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Family Fiction: Facing the Flames

Rikki Ellinson

If your home was on fire and you could only save one thing, what would it be?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


If your home was on fire and you had a choice of just one item to save, what would it be? 

We would play the game in camp. We would speculate and argue with youthful energy. A siddur. An heirloom necklace. Money. What was truly important? Naive and innocent, to us the game held no fear. Fires happened in novels, in fictional stories of characters saving lives, then running out unscathed. 

Years later, I watched the terrifying question play out in real life.

IIt’s a peaceful summer morning; lazily, the sun has not even peeked through the clouds. Adina and I are waiting outside for her bus. It’s late yet again. Adina chatters about slides, pools, and her friend Chani, and I’m listening and nodding and hmmmming. 

I see a police car pull up, followed moments later by a fire department car. Then the bus arrives. Figuring the emergency services are conducting a routine inspection or something, I calmly wave Adina goodbye. “Have a great day. I love you!” I say, then turn and sluggishly walk toward my front door, thoughts of a muffin and coffee on my mind. 

I inhale deeply, enjoying the fresh air, the scent of summer. 

The scent of summer? 

The scent of fire. 

I glance around. FIRE! A real, growing, hungry, angry fire. Rising from a basement window, the flames seem about to devour the structure. No routine inspection. This is a real fire. 

By now, I hear shrill sirens. A small crowd of neighbors gathers. 

“What’s going on?” Mrs. Gruenbaum asks. 

“Fire, fire, fire,” Leah Ganz answers, waving her hands frantically. 

One guy stands calmly with his iPhone, videoing the scene. 

I see the fire coming out of the windows of the Levinson condo. The fire is in danger of spreading next door, to the attached apartment. 

Listening to snippets of neighbors’ conversations, I understand that the Levinsons are away; blessedly, no one is stuck inside. But the concern now is the Klein’s apartment next door. There is no firewall protection, and the home was built with wood. The Kleins are urged to leave as soon as possible, as the danger is mounting. 

I watch the Klein family drama in fascinated horror. Michoel Klein, a teenaged son, walks quickly out of his house. His hands are laden with silver and seforim. Moments later, Mrs. Klein comes out with a large pile of suits. Seeing the speed of the fire, and the likelihood that it will soon lick their walls, the Kleins are trying to take out some valuables, trying to save some shreds of normalcy.

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