Falling in Love

Dahlia and Ben quietly drifted to the edge of the field. Ben slipped his arm around her waist as they dropped down into the soft grass. They could see the campfire glowing and sparking in the middle of the field and hear the laughter, guitar playing, and singing of the other campers and counselors, but the warm darkness of the night protected their privacy. The chirps of the crickets and buzz of the cicadas along with the laughter and singing of the group drowned out their own sweet whispers. The rest of the camp, which lay far down a path on the other side of the trees, had gone to sleep hours ago.

Lying back, Dahlia gasped as she noticed the vast expanse of stars that had silently emerged to fill the summer sky. Far from the city lights, away even from the lights of the main camp, the sky seemed bursting with more stars than Dahlia had ever imagined. Ben lay back alongside her, one of his arms sliding under her head. “See those smokey looking streaks. That’s the Milky Way, bunches of so many stars they look to us like clouds,” Ben whispered.

“I’ve never seen so many stars,” cooed Dahlia.

“Kochavim ba-laila,” sang Ben softly, chanting words from Havdallah, the Sabbath ending service. “The stars, the galaxies, the Universe–it always makes me think of God.

“My mother says my father is a star up in the heavens now, sitting near to God’s throne. I wish he were still alive. I miss him,” Dahlia said sadly.

Ben wrapped his arms around Dahlia, who melted into his strong embrace. They kissed, slowly at first. He traced her hairline with kisses. She kissed and nibbled his ears, his neck. Finally their mouths found each other. They kissed and held it for what seemed an eternity. Ben slid his hand under her tank top. Dahlia had never let a boy touch her breasts before. It felt thrilling. She pressed herself against him. With one hand, he unsnapped her bra and pushed up her tank top up, all the while smothering her in kisses.

For a moment Dahlia wondered if she was going too far, too fast. Questions rushed into her mind in a crazy sequence. What did this mean? Did she really like Ben enough? Did she love him? Did he really like her? Did he respect her? Would she get AIDS or get pregnant? What would the girls in her bunk think? What would she tell them? She had to tell them; they had been talking about it for weeks. They all would realize she had slipped away with Ben. But at this moment she didn’t care. Ben’s kisses, Ben’s touch was all she wanted. Her body tingled.

Ben started to unbutton Dahlia’s shorts. She tensed up. “No, no, just kiss me,” she murmured as she pushed Ben’s hand away from her shorts.

“Ok,” he mumbled, and kissed her breasts. Dahlia ran her hands over his short cropped hair. She understood that Ben wanted to go further, but she had never gone even this far with a boy. The sensations flashing through her body thrilled her and frightened her.

A few weeks earlier, Dahlia arrived at summer camp sad and angry. Her father had died in the spring after a hard, short fight with cancer that left Dahlia and her family reeling. He had been the head of a small social service agency that tried to help poor people. At his funeral everybody talked about how much her father had lived God’s commandments, how well he put into practice the teachings of the Torah, of tikkun olam (healing the world) and gemilut chesed (acts of loving kindness). Her father, many said, was one of the truly righteous. Lot of good it did him, she thought bitterly.

Dahlia couldn’t wait to get away from home and join her friends at camp. She had gone to this camp since the summer before she started fourth grade. She had turned 16 this past spring and would be a junior in high school in the fall. Many of the girls in her bunk had started camp when she did, and they had become close friends, as close as sisters. During the winter they made trips to visit each other. A few years earlier, they all attended each other’s bat mitzvah celebrations.

For the last few summers their attention increasingly focused on the guys who attended the camp. Dahlia remembered how some of them had been such scrawny, wimpy boys. Others, she thought, were loud or stupid or gross. But over the last couple of years, the boys had turned into real guys, and Dahlia and her friends had started to notice. Dahlia herself had blossomed over the winter. She was pretty girl with dark twinkling, mischievous eyes and long auburn hair, which she usually kept in a French braid. Her figure was filling out, giving her a shapely, attractive line. Last summer a couple of girls had boyfriends, but they didn’t do much. Still, everybody talked about what they might do or wanted to do or imagined they would do. Would this be the summer she had a real boyfriend, she had wondered? In letters and phone calls and email and instant messages she and her friends buzzed about boys and other stuff all winter.

Only this past winter had she noticed boys starting to take an interest in her. She liked the attention, but then her father got sick and died. Dahlia’s mother sort of died too when her father died. She was there and went through the motions, but Dahlia could tell something was wrong. She couldn’t talk with her mother the way they used to when they would chatter about everything, even stupid and silly things. When her dad was sick, she and her mother talked all the time. They talked about God and they prayed and prayed and prayed. They were sure that God would save him because he did so much of God’s work. Since her father died, they hadn’t really talked to each other at all. Dahlia missed that very much. She tried to tell people–her married sister who just had a baby, her big brother who was away at college–but they didn’t live at home anymore, so they couldn’t really see the change. The doctor gave her mother lots of medications and the rabbi came over a lot to talk with her. “We’ll pray for her,” he would always say as he left. Gimme a break, Dahlia thought to herself. Given the way God had treated her father and now her mother, as far as she was concerned, she hated God, if there even was a God.

That was the one big thing that bothered Dahlia about going back to summer camp. It was a Jewish camp where they used lots of Hebrew words for things and talked about God. They held services every morning and recited the Birkat, the blessing after meals, at each meal. They observed Shabbat, the Sabbath. They had study groups about different Jewish things, usually stuff relating to God. Once Dahlia took comfort in thinking that God was in heaven watching over her and everyone and everything.

Now Dahlia hated even talk about God, hated even the idea of some wonderful God. She used to be so happy about school and her music and dancing and gymnastics and her friends and camp and everything. She used to get excited with the arrival of every new day. Now she couldn’t care less. She was miserable.

One day, a few weeks before she was to leave for camp, Dahlia found her mother sitting in the kitchen. “Mom, can we just talk like we used to?” she pleaded. “I’ve so missed talking with you, and there is so much, I feel, I need to talk about.” Suddenly, Dahlia’s mother started crying hysterically.

“I didn’t mean it. Forget I said anything,” cried Dahlia, trying to calm her mother. But her mother didn’t even seem to hear her or even recognize her. Dahlia hugged her mother hard. “Mom, it’s me, Dahlia. Mom, stop crying. Talk to me,” she shouted, panic rising in her voice. Her mother didn’t respond. Dahlia shook her, kissed her, hugged her, shouted at her, even slapped her, but she got no response at all. Desperate, she called the doctor.

