Sixth Chanukah Podcast, 2012

(We’re still waiting to fix the podcast problem)


Things Could Always Be Worse: a story for the sixth night of Chanukah

So: I’m sure most of you already know this story. It goes with the podcast (should Google ever sort it out!), but it’s a great story, and one that is usually told in our family, coming up to any major festival where present-giving is involved – usually as the younger members of the family are complaining about how hard life is, how they don’t get enough space, and, probably, nobody understands them, so they won’t get what they want, present-wise.

That was usually the point when my Bubbe (pronounced Bubbeh) would tell this story.

Long ago, in a little village just outside Vilna, there lived a farmer and his wife, along with his four children. They lived in a small little house, but the fire was always welcoming, visitors were never sent away, and, when the farmers’ parents become too old to look after themselves, the farmer and his wife welcomed them into their home – along with all the furniture and knick-knacks and things that the old women just could not live without.

From that moment on, the rows started. Something would get broken; the old women would cry, and throw blame at her daughter in law. The old man’s back would hurt; he threw blame at the children making so much noise he could hardly sleep. The bread did not rise; the farmer’s wife threw blame on the way her husband had harvested the corn. The children would cry and blame the scary stories their grandmother told them. They fought and argued the day through and the night down, until even the cockerel was too tired to make himself heard in the mornings!

This situation could not go on, so the farmer went to see the rabbi to ask for a solution.

“Well,” said the rabbi, “In life, there are always two possibilities, whatever happens.”

He offered the farmer a drink, stroked his beard, and thought. The farmer held his breath, waiting for some divine pearl of wisdom to fall from the sage’s mouth. Eventually the rabbi appeared to come to some conclusions. Smiling at the farmer, he said, “Do you own chickens?”

Puzzled the farmer replied that, yes, he did indeed own several chickens.

“Good, good, then bring them indoors. It’s very chilly out at this time of the year,” and he went back to his contemplation.

The bemused farmer went home and told his wife – and, of course, how could they go against the very advice they had sought? So they brought in the chickens. The house was even more crowded, noisy and smelly, and more than chicken feathers flew that week I can tell you! The farmer went back, and repeated the problem, explaining that now it was even worse. The rabbi thought, and then said, with a twinkle in his eye, “You have a donkey?”

Hesitating, the man nodded; he did indeed have a donkey. “Then bring it inside with you and your family. The warmth will do it good!”

The man nodded, and went home to do as the rabbi instructed. Well, that week was even worse: the rowing, the clucking, the braying the noise and confusion – not to mention the mess. His poor wife and mother – as fast as they cleared up, there was more mess and feathers then ever before, but everyone agreed the eggs were good.

This went on for several more weeks, the rabbi’s instructions getting more bizarre, but the man following them to the letter, until residing in that one small cottage was: himself; his wife; his mother and father; his children; a flock of hens and geese; a donkey; a horse; and a very flatulent cow.

After one month he made his way, exhausted, to the rabbi’s house.

“Every week I have told you how bad my life is, Rabbi, and every week you have had me bring more and more livestock into the house. I cannot bear it! My life is not worth living.”

The rabbi stroked his beard.

“Hmm. Well, maybe you should take out all the animals and put them back in the barns.”

”Yes, Rabbi … thank you! That is an excellent suggestion.”

And he ran back home to do as instructed.

What a change! How they celebrated! And the next Sabbath he went and shook hands with the rabbi. He thanked him over and over, saying,

“Rabbi, who could have known? Such space! Such a good life! Such room! And my wife and mother – how they get along! Truly, life is good!”

Sometimes we have to see how bad it can really get before we realize how good we have it – maybe?

By shonaleighq

Fifth Chanukah Podcast, 2012

Click here for the fifth of this year’s eight nightly free Chanukah downloads.


The Rose Bush and the Apple Tree: A story for the fifth night of Chanukah

There was once a beautiful rose bush growing in the garden of a rich man. The blooms were stunning, rich and red and fragrant. People who walked in the gardens never failed to admire the bush and some even went as far as to pick the roses for their loved ones.

Now, next door there was an apple tree. Old and gnarled, its boughs often bent with the weight of the fruit it bore. Some of the branches hung over the wall, and from where it stood in a meadow, the old apple tree could also see and admire the king’s rose bush.

