Off the Shelf: A gift from Elie Wiesel by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

During the fall season, publishers produce gift books – those works many people won’t buy for themselves but which they think make great presents. That’s clearly the case with “The Tale of a Niggun” by Elie Wiesel, illustrated by Mark Podwal and with an introduction by Wiesel’s son, Elisha (Schocken Books). The work was recently rediscovered in a book of essays written to honor of one of Wiesel’s professors. It’s more short story than essay, though, and is printed in short, broken lines as if it were a poem. This beautifully designed work is an unusual gift due to the nature of the story it tells.

The tale takes place in an unnamed ghetto during the Holocaust on the night before Purim. The Nazis have told ghetto leaders they have 24 hours to turn over 10 Jews, who will die to avenge the deaths of Haman’s 10 sons. If they don’t turn over the 10 men, then the Nazis have threatened to kill all those living in the ghetto. The leaders are distraught and turn to their rabbi for guidance. The rabbi spends the night searching for answers and, in mystical moments, talks to great and wise rabbis from over the centuries. The answer finally given is wise, moving and horrifying at the same time.

The book includes a glossary, which gives short biographies of the rabbis mentioned, along with information about related Jewish holidays and name places. It’s possible to appreciate the work without knowing anything about the rabbis, but those familiar with the theology they represent will better understand their answers. 

“The Tale of a Niggun” is obviously not your typical holiday gift. Yet, as heartbreaking as it is, it also portrays the way Jews have survived those who’ve sought to destroy us over the centuries. Although the story takes place the night before Purim, the tale is also relevant to Hanukkah as we keep the flame of Judaism alive during the darkest days of the year.