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A Jealous God

‘Today, children, we will continue with our study of cultures around the world by learning about the Native Americans who lived in the western plains” explained the fifth grade teacher. “And,” she continued, “as a special treat, we have a visitor who will show us a real, Native American rain dance. The native tribes used this dance to pray to their god of rain. We’ll all be able to go outside and do the rain dance ourselves, just like the Native American tribes did it. Wouldn’t it be great if the god of rain brought us rain too, since we are having a drought here?”

“There is no real god of rain. There is only one God,” mumbled Rifkah.

“What did you say, Rifkah?” asked the teacher. “If you have something to say, please say it loud enough for everyone to hear.”

“It was nothing,” Rifkah said.

“We all want to hear it. Please say it out loud,” the teacher insisted.

“I said there is no real god of rain. There is only one God who brings rain and everything else,” Rifkah said, quietly.

“Well, Rifkah, that’s your personal belief. Everybody is free to believe in whatever god or gods they want. You have your god. Other people are entitled to have theirs. Their gods are as real to them as your god is to you,” the teacher continued.

“I have only the one God,” Rifkah replied.

That evening, at dinner, Rifkah told her parents what happened at school. Everybody went out and did a rain dance. The guest speaker even showed little dolls. One was the god of rain. Another, the god of the sky. Another, a bear, the Great Spirit, who seemed to be the boss god.

“That sounds just like they say in the Torah, about idols and everything. Last year Mr. Stein at Hebrew School said most people don’t believe in idols anymore,” chimed in Chaya, Rifkah’s sister, who was two years younger than Rifkah.

“I guess we should complain to the teacher or the principal or somebody,” said Rifkah’s mom.

“Let’s think about it. I’m just trying to get established at work, and we’re trying to get settled into this community, let’s not make a big fuss. We’ve only been here a few months,” said her father. Turning his attention to Rifkah, he added, “Just ignore that stuff. You know what the Torah says: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. That teacher was just showing you what Indians used to do.”

That night Rifkah dreamed about the part of the Torah they read in Junior Congregation at her old synagogue just before the family moved. It warned about God, Adonai, as a devouring fire, a jealous God that would punish Jews who forgot how to be Jewish, who prayed to other gods. She was afraid that something bad might happen to her family. She knew that God was merciful and forgiving so she prayed to God, telling God how sorry she was about the rain dance at school. And she prayed to God to help her find Jewish friends, so her family wouldn’t be so alone here.

In a dream that night Rifkah was like Abraham, who smashed the idols in a story she once heard. She smashed the Native American gods and led her family back home, back to their real home, before they moved. Everything was different since her father lost his job in a big merger and they moved to this new community. It was so different from anything she knew. There seemed to be no other Jews, none. They were so alone.

She and her sister used to go to Jewish day school. Here they had to go to public school. There was no Jewish day school. In fact, there wasn’t even a synagogue. They couldn’t get kosher foods, not even challah on Shabbat. Her father tutored her and her sister in Hebrew and Torah. They had to drive over an hour to reach the nearest synagogue so they didn’t go every week. At least they got to fly back to visit friends at their old synagogue for Yom Kippur. Rifkah wanted to stay there forever, but they couldn’t.

Rifkah really missed Shabbat. So did Chaya. At their old home, Shabbat was always wonderful. They had a big dinner, with lots of challah. They went to services and met all their friends at the Junior Congregation service, which was a lot of fun. After services the kids grouped up and went to one or another’s home for a play date. Often, a big group of families would get together for Havdallah. Here they couldn’t even find any other Jews.

Now, they sometimes didn’t even celebrate Shabbat, at least not in synagogue and with play dates because the drive was so long. Her father had to work on some Shabbats and her mother did errands. They would never have done that before, no matter what. It wasn’t at all like Shabbat any more. She missed Shabbat and the fun she and her friends and their families had.

Everything was so different here. The entire school, for instance, celebrated Halloween. There was a big costume party on a Friday night. Sure, she used to give out candy at the door at her old home and even did some trick-or-treating. But she and Chaya preferred Purim, where they’d dress in costumes and go around bringing treats to all their friends, and their friends would give them treats. Sometimes she was Esther. Once she and Chaya went together as Haman’s horse. This year she had an old-fashioned glittery dress that her aunt gave her. She was going to wear it and go as Vashti, but there probably wouldn’t even be a Purim, not in this place.

“What’s the matter? You look so sad. Do you miss our old home?” her mother asked her one day.

Rifkah burst into tears. She missed her friend, her old day school, Shabbat play dates. She told her mother everything that bothered her, except the bad dreams she had about the jealous God. Her mother had so much to do getting them settled in the new community. But Rifkah worried that God would send fire to devour their home. “I wish we could at least celebrate Shabbat,” she whispered.