The first week of camp was difficult. Dahlia’s uncle, a big easy-going guy, drove her to camp. Her mother stayed home. “You have a great time. Don’t worry about your mom. With a few week’s rest, God willing, she’ll be as good as new,” he said when it came time to leave.

Dahlia’s bunkmates were bubbling about all the things they were going to do. There was new gymnastics equipment and a new adventure program with ropes and rocks to climb and stuff only the oldest campers could do. And already the kids and counselors were translating the words of the latest pop songs into Hebrew for the big, end of summer camp show, the Zimriyah. The Israeli folk dancing group, Dahlia’s favorite, started practicing for the performances they would give.

It didn’t take long for the boys to start coming around. As the oldest campers, Dahlia’s group, called Nivonim, the Wise Ones, had special privileges. They got to stay up later, skip certain activities, and generally do things with less supervision. Their counselors, college students who had all been campers themselves for years, were pretty cool. The guys and girls quickly began to get reacquainted. One of the romances from last summer started back up as if it had never stopped.

Dahlia found it hard to get into the excitement. A lot of the boys had grown big, some even had started to shave. They sort of reminded her of her father, who always had a boyish way about him. And she was also worried about her mother. But maybe the hardest part was all the God stuff. She felt like a hypocrite every morning and evening when they gathered for prayers and she dutifully rose to say Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, for her father. She felt ready to choke as she uttered words praising God’s name. If God were so great, why would he kill off good people like her father and let bad people live? The comfort she once felt from knowing that God was taking care of things had vanished. Even camp, a place she loved, suddenly seemed cold. She often shivered for no reason, even in the summer heat.

She first saw Ben in a study group, called a chug in Hebrew, that first week. A counselor was leading this chug on the Torah and the environment. Next to him was this tall, thin, wiry good looking guy with short hair and a deep but soft voice. The guy was looking at her. His name was Ben, Dahlia suddenly realized.

Ben had been coming to camp for almost as long as Dahlia, but they weren’t friends. She remembered him as a thin little boy with a high squeaky voice who always was handling whatever frogs or turtles or worms or bugs he might find around the lake or in the woods. Whenever kids told him it was really yucky, he would always explain in his squeaky voice that it was just another of God’s marvelous creatures, a miracle that revealed the brilliance of God’s creation. Dahlia wasn’t squeamish like some of the other girls, but she never considered the slimy stuff Ben liked as a sign of God’s brilliance. God’s brilliance–just the idea now made her feel like puking. She had always thought of Ben as a nerd anyway.

Now the counselor was talking about different rules in the Torah that reflected the Torah’s concern for the environment, about rotating land, about the treatment of animals. Everyone except Dahlia was jumping in and out of the discussion. Ben added something about how God’s brilliance could be seen in everything in nature if you looked closely, even the smallest, most insignificant things, like a bug or a worm.

He might have grown but he hasn’t changed, thought Dahlia. He’s still a bug geek. The chug had been meeting outside under some trees late in the afternoon. Mosquitoes suddenly had come out in force. “What was God’s brilliant idea for mosquitoes?” snapped Dahlia, slapping at one that had just bitten her. Everyone laughed except Ben, who looked pained.

That night, after the counselors went off duty, Dahlia’s bunk started buzzing. A dozen girls lived in a rough cabin, which was referred to as a bunk. It contained a half dozen bunk beds for the girls plus a pair of single cots for two counselors along with cubbies that served as bureaus. The windows were screened, and toilet, sinks, and showers were in a back room. The girls frequently swapped clothes and arranged each other’s hair. They usually stayed up late at night talking and laughing after the official lights-out until their counselors returned.

Shira, a girl who liked to flirt, had received a letter that afternoon from a girlfriend at another camp. Shira was short but had a fully developed woman’s figure. The boys always stared at Shira’s breasts and she knew it. She had dark hair and puffy lips that she sometimes accentuated with lipstick She liked to play the tease, but Dahlia suspected Shira was all talk. Inside the letter were two condoms. The girl wrote that she had gone all the way with a boy the very first week of camp. She said she wanted to remind Shira to protect herself. Dahlia and the other girls suspected that the friend was probably just boasting. She might not even have done anything at all, suggested Deborah, the cynic of the bunch.

Shira had never done anything but kiss a couple of boys. None of the girls had. “But you never know,” added Shira, collecting the condoms that had been passed among the girls, each carefully inspecting the shiny, sealed package.

“Let’s open one and see what it’s like,” suggested Molly, a small, sweet girl but very naïve in the eyes of the other girls. Molly had long straight black hair, almost shoulder length. She had a thin face and a small mouth that gave her a mousy expression. She was very thin, with almost no figure; the boys weren’t very interested in her. “You’re not going to need two of them. Anyway, it’s the guy who is supposed to bring the condoms,” Molly continued. The other girls agreed. Shira, who was as curious as any of them, opened one package. She took out a gooey rubbery ring. “It’s so slimy,” Shira whined. The girls passed it around.

“That’s lubrication. The guys roll it on, sort of like this,” explained Emily, the girl who had gotten right back together with her boyfriend from last summer. Emily was the most glamorous of the girls with wavy blond hair, unusual green eyes and a beautiful figure. She talked and acted like she was the most experienced with boys, but even she, everyone was convinced, had never gone all the way. Most of the girls had had some exposure to condoms in school health classes, but this was the first time they really got to handle one. “It’s kinda yucky and gross,” said Dahlia.

All the girls in the bunk joined in the conversation. Samantha was still a tomboy who kept her dark hair short and wore a baseball cap backwards, but she was very funny and liked fooling around with the guys. She had heavy eyebrows and large round eyes that gave her a mysterious look. A lot of guys found her very attractive. Chaya was a sweet girl, but she had developed a bad case of acne over the winter and was very self-conscious. Deborah, a large, stocky girl, was the jock of the bunk; she excelled in several varsity sports in high school. She kept her hair in tight braids.

The talk turned to the boys. Shira had already categorized every guy in Nivonim either as a loser, has potential, or hot stuff. The girls dissected each guy in terms of how they looked and how they acted. One would jump up imitating some guy or another and the others would laugh. When the discussion came around to Ben, the girls unanimously agreed: a loser.

