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Hearts in the Cold

“I have the most precious menorah in the whole world,” said the man. “Should I tell you why?”

Hearts beat alone in winter.

I think it’s the cold that makes us turn inward.

Winter does that. It wraps you in a cold embrace, and no matter how deeply you bury your nose in a scarf, the frigid winds remain undeterred. They seep through the layers I pile on — thermals, woolens, heat tech, and boots — and even with all that, my toes are frozen all season long, stubborn in the face of turmeric ginger tea, fuzzy socks, and cozy throws. It’s when the once-white snow takes on an icy grayness, knock-knocking at our hearts, that I know winter has taken root. It’s too cold for eye contact or casual conversations with strangers.

It was one of those winter days four years ago when my then four-year-old son and I were riding the subway home. The chill nipped at my bones, and true to form, my toes were obstinately cold. I was trying to think warm thoughts — vegetable soup and candlelight, Chanukah just a couple of days away. The cold seemed to have touched everyone on the train; they all seemed lost in their own worlds, trying to get warm inside their coats. Only my son remained cheerfully oblivious to the temperature, chatting about train lines and transfers. Winter hadn’t gotten her tentacles in him.

He paused for a moment as he remembered the snack I’d packed for him. He reached into his bag, chose some pretzels, and said a brachah.

“Amen,” said the man sitting across from us.

“Are you Jewish?” my son asked, temporarily mortifying me. In all fairness, though, the man was huddled inside a huge navy down coat, and from my son’s angle, it was impossible to determine.

“I am,” said the man. “Do you have a menorah?”

“Yes.” My son popped another pretzel into his mouth.

I was surprised by this whole conversation. It’s in the spring, with her warm breezes and budding flowers, when the hearts of strangers open, that they want to chat — not in the cold of the winter. I remember the woman I met one spring day, years ago. She was a retired high-school teacher studying to be a clown. You should ride the carousel in Prospect Park, she said, eying my two-year-old in the stroller. We did, the next day, my son tall on his gallant steed, an outing on the advice of a stranger.6t

But it was winter now, and people hold their hearts close in the cold. I turned my attention back to the man, still chatting with my son.

“I have the most precious menorah in the whole world,” said the man. “Should I tell you why?”

A family heirloom passed through generations, I thought. Or maybe a menorah that survived the Holocaust, buried deep in the ground. The kind of precious personal to this man, but not an unfamiliar storyline. I was wholly unprepared for his answer.

“A few years ago, I donated my kidney to a dying man.” He looked up and met my eyes. “He made it, and as a gift of gratitude, his family gave me a menorah.”

This was unexpected, both from him and from a winter’s day. Even given more time, I’d never have guessed.

“You’re right,” I told him. “That is the most precious menorah in the whole world.”

We chatted some more, until it was time for our stop. He didn’t make much of his kidney donation; for him it had been a natural, logical choice. All his joy seemed derived from having been the agent in saving the life of another. He thought of the man and his family all the time, they even spoke on occasion. But the menorah — that was tangible. And every year as he lit it, his joy rekindled.

He was still looking for his bashert, he told me, and he was sure she had to be a kidney donor as well. I took the business card he handed me, as he asked me to think of a shidduch for him, to get in touch if I had any leads.

We walked home, my son’s hand in mine. My toes were still cold, but the winds felt less biting, the icy grayness looked less dull, and winter felt less dark. And as I prepared the menorahs later that day, I thought of the most precious menorah in the world.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 839)

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