The rose bush was very full of itself. It would often comment aloud:

“I am so beautiful! I am the rose bush of a king, and all come and admire me. But you, old apple tree, seem to get just as many admirers. How can that be? Your boughs are bent and misshapen, your fruit often unattractive to look at and you reside in the meadow where the people let their animals roam.”

The apple tree took its time in answering. It sighed deeply feeling sorry that the rose would not like what it had to say. Then, with a dry voice that held the wisdom of the years it had lived, it slowly said,

“Oh, dear rose, it is true your blooms are beautiful and fragrant but you do not give up your flowers willingly. Your thorns are thick and sharp and prick the fingers and thumbs of those that would pluck your buds. Also you live in a king’s garden where only the rich can visit you and see your splendour; they have jewels they value more than flowers, and perfumes that seem to them more perfect than your scent. On the other hand, I live in a meadow where all can see me and shelter in the shade beneath my branches, and even my misshapen fruit is useful to eat. The rotten windfalls are devoured by their animals, and my bent branches provide climbing for the young children that play in the fields. I even give up my fruit when stones are thrown at me.”

The old apple tree is still there, a haven for birds and children alike, none of whom mind his misshapen limbs; but the rose bush – well, it did not like the answer that the apple tree gave on that day. It grew old and gnarled; its thorns became so thick and dangerous that no bird went near it; no human plucked its roses. It remained alone in its beauty, always envious of the apple tree.

By shonaleighq

Fourth Chanukah Podcast, 2012

Click here for the fourth of this year’s eight nightly free Chanukah downloads.

medieval calendar 2

A Garment for the Moon

Now it’s known that at the beginning of the world there was some envy from the moon about how brightly the sun shone. But all that was long ago, and a story for another time. Today I am going to tell you about how the moon came to the sun one day, and begged for a dress to keep her warm as she circled the outer heavens, for, although she appreciated the sun’s light, she had none of her own.

So the sun went to a village of tailors – some of the best in the world, if I am honest – and asked them to sew a garment for the moon. They agreed, and took on the task. But, as the best tailors in the city sat around drinking tea and stroking their beards, they realized that the task was beyond them. After all, the moon was constantly changing shape. Sometimes it was round and full, and at other times of the month it was nothing more than a thin sliver, a silver crescent in the sky. How on this earth were they to sew a garment that could withstand such expansion and contraction and still keep its shape? (Please remember lycra had not yet been invented … ) And even if such a material were available, it would be so expensive, and so much of it would be needed. They threw up their hands and declared the task impossible.

Now it was the turn of the poor tailors. They wanted to prove it could be done, and that their skill was equal to that of the rich tailors. Sometimes necessity makes us more determined and more inventive, and these tailors sat and chatted and talked and thought, until one of them said:

“I remember a story my Bubba told me long ago about a material that seemed to be made of light. Indeed it expanded and contracted and was subject to the whim of light. Very magical it was, and very rare.”

The others nodded sagely, until one tailor in the corner said, “And very unlikely! Who has ever sewn, or even seen, such material?” And, again, the other tailors all nodded in agreement. The first tailor said that he would go in search of this material – after all, what harm could it do to just try? So they waved him off, and that was the beginning of a quite remarkable journey for our hero.

He walked, rode, limped and strode across the land, through cities and villages, up mountain tracks, and along roads and paths, always asking, and always being told that nobody had heard of such material. But still he continued, until, one day, he took a boat across a vast river, and as they sailed, he asked if anyone had heard of this material that he was looking to buy.

The captain of the boat said yes! The tailor could not believe it, and began to ask where it could be found, and how much it would cost, and so on. The captain said that there was a garment made of such material in the city he had been brought up in, and gave the tailor directions. When the tailor asked where in the city he would find the fabric, he said that it was the dress owned by the queen.

The tailor’s heart sank. If the only material in existence had been used to make a dress for a queen, its price must be far beyond the little bag of coins he carried with him. Nevertheless he continued on his journey. “It would be a shame to come so far and not to even see it,” he said to himself. He thanked the captain, gave him some strong needles to sew his sails, and continued on his way.