“He’s a nerd, a geek,” declared Dahlia. “Anyway, I don’t think he’ll talk to me again after the last chug, the one when I brought up the mosquitoes.”

“Still, he’s kinda cute,” chimed in Shira, who thought every guy was kinda cute, except maybe the very worst of the losers.

“If you don’t mind bugs. Remember all the yucky stuff he found in that dead tree at last year’s etgar,” added Emily, recalling a camping trip and nature expedition the previous summer. “It was gross.”

“He’d be all right, except all that God talk really bothers me. Everything is some miracle or wonder of God. He would say a bracha (blessing) for beetles if there was one,” added Jessica, who did the coolest stuff in arts and crafts but was always trying to duck out of religious activities. Jessica was Dahlia’s best friend. She had wide, bright smile and a loud laugh you could recognize anywhere. Usually she kept her long, curly red hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, but when she let it hang free, she almost looked like a movie star.

“Anyway, he’s interested in Dahlia,” proclaimed Shira. Dahlia started to protest, but Shira cut her short. “You could see it the way he looked at you throughout chug. And when you made fun of him, he looked like a puppy that had been kicked and sent away.” The other girls agreed, suddenly bringing up other instances they thought they had caught Ben gazing at Dahlia.

“Gimme a break,” Dahlia continued to protest. “He looks at all of you. They all do. I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings, but that God stuff just gets me so mad.” The counselors returned at that moment and got ready for bed. The bunk quickly quieted down, but Dahlia remained awake wondering whether Shira was right about Ben.

On July 4th, the camp ran a Maccabiah, a daylong series of events and contests and games capped off by fireworks over the lake at night. Boys and girls were grouped together into small teams to compete in a variety of events. Dahlia ended up on a team with two other girls and three guys, including Ben. The morning events were sports- oriented. They had to sink a certain number of baskets, hit baseballs, climb ropes, scramble over an obstacle course, do cartwheels and handstands, and such.

Dahlia’s group wasn’t doing very well in terms of score, but they were all having fun. Dahlia struck out on three straight pitches. Ben could climb ropes fast, but couldn’t sink a basket from the foul line although one of the other girls could. None of the boys could do cartwheels. Dahlia, a talented gymnast, could even do one-handed cartwheels and hold a handstand, it seemed, for hours. They got filthy pulling and pushing each other through the obstacle course. By lunch they were high in spirits but next to last in team rankings, far behind the leaders.

“It would take a miracle for us to catch up,” Josh, the unofficial team captain, estimated as he pondered the score sheet. Considered one of the coolest guys in Nivonim, Josh was a tall, lanky boy with dark hair and dark, penetrating eyes. When he smiled, cute dimples appeared at the sides of his mouth. The girls generally agreed that Josh was gorgeous but shy.

“God performs miracles every day, all the time. So, who knows what might happen,” said Ben cheerfully. Dahlia was tempted to say that if there was a God–and she no longer believed there was–she didn’t think he would care enough about who won the July 4th camp Maccabiah to pull off any miracles. Especially if he didn’t make any miracles for her father. But she decided not to say anything. They were all having such great fun. Why spoil it? Ben was watching her with a puzzled look, as if he had read her thoughts. She gave a weak smile and looked away.

Each team ate lunch together as a picnic under some trees rather than in the chadar ochel, the dining hall. They unwrapped their sandwiches, but before they could take a bite Ben started the motzi, the blessing for bread. The others automatically joined in. Obsessed with God, Dahlia thought, remembering Jessica’s comment back in the bunk and wondering if maybe he actually does know a blessing for beetles.

The afternoon went fast with more team-oriented contests. In a three-legged race, Dahlia was paired with Josh, making her the envy of a lot of girls. They clutched each other around the waist and hobbled through the racecourse with their inside legs tightly bound together. Laughing hysterically, they kept falling down, rolling on top of each other trying to get up.

A tug of war had each team trying to pull the other into a mud pit. Dahlia found herself standing next to Ben pulling as hard as they could on the rope, but they were slowly losing ground to the other team and inching closer to the mud pit. One by one, each went into the mud with Ben falling almost on top of Dahlia. “You awright? I’m sorry,” he mumbled, boosting her out of the pit. Dahlia turned around and grabbed his arm, pulling him out behind her. Then they noticed each other coated with mud and laughed. A swimming relay race gave everyone a chance to splash in the lake and get clean again.

The final event was a giant scavenger hunt. Josh suggested they split into three teams of two and divide the list of things to find. Dahlia again found herself dashing off with Ben to find things like a grasshopper, a moth, and a dandelion. “I know where to find these,” he shouted as they ran. She didn’t doubt him for an instant.

Dahlia shortly found herself kneeling beside Ben in the grass of a small field. Ben already had a grasshopper cupped in his hand. He slowly opened his hand flat. Dahlia expected the grasshopper to immediately jump away but it just stood there on his palm. In the low, late afternoon sun, the grasshopper appeared as the brightest color green she had ever seen, almost luminescent. “Look at the color,” she marveled.

“Isn’t he beautiful. I’m always amazed by the beauty and splendor and perfection of God’s creation. Just look at him,” Ben whispered in awe.

An annoyed look flashed across Dahlia face, but she didn’t want to argue with Ben. “He’s ok, but I’m not too big on God right now,” she replied. Ben gently put the grasshopper into their collection box. They would release it shortly, at the end of the scavenger hunt. Within minutes they had quickly collected the rest of items on their portion of the list–a bunch of fascinating creatures and plants, which Dahlia was forced to admit to herself now that she had looked at them closely.

“Let’s get back and see how the others are doing,” urged Ben, taking her hand and pulling her up. This time, however, they walked back slowly. Dahlia was suddenly aware that Ben hadn’t dropped her hand. They walked silently, hand in hand, a bit further. Dahlia wasn’t sure she liked holding Ben’s hand. He really was nice, in a geeky sort of way. And she had enjoyed his company, even if he did keep bringing up God. But she didn’t know what their holding hands meant to Ben or to her or if it meant anything at all. Then Dahlia noticed Shira and Deborah, who were on a different team. She instantly dropped Ben’s hand. He really was a God and bug geek.

Dahlia knew she would never hear the end of it when she got back to the bunk. Shira and Deborah got there first and had already told everybody when Dahlia arrived. “Bugs! Bugs! Bugs!” they sang as she pushed through the screen door.

Shira didn’t waste any time getting to the point. “So, did you two make out?”

