowdrift. He tugged at the reins. The horse stopped. He saw a fur hat and jumped off the wagon. Lying in the snow was a boy of about 12, stunned but breathing. As he lifted the lad into the sleigh, Chaim surmised that a snoozing coachman, likely drunk, had dropped the reins and the unrestrained horses had set off in a gallop. That’s when the lad must have tumbled out into a snowbank.
Chaim patted the boy’s face. He took off his own bearskin coat and wrapped the boy in it.
“Can you hear me?” Chaim asked.
“Father, father,” the boy whimpered.
“You’re safe,” Chaim said. “Who is your father? “
The boy answered slowly. “Arkady…Ivanovich…Goluptsin. I fell off our coach.”
“Ivan Goluptsin? Our provincial governor?”
Following the boy’s instructions, my great-grandfather Chaim made his way to the Goluptsin winter mansion.
A servant opened the door and shouted, “Master, he’s here.” Arkady’s mother and the governor saw a tall boy supporting their son, who was wrapped in a huge bearskin coat they did not recognize.
“He saved me, mama. He found me, papa.”
“Who are you, my boy?”
“Chaim Leviant from Kariukovke.”
“Oh, yes, where Brodsky has his sugar plant. I know Brodsky well. Do you know who I am?”
“Your son told me.”
The governor put his hand on his heart. “Thank you, thank you for saving my son’s life. Come with me, please.”
Governor Goluptsin put his arm around Chaim’s shoulders and led him into a spacious dining room.
“Sir, if you don’t mind…I…I am late for our Hanukkah celebration. My family is surely worried.”
“It will only be a moment.”
The governor opened a drawer and placed a purse on the desk.
“I know you have a holiday custom of giving coins to the children,” he smiled. “Chaim, how many grandchildren does your grandfather have?”
Chaim began counting to himself. Yakov, Israel-Noah, Mendl, Tanya, Rachel, Rivka, Dvora and Boris and…. He finally reached 18, including himself.
The governor counted out 18 of the large, glittering five-ruble gold coins. Chaim knew that an average worker’s wages were a ruble a month.
“Sir,” Chaim said, “please don’t think me ungrateful, but I don’t want to be rewarded for the mitzvah of saving a life. The Talmud teaches us that when someone saves one life it is as if he has saved an entire world. This alone is my reward.”
Governor Goluptsin looked at Chaim. “Hmm, I see…Well, then, is there anything I can do for you?”
“Yes,” said my great-grandfather Chaim. “As you know, sir, Jews are not allowed to own land in Russia. Our family does business with Brodsky. They have always wanted to buy land to cultivate more sugar beet and provide jobs for many people in the area.”
“How can I help?”
“Could you get my family permission to buy a tract of land outside Kariukovke?”
For a moment the governor was silent. Then Goluptsin’s face brightened.
“Chaim, you have my word. I shall contact the Imperial Bank in Kiev to prepare the documents. Thank you again for good deed. And don’t forget your bearskin greatcoat.”
When he arrived at his grandfather’s house, his parents kissed and embraced him. And then he quickly told his story.
“Time to light the first candle,” said a beaming Grandfather Moshe.
Then Grandmother Dobbe came in with a large platter of latkes.
Grandfather Moshe gave Hanukkah gelt to all the children and then called Chaim into his study.
“You refused the governor, but you won’t refuse me, eh?” Moshe smiled. Then he pulled a five-ruble gold piece from his pocket. “It’s for you. When the time comes, give it to your first-born son and tell him to pass it to his son, along with this story.”
And this is the coin, whose worth is far more than its weight in gold, that we keep next to our menorah during the eight days of Hanukkah.
Like a legend, it sheds its own special light.