Eventually he came to the city that the captain had described and was amazed to find everyone moping about their daily business, depressed and very sad. When he asked why, he was told “How can we be happy when our queen is in such distress?” It turned out that the queen’s daughter was due to get married, and she was supposed to wear her incredible dress, as was the custom. They called it a dress of light. The problem was that the dress had been in the family for so long it was falling apart; it was quite unwearable, and the queen could not attend the wedding as custom dictated, and the princess would not get married without the queen being there. Nobody knew how to repair the dress of light; the secret had been lost to the tailors of that land. So, you see, it was all a terrible mess.

Our little tailor stroked his beard and thought, “You know, it is a shame to have come so far without even trying.” So he went to the queen and offered to help. She was very grateful, but explained that it was worse that he thought.

“You see, the material is made of light, and as it unravels – well, the light just disperses and disappears so it cannot be mended. The dress is literally disappearing before my eyes!” She put her head in her hands and wept great, salty, unqueenlike tears. The tailor said he would try, and she nodded her thanks through red eyes.

He took the dress to a room they had prepared for him to work in. He studied the cloth carefully, running it through his hands, amazed at how light, how beautiful, delicate yet strong it was. But he could see what the queen had said was true. Each time he moved the dress it would unravel a bit at the hem, and, instead of being left with threads, they simply sparkled for a moment and then disappeared into the air! He pondered the problem through most of the day and long into the night. Leaving the food and drink they had bought him completely untouched.

Finally, he moved to the window to get a better look at the garment, to see if there was any way he could at least stop it unravelling. As he held the dress to the window, a marvellous thing began to happen. As the moon’s rays touched the threadbare hem, it began to grow. The material began to replenish itself as the tailor held it. “Of course!” he thought. “The garment is made from moonlight itself! How else could it grow and contract?” Without wasting a moment he snipped off a corner, and popped it into his pocket. Then he began to stitch and grow, and stitch and sew until the entire dress was finished and as good as new.

Needless to say, the queen and the princess were delighted, and the queen said he could have whatever payment he required. At that point, the tailor just asked to be able to keep the corner of cloth he had cut. The queen agreed, and gave him a bag of coins as well.

Well, it took the tailor months to get home. But every full moon he would take out the little piece of cloth, and hold it beneath the moon’s light. By the time he got home, he had more than enough cloth for him and his fellow tailors to stich a garment suitable for the moon.

The sun was delighted and delivered the gift to the moon, who wore it gladly. It kept her warm, expanded and contracted over the course of the month, and shone in the reflected light of the sun so perfectly that it was as if the moon itself glowed with its own special light each full moon. And as for the tailors – well, the moon rewarded them by shining brighter on that little village than any other, so they could stitch well into the night and thus provide for their wives garments that would fit them however much they expanded or contracted. There was a harmony in those homes – perhaps the greatest gift of all!

By shonaleighq

Third Chanukah Podcast, 2012

Click here for the third of this year’s eight nightly free Chanukah downloads.


The King and the Merchant from Chelm

There was once a merchant from the city of Chelm. Now, everyone knows that when the Angel of Wisdom and Foolishness was flying over the world, she caught her foot on a high mountain and stumbled. The jar of foolish souls tipped up, and most of the souls spilled out, landing in the city, and to this day it is known that our wisest fools come from Chelm.

This merchant was walking home in the evening, and came across an old man wearing nothing but rags. He brought him home, and he and his wife fed and clothed the old man. That night, by the fire, the merchant entertained both his wife and the beggar with stories of the wisdom of his grandfathers – but, as we say, those are stories for other nights.

In the morning the beggar set on his way, thanking the merchant for his kindness, and for the fact that he had not laughed so hard for so long. He put his hand on the merchant’s arm, and said, “My friend, wherever you travel, you will be blessed with insight and wisdom far beyond that of your grandfathers. Trust your instinct, and one day it will save your life.”

With that he turned, and left the story. 

Now it just so happened that the next day the merchant had to leave on a journey, and his route would take him into the territory of a wicked king. This king hated most travellers, but, most of all, he despised the people of Chelm, feeling them to be so foolish that he had made it his mission to sentence any traveller from Chelm to death. He had ordered is guards to ask each visitor where they were from, and said, “If any hail from Chelm, he must be halted by the guards. and asked to say something about himself. If he lies, he is to be shot. If he tells the truth, he is to be hanged.” He reckoned this course of action would mean that there would be no travellers left from Chelm by the end of his reign.