“No, we didn’t do anything. Nothing. He hasn’t changed. He’s a bug geek,” Dahlia defended herself.

“But you were holding hands with him. We saw you,” Deborah pointed out.

“Yes. He took my hand and held it. But Josh had his arm around my waist in the three-legged race. So what do you make of that?” retorted Dahlia.

“That’s different,” Emily cut in.

“Maybe he’s not such a loser. He’s kinda good looking,” suggested Jessica.

“What’s he like?” asked Molly. Molly usually attracted all the losers because the real popular guys thought she was too quiet and mousy to bother with.

“He’s ok. He’s real smart and very nice and he’s really strong. I don’t even mind the bugs so much–they’re weird but kinda neat. It’s all his God talk. Everything has God attached to it. I can’t stand it,” said Dahlia.

“What’s so wrong with God?” Shira asked.

“God let my father die and made my mother nuts. I hate God,” Dahlia said quietly, but with a vehemence that instantly silenced the other girls.

A few days later, Dahlia and her friends were again in a chug. This time the subject was prayer. The counselor who led the chug was really cool and had them do all kinds of funny stuff he called prayer-obics, the Jewish praying equivalent to aerobics. They were jumping up and down and twisting and bending in all sorts of funny positions. Dahlia thought of her grandfather and her father, who would stand and sway as they davened (prayed). If her grandfather saw prayer-obics, he would turn over in his grave, she thought, but her father would get a real kick out of it. The thought of her father brought a tear to her eye.

“You ok?” asked Ben, who had been watching her and had managed to move up beside her during the prayer-obics.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” replied Dahlia, startled by Ben’s sudden closeness. She had deliberately planted herself in the middle of her bunkmates so Ben wouldn’t approach her.

“She’s fine,” added Jessica, protectively pulling Dahlia closer to her. “I can’t get into all this prayer stuff,” she whispered to Dahlia.

“Me neither,” Dahlia agreed.

They finally sat down and the counselor began a discussion about the act of praying and the different types of prayers. “Isn’t there a prayer for going to the toilet?” one of the boys asked. Everyone started to laugh.

“Don’t be a jerk,” another shouted.

“How stupid can you be?” exclaimed another boy, who cuffed him on the head.

“Wait a second,” the counselor cut in, “Prayers are just a way of praising God or thanking God for all sorts of different things, for every day miracles. You might think it sounds gross but there is a prayer for bodily functions. We thank God for having a body where all the inputs and outputs are working right because we’d be in tough shape if they weren’t. There also is a prayer we say when we see someone who is deformed.”

“Yeah, Thanks God for not making me a spaz,” shouted another kid. One boy jumped up and started imitating a deformed, disabled monster.

“No, it’s not that at all,” the counselor continued. “When you see a deformed or disabled person you say blessed are you, Lord our God, who varies the aspects of your creatures. You are reminding yourself that all living beings are created by God and are beautiful in their own way.”

“That sounds like something Ben would say,” Emily chimed in. The kids laughed. Ben looked embarrassed.

“Hey Ben, is there a prayer for beetles and bugs and that kind of stuff?” Shira asked. The kids laughed even louder. Ben clearly was getting uncomfortable. He tried to laugh it off with them, but this teasing obviously bothered him. Dahlia watched Ben and felt bad for him. She could see how hurt he felt. She thought about saying something in his defense but wasn’t sure what she could say that wouldn’t put her in an awkward position too.

Then the counselor jumped in. “You might say the same thing you say for a deformed person, praising God for the varied types of creatures.” Then, quickly changing the subject, he asked, “what’s the shortest prayer in the Torah?”

“No Jewish prayers are short. Services take forever,” complained Jessica.

“This one’s short, five words,” the counselor asked again. No one had an answer. “It is the prayer Moses says when his sister Miriam comes down with leprosy: please God, make her well. And it worked!”

“I said that prayer a million times when my father was dying and nothing happened,” said Dahlia, spitting out the words. The counselor looked dumbfounded.

One day the following week the youngest campers celebrated Yom Foam (Foam Day), a special event. The camp brought out its fire truck and covered a ball field with foam. The kids ran and jumped and slid in the foam. They threw gobs of foam at each other. Before long everyone was coated in foam and mud. Then the counselors herded them to the lake for a dip to wash off.

Dahlia and a bunch of girls had been practicing their Israeli dancing in a nearby hall during the Yom Foam activities. They came out and saw the remnants of the foam. They spontaneously ran over and started playing around with it. Other older kids quickly joined in as their previous activities ended. Most of the foam had evaporated. All that was left were slick grass and mud with some clumps of foam. It didn’t matter. Before long, the entire Nivonim group, boys and girls together, were slipping and sliding in the mud and foam.

The boys were playing much rougher than the girls, tackling each other and piling on. Ben worked his way through the mayhem toward Dahlia. The girls were throwing the remaining foam at each other. “I’ve wanted to talk to you since prayer chug. I’ve thought a lot about what you said, and I just wanted to…” he started to say. At that moment a couple of guys slid into both of them, knocking them into the mud.

“Sorry. You awright?” one yelled as they scrambled to their feet and continue chasing each other around.

Ben gently lifted Dahlia to her feet. Her hair and face, T-shirt and shorts were coated with foam and mud. He yanked off his T-shirt, searched for a dry corner, and awkwardly tried to wipe the mud from her face. “What a mess. I must look awful,” said Dahlia, noticing Ben’s hard, thin, muscled stomach.

“You look beautiful to me, the most lovely being God ever made,” said Ben, barely loud enough to hear. He bent over and kissed her on the forehead. Dahlia tilted her head upwards. He kissed her on her lips.

“Hey, where’s your shirt, you asshole,” shouted one of Ben’s friends as he tackled Ben and sent him flying. Other guys piled on. Dahlia was left standing alone holding Ben’s muddy shirt.

Jessica came rushing up to her. “What was that about?” she asked.

“Ben kissed me. He said I was beautiful,” said Dahlia, not quite believing what she heard. “I’ve never been kissed by a boy before.”

“Your first time! Right in the middle of Yom Foam. Cool,” cried Jessica, hugging Dahlia.

In the days leading up to visiting day, there was a lot of talk in the bunk about Dahlia and Ben. She didn’t think of him as her boyfriend, but he found every excuse to come around and, while she didn’t exactly invite him she also didn’t discourage him. The verdict from her bunkmates was mixed. “You could do a lot better,” said Shira, although she admitted Ben was cute and nice even if he was a little weird.