“I miss it too,” her mother replied. Rifkah was surprised; she thought her mother had forgotten Shabbat. “I promise we’ll have Shabbat again, and holidays too,” she added.

Somehow Rifkah’s mother managed to find challah and the family started having a Shabbat dinner every Friday night, with candles and kiddush and Shabbat zimirot, songs, but it wasn’t the same. Her father often didn’t get home from work until late and he still had to go to work on Saturday. Still, it was better than nothing.

Chanukah, however, turned out to be terrible. The school had a Christmas assembly. They didn’t call it that, but it was. They talked about Kwanzaa, some African-American festival. Then they did some stuff about winter solstice festivals. They did sing Rock of Ages, but the teacher didn’t say much about Chanukah. They ended with about a million Christmas carols.

At home, some neighbors brought over a Christmas wreath and some lights. “It’s to welcome you into our neighborhood. We all put up lights. It makes the street so beautiful,” the lady said. Her parents thanked them.

“They are only trying to be nice,” Rifkah’s father said. He felt they had to put up the wreath and the lights or the neighbors would be hurt. Her mother refused. Instead, they lit Chanukah candles and placed them in front of the window for anyone to see. Their aunt came for a weekend, but it was nothing like the eight days of Chanukah at their old home. Every night they would have other families over or be at someone else’s house. On some nights they had four, even six menorahs burning.

“We didn’t get a real Chanukah, and we couldn’t celebrate Christmas either. We were gypped. It’s not fair,” complained her younger sister, Chaya.

The winter weather turned cold and gray. The whole family seemed unhappy. The weeks went by, and Purim approached. Usually, Rifkah and Chaya would have been bubbling with excitement, working on costumes and planning the goodies they would give for mishloach manot. But not this year.

“What are you girls going to do for Purim?” Rifkah’s mother asked, one evening late in February.

“What does it matter?” replied Chaya.

“There probably won’t be a Purim this year, not for us, not anymore. The kids at school are already talking about something called Lent, and Easter. We’ll probably be asked to pray to the Easter bunny,” Rifkah added. That will surely be the end of our family, she thought to herself as she remembered the jealous God, the devouring fire Moses had warned about in the Torah.

“Wait a second,” said Rifkah’s mother. “There is going to be a Purim in this house, a great Purim. I promise, even if we have to get in a plane and go to Israel.”

“Great! Let’s go to Israel,” cried Chaya.

But Rifkah’s mother wasn’t actually planning to go to Israel, not this time if she could help it. She had been thinking about a plan to bring together whatever Jews were in the area for a Purim celebration. It involved putting up notices of a Purim celebration. Her father wasn’t happy about the idea. “Do we really want to draw attention to ourselves like that?” he protested.

Rifkah’s mother insisted that they had to find Jewish families, and her father hadn’t come up with any other way. Rifkah’s mother put an announcement in the community newspaper, put up posters on bulletins boards in several supermarkets and anyplace else she could think off. It said: “Celebrate a Traditional Purim with a Megilla reading, costumes, treats, and fun for Jewish families.” Then it gave their telephone number to call and the date.

For a few days afterward, they didn’t hear anything. “Do you think anyone will call?” asked Rifkah.

“Someone will call, I know it. Be patient,” said her mother, but she wasn’t so sure anymore.

Then the phone started ringing and ringing. People called from all over the area. Rifkah and Chaya were so busy helping their mother that they hardly had time to make their own costumes. Her father announced that he was taking time off from work and pitched in.

The Purim party turned out to be wonderful, as good as at their old home. More than a dozen families crowded into the house. The kids paraded up and down the street in costumes. Rifkah as Vashti felt like a queen. Chaya went as Esther. All these Jewish families seemed to show up out of nowhere. Her father led a Megilla reading and a bunch of other grownups took turns reading parts of the story. Everyone had noisemakers. Every time Haman’s name was read, there was a terrific noise. And people brought the most delicious treats.

They made many new friends that Purim, families that were eager to celebrate Jewish holidays and Shabbat. The families got together again for Passover. And new families kept calling them. A few families even started holding minyans in each other’s homes. Shabbat afternoon again became a regular play date.

“How do you like your new friends? Are you happier now?” Rifkah’s mother asked one day.

It still wasn’t the same as in their old home. Her father had to work every other Shabbat, and the school kept having events on Friday night that she and Chaya didn’t attend. But it was so much better than before, Rifkah thought. “I’m so much happier. Thank you Mommy. I love you,” she replied, giving her mother a big hug.

Rifkah was happier in other ways too. Her dreams about a jealous God devouring her family in fire had stopped. Instead, Adonai, the God she knew and loved, had brought her Jewish friends. And once more, she and her family were really living a Jewish life.

“We’ll do even more Jewish things,” promised her mother, as if she read Rifkah’s thoughts.