The Hanukkah Invitation is a short story I wrote about fifteen years ago that was published in an anthology called The Winter Holiday Sampler. It was a collection of romantic short stories set in Regency England with a winter holiday theme.
The book is long out of print and was really a vanity press thing, so rights have certainly reverted to me by now. I’ve decided to share it here, since Hanukkah is starting this week (December 16).
Some background: my mother’s family are Ashkenazi Jews, which means they came from Eastern Europe. When I did my research for the story, I found that the Jewish population in Regency England was mostly Sephardic. This means they hailed from the Mediterranean countries of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East i.e. Spain, Portugal, Greece, Morocco, Egypt, etc. Some traditions are a bit different (mainly food) from what I grew up with. I found the surnames for the Jewish characters on a Sephardic geneological web site.
It’s on the long side for a short story, so I will be serializing it over the next week, probably in four parts.
I hope you enjoy it!
David took the letter from the silver tray his groom Hall held out to him. He tried not to snatch it, for he did not want to reveal his anxiousness. He dismissed Hall, then opened it. His face fell in disappointment. He had expected an invitation from his friend and business associate, Sir Robert Westbrooke; was counting on it, in fact. He held instead an invitation from an old friend. One he had not seen in over three years, since he was first widowed.
He looked it over. A simple request to join the family for the beginning of the holiday festivities. How strange. Since his wife’s death, he had rarely noticed the holidays coming and going. His move from Finsbury Square to Mayfair had separated him socially from many of his erstwhile neighbors. A few had come to the more fashionable side of London in the interim, but they were as lackadaisical about observing the holidays as he.
The first night of Hanukkah. How Hannah had loved to prepare for the holidays! Hanukkah had been one of her favorites.
He tried to ignore the pang he felt from the memory and sat at his desk. He reached for a sheet of paper, took up his pen and began to scratch out a polite refusal. Then he stopped and put it aside.
What was the harm? He missed Emanuel Belisario, a contemporary of his father’s, but a good and learned man. He was a bit of a puzzlement, however. He was as successful a diamond merchant as David was a stockbroker. Yet Belisario remained in Finsbury Square, when he could easily afford to move to a more fashionable neighborhood.
He decided he would not like to give the impression that he now thought himself too good for his friend. He swiftly wrote an acceptance, then rang for Hall.
“Sir Robert has called, sir,” said Hall after reappearing and taking the note.
So it is to be personal, thought David, pleased at the distinction. He rose to his feet and hurried to meet his guest.
“Ah, Mr. Parnas! How good it is to see you,” said Sir Robert as David entered the room. He stood by the fireplace, a short man, handsome once, now rotund and red-faced in middle age.
David bowed. ”Welcome, Sir Robert. It is always a pleasure to have you call.”
His guest eagerly accepted an offer of refreshment. They sat by the cheerful fire and exchanged pleasantries while sipping some of David’s fine Madeira, then discussed one or two business matters. Sir Robert soon came to the point of his visit.
“We shall want you to come to dinner tomorrow evening. ‘Tis short notice, to be sure, but my daughter has just announced her intentions to visit a friend in the country for the Christmas holidays. I did point out she will miss our ball next week . . . but you know, flighty females . . . she did, however, tell me particularly that she wishes to meet you before she leaves.”
David thought of the message already on its way to Finsbury Square. How stupid of him! He could not have known the dinner would be so soon. He quickly did some calculations in his head. Could he keep both engagements? Sundown, the time for the candle lighting, was early at this time of year. The Westbrookes usually dined at nine.
“I have an engagement earlier in the day, but shall be delighted to join you for dinner.”
“Capital!” Sir Robert’s eyes danced. “My daughter will be so very pleased.”
“I look forward to meeting Mrs. Kingsbury, and to seeing Lady Westbrooke again.”
Sir Robert left soon after. David went back to his desk to write more letters, but was soon distracted. He began ruminating over how grateful he was to Sir Robert. Many of the ton were tolerant of receiving wealthy Jews into their precious inner circle, but none he knew were as open and warm.
David knew that if he were Gentile fashionable society would be happy, even eager, to receive him fully into its embrace. Mothers would push their daughters at him, a rich widower with a house in town and one in the country, still quite young and with no children. But such was not the case.
The meeting with Sophia Kingsbury could change that somewhat. She was also widowed, reputed a beauty and not more than five-and-twenty. But she had a flaw, an unforgivable one as far as the ton was concerned. There was a breath of scandal in her past.
Oh, just a mere breath, but enough to stain her reputation. They said her husband had discovered she had a lover. The lady had great good luck, however. Before he could denounce or divorce her, he died in a hunting accident.
David could not help smiling at the irony. This flaw made her perfect for him. It was far from unheard of for younger sons of distinguished families to marry Jewish heiresses, but most Gentile ladies of good birth would not care to make an alliance with a Jew, no matter how rich. Mrs. Kingsbury was still received in the houses of her family and a few others, but there were those who snubbed her, and he knew from Sir Robert that these snubs hurt her. It did not help that her husband had left massive debts and she had only a small marriage settlement left to her. Her father’s road back to financial stability after a decade of almost ruinous setbacks was still a very recent occurrence.