Jessica was excited for Dahlia, and the two shared every word of the blossoming relationship. And it was mostly words; the action amounted mainly to a little hand holding as they walked and talked and a stolen kiss now and then when nobody was around. Jessica, who had had a boyfriend during the school year, explained the mysteries of kissing and making out.

Dahlia grew increasingly edgy, but it didn’t have anything to do with Ben. Visiting day was coming and her aunt and uncle were bringing her mother. Dahlia had received numerous letters from her mother, but still didn’t know what to expect. The letters were filled with the routine stuff of summer around her home. She interpreted the fact that her aunt and uncle were coming as a sign that things still might not be right with her mother. Whenever she thought about the last time she tried to talk with her mother, the day her mother flipped out, she became afraid and upset.

When visiting day arrived, a sparkling summer day, the parents parked on a big field near the camp entrance and streamed in at mid morning. The kids lined the dirt road leading to the main camp to greet their parents. One by one, Dahlia’s friends saw their parents and ran up to them. After the initial rush, the stream of parents slowed to a trickle, and Dahlia found herself standing with a dwindling group of kids with late arriving parents. Dahlia, already apprehensive, was growing increasingly upset.

In her agitated state, Dahlia didn’t recognize a group of visitors until her aunt, uncle, and mother were almost on top of her. Dahlia had been thinking about watching for a pair, her mother and father, not the three of them. She was startled.

“Did we scare you?” asked her aunt, hugging her. Her aunt was a short, heavy-set woman with graying hair and a jumpy, nervous manner. “I’m sorry we’re late. There was an accident on the highway and we were backed up for probably half an hour. And then we had to stop and put more fluid in the car radiator. But look who we brought,” she add, turning to Dahlia’s mother.

Dahlia’s mother was standing back, just looking at her. That wasn’t like her at all, Dahlia thought. Then she noticed her mother looked tired and thin. Her auburn hair, usually neatly tied back was more straggly than Dahlia ever remembered, giving her mother a frazzled appearance. And her eyes seemed to have lost their sparkle. Her uncle stepped up. “I’m sorry about the delay, but boy you look great!” he bellowed, giving Dahlia a big hug.

Dahlia turned to her mother: “Hi Mom.”

“Hi darling,” said her mother, stepping forward and giving her a hug and a kiss. “Are you all right? I hope we didn’t upset you too much by being late.”

Then they stood there in awkward silence. “Let’s go see your bunk,” suggested her aunt.

“Sure,” Dahlia agreed, and they started walking toward to bunk. Camp kids and their parents were swirling all around them in happy, animated motion. Dahlia felt completely out of it.

Suddenly, Ben charged up with his mother in tow. “Here’s someone you gotta meet right away. Dahlia, wait,” he yelled. They stopped and turned around as Ben and his mother walked up. “This is Dahlia,” Ben announced, playfully putting an arm around her shoulders.

“I’m delighted to meet you. Ben says such nice things about you,” said his mother, who was shorter than Ben but showed a clear family resemblance. Dahlia didn’t know how to respond. She turned and introduced her mother, aunt, and uncle.

“We’re going to the nature center. I’ll catch you later. Nice to meet all of you,” Ben said, giving Dahlia a gentle pat on her neck before leading his parents away.

“Is he a special friend?” Dahlia’s mother asked after a moment.

“Sort of. I guess so,” said Dahlia.

At her bunk, Dahlia introduced everybody. All the other kids and their parents were coming in and out. “You know, I went to this camp as a boy. We’re going to walk around and take a look. We’ll meet you back here in a few hours,” her uncle announced and pulled her aunt out the door. Dahlia was alone with her mother.

“I’m sorry we were late. You know, I’ve felt very funny about coming to visit you. I know things were a little unsettled when you left,” her mother admitted.

“I’ve felt funny too,” said Dahlia.

More kids and parents barged in. “Let’s go for a walk, to someplace quiet where we can talk,” suggested her mother.

They started out aimlessly wandering, but then Dahlia thought of the small field where she and Ben had found the grasshopper. No activities were scheduled there. It would be quiet. As they walked they talked about the weeks before Dahlia left for camp. They turned down the path to the field. Dahlia took her mother’s hand.

They talked about her father’s death. “Why didn’t God help Daddy, that’s what’s driving me crazy,” cried Dahlia. “Everyone said he was so good, so righteous and he really was. Why did God let him die?” she demanded.

Dahlia slumped down in the grass near where she and Ben captured the grasshopper and whimpered. Her mother sat down beside her and stroked Dahlia’s hair. “I’ve asked myself that question a million times. There is no answer, not one that we will ever know or be happy with. I was so angry with God.” Dahlia’s mother recalled. “And I was angry with Daddy too, although I felt I couldn’t say anything. He wouldn’t get mad at God. To him, everything was just part of some great plan of God that we couldn’t fathom. Even at the end, he didn’t get angry with God. He thanked God for giving us each other and three beautiful children and 25 years together. He thanked God for giving him a beautiful life. He wasn’t angry with God and didn’t want us to be angry with God, but I couldn’t help it. I hated God.”

“So what did you do?” Dahlia asked.

“It drove me crazy, but you know that. Thanks to the doctor and medication–I call them my happy pills–and a good therapist I’m not as crazy as I was then, just before you went to camp. But it is still hard. I talk to the therapist a lot. It helps to talk about these things. I know that now,” her mother replied.

“Do you still hate God?”

“No, not anymore,” answered her mother.

Dahlia hugged her mother. “What made you change your mind?”

“Because I realized that your father was right: God gave me your father and three wonderful children and a grandchild. And God gave us beautiful sunny warm days like today and wonders great and small. Maybe I am beginning to see the world as Daddy saw it. He saw the wonder of God in everything, and maybe I’m starting to see that too. I look at the night sky and see a zillion stars and I marvel at God’s creation. You know what I think sometimes? I imagine that your father is one of those stars, the brightest one sitting closest to God’s throne. And sometimes I think I hear him in the wind as it blows past my ears. I can’t make out his words exactly, but I hear his voice and I know he’s with God watching over our family.”