So, on the third day of his journey, our generous merchant from Chelm wandered through the gates of the city of this terrible king. The guards asked where he was from, and, smiling, the merchant said he was from the city of Chelm. They asked him to tell them something about himself, explaining with malicious grins that if he told a lie he would be shot, and if he told a truth he would be hanged. The poor man realized he was doomed, but he remembered the words of the beggar he had helped, opened his mouth and let the first thing on his tongue fall from his lips … 

Today I will be shot!” he said, and then clamped his hand over his mouth, hardly believing that he had said such a provocative thing. The guards – who (let’s be honest) were not chosen for their brains – escorted the merchant to the king, repeating what he had said.

The king was furious. The guards blinked beneath his anger, not really understanding why he, their beloved Majestyness, was so mad. So the king had to explain to them, very slowly and loudly:

“Don’t you see? This man has said that today he will be shot.”

Incomprehension from the guards.

“So if I shoot him he will have spoken the truth, not a lie; and if I hang him he will have spoken a lie. He’s got me either way.”

Understanding dawned on the guards’ faces, and, eager to help, they suggested that the prisoner, the little merchant, should be allowed to escape, while their worst marksman tried to shoot him. That way nobody would look foolish.

Well, the king agreed and the merchant ran as fast as he could. The guards fired wildly missing everything. Finally, the merchant found himself back on the road to Chelm, and who should he meet but the beggar that had given him such sound advice. He thanked him, and offered to give him a meal and a bed if ever he needed it, and the two men went their separate ways.

It was only afterwards that the generous little merchant from Chelm realized that his guest and benefactor was probably none other than Elijah himself.

By shonaleighq

Second Chanukah Podcast, 2012

Click here for the second of this year’s eight nightly free Chanukah downloads.Image

Shallow Judgment

One day, a princess was out walking with her women, when she spied a crowd of people listening to a rabbi teaching and telling in the market square.  She wandered up to listen to what he had to say, sure that, when the people realized that a princess was in their midst, they would turn their attention from the rabbi to her, admire her beauty, bow down and honour her.

None of this happened. Instead, the people just went on listening to the rabbi, oblivious to the princess in their throng. She sighed; she shifted from one delicate foot to another; she coughed daintily; she even pretended to swoon in the heat – though very gracefully, so as not to get any dust on her fine clothes.  Still the people were held by the rabbi’s words.  Nobody noticed her go back to her carriage, to wait until he had finished. This was not something she was used to doing – waiting till someone else had finished! She studied the rabbi, furious with him – after all she was so beautiful and royal, and he was – well – so very, very ugly …

When the story had finished and the people drifted off, she summoned the rabbi to her. It was none other than Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah. 

“It is true that you are a wise sage; I listened to your words. But why are you so very ugly?  I cannot imagine why G-d would pour wisdom into such an ugly vessel as yours!”

Rabbi Joshua listened politely, and then answered by saying, “Tell me, o princess, in what vessels does your father the king store his most precious wine?”

“In clay jars, like everyone,” she answered.

The rabbi took a step back in feigned amazement. “Earthen, clay jars?” he repeated. “Just like the common men do?”

The princess nodded slowly, something niggling in the back of her mind.

“I’m sure the King could afford finer vessels than just clay jars. After all, he is rich. Surely he can afford better – silver, or even gold – for example?” 

The princess hurried home to her father, and told him that he should keep his wine in gold or silver vessels – not old clay ones like the common people. The king agreed, and had his servants pour all the wine into silver and gold vessels.  It did not take long for the wine to sour.  The king tasted one of his finest vintages, and spat it out all over his food.  Then he bellowed for his daughter.

“Where did you get this stupid advice? The wine is ruined!”

Of course the princess told him it was the ugly little Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah.

The king sent for the rabbi and demanded to know why he had given his daughter such wicked and malevolent advice.

“Your Majesty, your daughter wanted to know why G-d would pour wisdom into such an ugly vessel as myself, and I wanted to show her that sometimes beauty can be a drawback.”

But the king replied that there were people in his kingdom that combined great talents with beauty.

