Certain phrases such as, “Where’s the beef?” leap into the national language. Other phrases glide into the shared language of smaller groups. When my children were younger, we read many books aloud. This lasted way beyond the years when the children became fluent readers. I have fond memories of taking turns reading Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge with my then sixteen year old son.
One book we enjoyed as a family was a memoir written by a man recalling his late 1800’s childhood. (I don’t remember the title but if anyone does, please let me know.) He and his siblings were raised in Maine by their grandfather, and our favorite chapter concerned a day when the grandfather was away from home. The children decided to bake tarts, and to add a note of suspense and excitement, they doctored one tart with all sorts of less than tasty flavorings. Once baked, each child would pick a tart and they would bite into them at the same time. Most of the faces would be wreathed in smiles – and one child would grimace and race for a glass of water. The lone, unfortunate tart was known as the “Jonah,” named for the prophet who brought storm conditions to the ship he boarded.
As the tarts finished baking and anticipation grew, the children heard a knock at the door. There stood an elderly man who introduced himself as their grandfather’s friend, who had been away for many years. After explaining the grandfather’s absence, they invited him in and offered a drink. Just then, the tarts were ready and the guest exclaimed, “Oh, it has been so long since I’ve smelled such wonderful pies!”
The children were trapped. Good manners demanded that they invite their guest to join them. What was meant as a fun game was turning into a potential nightmare. You can imagine the tension as they sat around the table and passed the tray! As each family member bit into a tart so did their guest, and as fortune would have it, he turned red and started coughing as the Jonah effect took hold.
Once all was calm, the children explained what had happened and braced for a stern lecture. To their great relief, the guest burst out laughing and as he headed out, asked them to tell their grandfather that Mr. Hannibal Hamlin sent regards.
That night, the children greeted their grandfather with the message of his friend’s visit, omitting the details which might earn them a punishment. On subsequent visits, Mr. Hamlin shared their reticence.
Just how momentous the day had been was something the children did not understood until years later. Hannibal Hamlin had indeed been away from home for years, serving as Abraham Lincoln’s vice-president during his first term of office. He was returning from that position, having relinquished the title to Andrew Johnson, who shortly thereafter became president following Lincoln’s assassination.
I thought of this story and how the phrase, “the Jonah” became part of our family shorthand, in the aftermath of publicizing our Holy Hebrew! webinar. The announcement was dogged by technical glitches as our Thought Tool email bounce rate soared due to server issues, our links went to the wrong or blank pages, and numerous emails vanished into the stratosphere. I only hope that the class’s Jonah status ends long before the webinar actually starts, and we recover with as much grace as Vice-president Hamlin. If you are interested in finding out more, it is with not quite as much trepidation as the children had, but neither with equanimity, that I provide this link for you to explore. Holy Hebrew! http://www.rabbidaniellapin.com/holyhebrew.php