“I’m angry with God,” said Dahlia. A grasshopper was jumping nearby. Dahlia cupped it in her hands and slowly opened her palm flat as Ben had done. The grasshopper stood still on her hand. “Ben sees God in everything, in things like this little grasshopper. Do you think Ben is like Daddy?”

“Maybe. Tell me about Ben,” said her mother. Dahlia quickly found herself talking with her mother just like she used to. She told her everything about Ben. Her first kiss, holding hands, how he’s kind of cool and kind of geeky all at the same time. How she tingles when he touches her.

Her mother hugged her and kissed her. “Ben sounds like a fine boy. But there will be other nice boys in your life. Just go slow and be careful and trust to your instincts. Don’t do anything that doesn’t feel absolutely right,” advised her mother. Then her mother talked how she had met Dahlia’s father. She also talked about her first boyfriend, long before she met Dahlia’s father. Finally, it was time to head back. “Your first love,” said her mother, kissing her tenderly; “your father would say that too is a gift of God.”

Dahlia and Ben heard the kids around the campfire getting ready to return to the bunk. She sat up and snapped her bra. They both brushed the grass off themselves and rejoined the group. Back at the bunk, everybody wanted to know the details. At first Dahlia was shy and didn’t say anything, but under the onslaught of questions little pieces of the story trickled out. The kisses, touching her breasts. “How did he unsnap your bra?” asked Molly, who wanted to know the mechanics of it all.

“Are you going to go all the way?” demanded Shira.

“I don’t know. I don’t think I’m ready. I don’t know if I like Ben enough. I don’t know a lot of things,” she insisted. She felt confused. She could still feel the strong sensations Ben had excited in her. Long after the other girls went to sleep, Dahlia and Jessica whispered together, reliving every beautiful detail and every question and doubt.

The next morning, first at morning minyan (prayers) and then at breakfast, Dahlia avoided Ben, but she was sure all the boys from Ben’s bunk were staring at her. Her reputation was shot, she thought. She stayed close to the girls from her bunk and only spoke briefly with Ben when they were both picking up cold cereal. “All I said was that we made out a little bit. But that was all,” Ben insisted. He put his hand on her shoulder and pulled her around to face him. “Look, I want to see you some more. I want to be with you,” he said earnestly.

Dahlia tingled at his touch. “Me too,” she mumbled as she pulled away and returned to her table.

The summer was more than half over and what little remained seemed to be flying by. Dahlia quietly reveled in Ben’s attention. Whenever they could they paired up at camp activities. During free time, they often sneaked off together. They would walk and talk, hold hands, and kiss a little bit. Dahlia thrilled to his touch. Every kiss and caress made her shiver. And she could sense Ben’s deep passion. He dropped hints that he wanted to go all the way, but she still didn’t think she was ready. But it was really, really tempting. Sometimes they would sit and talk and he would massage the back of her neck or trace her hairline with his fingers. Once he gave her a back rub and kept slipping his hands around toward her breasts. It electrified her. Of course, there isn’t very much privacy at summer camp, but Dahlia didn’t really mind. It made it easier to hold off having to make any decision about going all the way.

They talked and talked. Sometimes they talked about the kids at camp and the different activities, but mainly they talked about each other. Ben idolized his dad, a scientist who did research in far away places like Antarctica or the Amazon, but his folks were divorced. Ben lived with his mom. He talked about his dreams and hopes. And they talked about Dahlia’s family and particularly her dad. One day she spilled out the complete story of his final agonizing weeks and her mother going crazy. She had only told the whole story once before, to Jessica. Ben listened and held her tight. He agreed that she had a right to be angry with God, and he didn’t pretend to have any answers. “I thank God every day for bringing you to me,” was all he said. It was probably at that moment Dahlia realized she more than just liked Ben. He really was her first love, and it was as wonderful as she had hoped.

Dahlia’s bunkmates accepted Ben. In fact, Ben’s buddies started coming around more and more too, something the girls were happy to encourage. The summer was winding down quickly now. They were preparing for a three-night overnight, etgar in Hebrew, which would include Shabbat out in the woods. Last year Ben grossed out a lot of kids on etgar by uncovering bugs in a dead tree. Dahlia and Ben could laugh about it together now. This year would be different, he promised.

For etgar they were camping by a lake at the base of a small mountain, more of a large hill really. The first day they did a lot of nature study. The nature counselor pointed out moose tracks and deer tracks. She showed the remains of a small animal, probably a wild rabbit that had been caught and eaten by a coyote, judging from the tracks. Finally, she pointed out some lumps on the trail and poked at it with a stick. “Bear scat, poop. See the berry seeds in it. That’s what they eat this time of year. Bears live around here so we have to be careful how we store our food,” she said.

On Friday afternoon, the campers started preparing for Shabbat in the woods. By sunset their campfires were burning. They changed into clean clothes and began the Kabbalat Shabbat service by the lake, welcoming Shabbat with prayers and beautiful songs. As the sun set over the lake, the water and sky merged into a kaleidoscope of pink and purple streaks. Ben slipped his arm around Dahlia’s shoulders and pulled her close to him. “The Queen, Shabbat, has arrived in all her splendor,” he whispered. Dahlia squeezed his hand. She couldn’t think of anything more beautiful. For a moment, she experienced a remarkable sense of peace and bliss.

The next morning they again held Shabbat services by the lake. This time the sun was slanting through the trees. Dahlia sat on the ground, next to Ben. Campers and counselors led parts of the service. Dahlia agreed to lead several prayers toward the end of the service. Ben would read one aliyah from the Torah. He had been practicing for a week. A low, scattered mist clung to the lake at the start of the service. The sun’s rays slowly burned off the mist, leaving little, short-lived rainbows. “See the rainbow. Do you know what that means?” asked Ben.

Dahlia intended to make a crack about it marking where leprechauns had left a pot of gold. But when she opened her mouth, she heard herself say, “It is the sign God gave Noah that he would never destroy the world again.”

For the end of Shabbat, the Maariv service followed by Havdallah, the campers, carrying flashlights, climbed to the top of the mountain. It was a gentle walk on a well-marked trail. Small clearings opened along the way offering dramatic views of the lake. The trail and clearings were bordered with blueberry and raspberry bushes laden with ripe berries.

The view from the top of the hill was spectacular. You could see forest or lake in any direction. No towns or buildings or power lines or antenna towers or anything manmade marred the scene. As soon as three stars appeared in the sky, the campers lit the special multi-wick Havdallah candles and chanted the prayers to a beautiful melody. Then, arm-in-arm in a large circle they sang Eliahu Hanavi. Dahlia, one arm around Ben, the other around Jessica, her other friends close by in the circle wished the moment could last forever.