Rabbi Joshua smiled at the king and said, “Rest assured that, had they been ugly, their talents would have been even better developed!”

The king returned his wine to clay vessels, and listened to the rabbi’s advice whenever a problem kept him up at night.

By shonaleighq

Click here for the first of this year’s eight nightly free Chanukah downloads.

Last year, on the first night of Chanukah, I told the family the story of the first meeting between King Solomon and that Queen of Sheba. The hoopoe delivers the message to a stunned King Solomon that there is a land where they have never heard of him, and, even more unbelievably, it is ruled by a woman!

That story was the beginning of me putting together The Golden Labyrinth, a show that premiered at Festival at the Edge in July 2012 and gave me many hours of fun as I put it together.

So it seemed only fitting that this year’s First Night Chanukah story should be about our old friend, the Hoopoe.

Our old friend, the Hoopoe

Our old friend, the Hoopoe

How the Hoopoe Got His Golden Crown

As we all know, Solomon had many wives and concubines, and was quite exhausted trying to please them all. One day his queen asked for a special birthday present. Without waiting to find out what it was, Solomon agreed that she could have whatever she asked for. He felt that a king of his power and wisdom would be able to grant whatever she asked. And what did she ask for but a palace of bird beaks?

Without giving it a second thought, King Solomon went out and called all the birds to him, and told them they must surrender their beaks in order for the Queen’s birthday present to be built. The birds were horrified; they shuffled and hesitated. Some thought about pleading, but hung their heads. They wept and cried, but still they lined up. Then who should turn up, late as usual, but the Hoopoe. He noticed how upset the other birds were, and when he found out the reason for their distress, he plucked up all his courage and went to the front of the line.

“Please, your Majesty,’ he said, “I will willingly give my beak – my very life – to you and your Queen, but I would ask you three riddles. If you can solve them, then my life is yours. But I would ask that, if you cannot, you would allow the birds – also your subjects – to keep their beaks.”

The little Hoopoe swallowed hard and waited, the longest wait of his life. All the other birds held their breath. For who would challenge a king?

Solomon admired the little bird’s courage, and said that he would accept the wager.

The first riddle that the Hoopoe asked was this:

Tell me who it is who was never born and will never die?

Solomon did not even stop to think before answering.

“Why, of course, it is the Lord himself, who created all creatures to be free.”

“My second riddle is this. What water never rises from the ground, nor falls from the sky?

Well Solomon thought for a moment and then said, “Why, that would be a tear shed in sadness and grief.”

As he finished answering the little Hoopoe, he noticed that all the birds around him hunched before the throne, their wings heavy with sadness as they waited for their beaks to be cut off. Just for a moment, he thought maybe he had done a foolish thing in agreeing to build a palace of bird beaks. He shook himself from this thought.

“Your third riddle, Hoopoe.”

A hush filled the air and the Hoopoe spoke. His voice wavered a little as he only had one more chance to save himself.

“My third riddle, o King, is this: what is delicate enough to put food in a baby’s mouth yet strong enough to bore holes in wood?

It took King Solomon longer to answer than usual. He looked around him at all the terrified and miserable birds and said in a voice filled with shame. “Why, it’s a bird beak, of course!”

And, for maybe the first time, he realized how amazing the birds were: how they woke him each morning with song and what their beaks meant to them.

The Hoopoe bowed his head and sighed. “Do what you wish with me, your Majesty, but please spare my brothers and sisters.”

The king said: “Dear Hoopoe! I am known for my wisdom, but today it was you that was wise. You showed me that these creatures need their beaks, and it would be vain and foolish to build a palace of bird beaks.”

The birds wanted to celebrate, but dared not move, until the Hoopoe suggested that they would still love to give the queen a present, and each donated some feathers, and they wove her a tent of bird feathers, a glorious and wonderful place.

A tent of bird feathers ...

A tent of bird feathers …

A glorious and wonderful place

… a glorious and wonderful place

The King held up his hands in silence, called the royal jeweller, and commanded him to make a small golden crown. This he placed on the Hoopoe’s head, to remind everyone of the little bird’s bravery. The birds sang and cheered, and to this day the Hoopoe wears a golden crown, and the other birds, even the eagle, treat him with the utmost respect.

By shonaleighq