The daughter of a baronet usually would not have to worry about that, but that breath of scandal was doing her in on the marriage mart, he had heard whispered at the houses of his Mayfair acquaintances—well out of her father’s earshot, of course. She probably would never fully regain her social standing, but marrying into a fortune would help considerably.
He shook his head and chided himself for his cynical musings, then wondered when he had become so about marriage. His and Hannah’s had been a love match. He supposed that was the reason. He did not care to have love again. It hurt too much to lose it. A well-born wife who would help him travel the inner circles of society, who was attractive and grateful to him for at least a partial restoration of her former life, would do very well for him.
“Oh, Mama! It is dreadful!”
Rachel looked at herself in the mirror. She pulled at the edges of one of the sleeves of the offending gown, then clawed at the neckline. “Simply no one wears such a high neck and long sleeves in the evening! I look like a country bumpkin!” She had not the least idea of what a country bumpkin looked like, for she had never been in the country, but she was sure it was something very bad indeed.
“My love, I beg you to respect your uncle’s wishes as long as we live in his house,” said her mother.
A thin woman with a scrawny bosom and arms, high necks and long sleeves suited her mother. But Rachel felt her dress, though made of a very fine muslin, decreased her charms.
She turned from the mirror. “Why must we live with Uncle, Mama? Papa left us well-provided for.”
Her mother looked shocked. “What can you be thinking? It is far more proper that we live with your uncle. You must stay until you are married, or at least of age.”
Rachel tossed her head. “Then I hope I shall marry very soon.”
At this her mother smiled. “From your mouth to God’s ears.”
Rachel looked in the mirror again. She found her reflection on most occasions pleasing. She had fine dark eyes, lustrous brown tresses, and while her complexion had more of an olive cast than was a la mode, it was clear and bright all the same. Now she felt she looked perfectly wretched. Her father had never objected to her dressing in the finest fashions. Why did her uncle have to be so beastly about it?
She immediately felt guilty, thinking so about her uncle. He was so obliging in other ways and had been such a comforting presence when her father died. And to be fair, he did not give blistering lectures about it, as she had heard from the rabbi. But even many of the most pious members of the synagogue did not disdain the latest fashions, no matter what the rabbi said.
“Come, my dear, and smile,” said her mother. “I promise you, if you keep that frown, you never will get a husband.”
She sighed. “Yes, Mama.” She tried to smile at her reflection. It was a minuscule improvement.
“And remember that today is the beginning of one of the most joyous times of the year. We must welcome it in the proper spirit.”
They came down the stairs a short while later, Rachel convinced that lingering at her toilet would not improve anything that could overcome the gaucheness of her dress. Her uncle nodded approvingly as they came into the drawing room.
“My dear child, you are perfectly lovely.”
She tried not to wince. “Thank you, Uncle.”
For all his prejudices against the latest fashions, her uncle still managed to look quite the part of an English gentleman himself. Though she thought him ancient, she had to allow he was still vigorous and, while not handsome, had a dignified bearing.
“I have invited a friend to share the lighting of the candles with us,” he announced.
“Yes?” Her mother sat on a settee. “A man, I presume? Unmarried?”
Rachel felt her face flush as she sat next to her mother. While she was as anxious to be free of her uncle as her mother was to see her a bride, she did not like to give that impression to him.
“Yes. He is a widower . . .”
“A widower?” Rachel could not help gasping out the question. Was this man as ancient as her uncle?
He smiled at her. Evidently, he divined her concerns, for he said, “He is not yet thirty years. His wife–I believe you may remember her, Miriam–died of a putrid fever about two, no, I think it is three years now.”
“Then it is someone I know?” asked her mother.
“Yes, indeed. It is David Parnas.”
Her mother immediately became excited. “Ah, yes!” She turned to Rachel. “It would be a very fine match for you, my love. He is a stockbroker and has a house in Mayfair, is that not right, Emanuel?”
“Mayfair!” she cried. So much more fashionable than Finsbury!
But her uncle looked serious. “Yes, it is one thing that grieves me, that he should not live closer to his own people, that he not participate regularly in the services. And it happens all too often nowadays . . . ”
She stopped listening. Everything her mother and uncle had said made David Parnas sound most appealing. Would he be handsome, she wondered? And kind and thoughtful like Papa and Uncle? She hoped so. Her dress started to vex her again. A man who lived in Mayfair, and who must regularly mix with the beau monde, was sure to find her a dowdy upon first impression.
Her heart skipped a beat when she heard someone at the door.
Soon after, David Parnas entered the room. Her uncle made the introductions, and she studied him through her eyelashes as she lowered her head slightly and curtsied in response to his bow.
TO BE CONTINUED…