Some counselors started a campfire in the middle of the circle. Everyone sat down and began singing. Guitars, marshmallows, popcorn, all sorts of goodies suddenly appeared. Dahlia jumped up with some of the other girls and began Israeli folk dancing. Others quickly joined in. The next few hours flew by in a swirl of dancing and singing. Above them the sky filled with an incomprehensible number of stars. Finally running out of breath, Dahlia and the other dancers flopped onto the ground laughing and laughing. Glancing skyward, Dahlia was again startled by the intensity of the stars. One seemed to her to be twinkling particularly bright. “I love you too Daddy,” she murmured.

Walking back to the tents by the lake, Dahlia and Ben agreed to meet later that night. After the campsite had quieted down, Dahlia crawled out of the tent on the pretext of needing to go to the toilet, which was a crude outhouse. Ben was already waiting there with a blanket in his arm. They headed up the path up the mountain to the first clearing. Spreading the blanket, they cuddled each other and watched the stars.

The gentle cuddling quickly turned into heavy making out. Dahlia and Ben both were growing intensely excited. Ben caressed her breasts. Dahlia’s hands roamed along Ben’s chest, back, and stomach. Ben gently pushed one leg between her thighs. Dahlia felt her body shudder and pulsate, warm and moist. He started to slip his hand toward her panties. She wanted to say no, stop. She urgently knew she had to say no, but she didn’t. She pressed her hips against him.

Suddenly, they heard a sound. Something was rustling through the blueberry bushes nearby. They froze. Their passion instantly evaporated, replaced by fear. Unable to see in the dark, afraid to turn on their flashlights, they lay silent and still, hardly breathing. After a few minutes, the rustling moved farther off. A few minutes later, it was gone completely.

“Let’s get outta here,” whispered Ben. They dashed back to their tents as quickly as they could.

The entire camp surged with the excitement over the Zimriyah, a night of music and theater and dance performances, the climax of the summer. Every group in camp had been working on its performance. Pop songs were translated into Hebrew. Scenes from movies and plays were performed in Hebrew. Dahlia and her friends had chosen to do Sephardic and Bedouin dances and had created seductive belly dancer costumes.

Everyone gathered in the Beit Am, the large recreation hall, after dinner. It was a hot, steamy August night. Doors were open and fans vainly tried to keep the leaden air moving. Despite the heat and humidity, excess adrenaline seemed to be shooting out of kids’ ears. Counselors could barely control the enthusiasm and excitement.

After a bunch of speeches, the performances started. The younger campers were very cute. The rock bands were loud. A couple of bands were even quite good. Ben performed with a group leading Israeli and Jewish folk songs, which brought people dancing into the aisles. The theatrical skits left everybody laughing and screaming. The Israeli dancers, Dahlia’s group, felt energized and beautiful in their beaded, half-revealing costumes. The audience cheered. A lot of the boys hooted. For Dahlia, it was an exhilarating high.

Ben rushed up to her right after the performance, smothering her in hugs and kisses and a stream of compliments. “You are a wonderful dancer, beautiful and exciting,” he whispered, swinging her around. The word suddenly flashed among the oldest campers–party at Nivonim. The Zimriyah had ended. Everyone streamed out into the hot, sultry night.

The Nivonim bunks were a swirl of activity, motion, sound, and laughter. From seemingly out of nowhere counselors produced chips and pretzels, soft drinks, and snacks of all sorts. CDs were popped into boom boxes. Dahlia and the other dancers ducked into the bunks to change. Dahlia put on a skimpy tank top with spaghetti straps and shorts. “Oooh, no bra tonight,” Jessica remarked as she changed along with Dahlia, who was, indeed, going without her bra.

“It’s so hot,” Dahlia replied, trying to sound offhand.

“Sure. Have a good time,” said Jessica, giving her a hug and dashing off.

Dahlia and Ben circulated among their friends for a while. The rest of the camp began quieting down. After a while Dahlia and Ben slipped off by themselves. Walking with arms wrapped around each other’s waist, they ended up sitting next to the canoes by the lake. By now the camp was dark, except for the activity still swirling around the Nivonim bunks.

Clouds quickly streamed in and blocked the view of the stars. Looking across the lake they could see occasional flashes of lightning and hear the low rumble of distant thunder. They began to make out, gentle kisses quickly turning into deep, passionate kisses. Dahlia was self conscious about her kissing. Jessica had told her all about French kissing. It sounded gross. Dahlia couldn’t imagine letting a guy slip his tongue into her mouth. But now, wrapped in Ben’s arms, it was the most exciting kissing she could imagine. It felt wonderful.

Ben’s hand slid under her tank top. Her breasts tingling, her nipples erect. Pushing up her tank top, he kissed her breasts. She pulled Ben’s shirt off him. Ben reached to unbutton her shorts. “No, no, not tonight,” murmured Dahlia, pulling his hand back to her breasts.

“Don’t you want to?” Ben pleaded.

She hesitated. “I thought I did. I do, sort of, but there are too many people around. We’re right out in the open,” Dahlia reasoned. There was, indeed, a lot of noise and activity coming from the Nivonim bunks not far away.

Suddenly, several lightning bolts exploded the sky. Ben snapped around immediately and started counting slowly. Finally, a loud rumble of thunder arrived. “It’s still pretty far away,” Ben calculated. More lightning cracked across the sky.

“Wow, what a show!” Dahlia exclaimed.

Ben propped himself up against a canoe and pulled Dahlia onto his lap. “Let’s watch God’s light show,” he said. The lightning and thunder increased in frequency and intensity as the storm drew nearer. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, whose might and power fill the world,” he continued, repeating the words in Hebrew for the prayer to be said on observing a thunder and lightning storm.

“Is there really a prayer for lightning? How do you know?” asked Dahlia.

Ben watched the storm and gently caressed Dahlia, stroking her hair and cheeks. “That’s one of my favorite prayers. My father became a scientist because he marveled at all the incredible things in this world and wanted to know how God did it. Evolution, nuclear physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy–he saw God’s hand in everything and wanted to know how God made it happen. The more he learned, the more awed he was by the genius of God’s creation. And the more convinced he became that all this, us, everything wasn’t a random accident but the work of an awesome being, God. He still believes that. He likes to quote the Shabbat psalm: ‘How vast Your works, O Lord, Your designs are beyond our grasp.’ I guess he passed all that on to me.” Dahlia suddenly thought of her father; God’s plan was certainly beyond her grasp.

As they watched the storm Ben described how lightning actually occurred. He talked about his father’s quest to know God. He touched on the intricacies of natural laws from general relativity to thermodynamics weaving the wonder and reverence of God through it all. Ben saw no conflict between science and God. All science was simply another of God’s astounding creations. As Dahlia listened, she thought of her father. He wasn’t a scientist at all, but he felt the same deep reverence for God’s creation. She wanted to feel it too.

“And God’s creatures are the most amazing of all,” Ben continued. Starting at her toes, he traced his fingers along Dahlia’s entire body as he described each part and its role in this miraculous living, growing, beautiful person. Dahlia’s body pulsated under his touch. He led her to see her own body as an intricate, divine tapestry that could only have come from God. When he finally traced her lips with his finger and kissed them, she could have melted on the spot.

The lightning and thunder had grown very close indeed. Dahlia looked up and noticed people scrambling around the Nivonim bunks, trying to close shutters. She felt a couple of drops of rain. “We’d better get back,” she suggested. Ben got up, threw an arm around Dahlia, and they began to saunter back to the bunk. Suddenly, a huge blast of lighting followed almost instantly by a thunderous roar turned the night into day. A big tree, maybe 30 or 40 yards away, flashed for a moment, splintered, and crashed to the ground. A deluge of rain instantly poured down. They dashed to the bunk. God’s might and power, Dahlia thought as she ran through the deluge, could be pretty scary sometimes.

The last night of camp always is a mixture of happiness and sadness, even more so for the Nivonim campers. Many had come here since they were the youngest campers, Ilanot, Hebrew for saplings. Now they were the oldest. Next year, as seniors many would spend the entire summer on a camp mission to Israel. After that, they would go to college, some maybe returning as counselors.

Dinner was a loud affair, with speeches and singing and stomping on tables and dancing in the aisles. The noise approached intolerable volumes but nobody seemed to notice. When the meal finally ended, the campers left to join their groups. Everyone already was packed to leave the next morning. Videos were planned in the Beit Am. Parties were arranged in every group, even for the youngest campers. Nivonim intended to party by the lake. The tree, splintered by lightning the week before, had been removed and cut up. Pieces of it would be used for a beach campfire.

The girls in Dahlia’s bunk arranged each other’s hair and chattered and hugged. Nobody wanted to go home tomorrow. Each hoped the night would last forever. Shira pulled Dahlia aside at one point. “I guess I won’t be needing this,” she said, pressing the condom she had received early in the summer into Dahlia’s hand. “There are some really nice guys here, but none I’m going all the way with. You take it.”

Dahlia was flabbergasted. She had forgotten about the condom. “Why are you giving this to me?” she stammered.

“You never know. It doesn’t take a mind reader to know what Ben is thinking. He’s cute. And you’ve been thinking about it too,” Shira said, with her sly smile. She hugged Dahlia. “Keep it, just in case.”

The weather had cooled off a bit in the last few days. A breeze had picked up from the west. Still most of the kids were wearing shorts and T-shirts. But Dahlia decided to put on a sweatshirt and jeans for the last night. The girls tromped off to the waterfront as a noisy pack. The guys were already there, piling wood onto the campfire.

Ben, wearing a denim shirt and shorts, rushed up to Dahlia. “Hey, you all right?” he asked, immediately noticing her sweatshirt and jeans. ” It’s not that cold.”

“I’m fine,” she replied, but she was quiet, pensive. She was thinking about what Shira had said. Dahlia knew what Ben wanted. She was also thinking about her mother and about her father.

Ben put an arm around her and kissed her gently. “What’s the matter?”

“It’s nothing. I’m guess I’m thinking about my mom and dad.” She wasn’t lying, but it wasn’t the whole truth. She didn’t want to disappoint Ben on their last night, but she didn’t really want to go all the way. But everyone seemed to expect they would. She really felt confused. The crowd around the campfire was growing larger and noisier. Maybe the issue wouldn’t come up if they got involved in the partying. “Let’s join the others,” she suggested, tugging Ben in that direction.

He pulled her back gently. “My counselor has a car in the far parking lot. Nobody will be around later. We can go over there if we want. It’s not locked,” he whispered. “It will be private. Nobody will disturb us.”

Dahlia realized the issue wasn’t going away. After the incident at etgar, she was scared. It wasn’t the idea that they might have encountered a bear that frightened her as much as her own passion. Then, after the Zimriyah, she didn’t really know what she wanted to do. She knew she shouldn’t go all the way with Ben–there were just too many complications and risks–but she sort of wanted to and feared she couldn’t stop herself or stop Ben if the opportunity arose. As much as she cared for Ben, she knew this just wasn’t the right time or right place. Maybe not even the right person. But, she was afraid of disappointing Ben. What would he think? Would he call her a tease? They had already gone pretty far. Could they stop now?

She turned to Ben and put her hands on his cheeks. She ran them over his face, stopping when they were over his eyes. “I really like you a lot, but I can’t go with you to the car. I don’t feel its right. I’m sorry,” she blurted out.

She pulled her hands away. A look of disappointment hit his face like a slap. He inhaled sharply, as if he had been punched in the stomach. “It doesn’t mean I don’t want you or care for you. I do. I do more than you’ll ever know. But it’s not right for me, for us, now. Maybe someday, but not now. Please, don’t be mad at me. Come to the campfire with me,” she pleaded.

She could see Ben struggling to regain his equilibrium. Finally, he put one hand around her neck and drew her to him. “God makes everything happen in its own time. God brought you to me when I least expected it. You are a gift from heaven. I can’t be mad at you,” he said. At that moment, Dahlia realized she cared for Ben more than she had imagined. God brought you to me, she thought, when I most needed you. Then they kissed, wrapping their arms tightly around each other.

The rest of the night was a blur. They rejoined the crowd at the campfire. After a while many of the kids left to watch horror movies at the Beit Am. Dahlia and Ben remained at the campfire with a few others, talking and laughing. Ben picked out the various constellations, but tonight Dahlia was only interested in that one star–the one next to God’s throne twinkling just for her, she liked to think. The fire began to die down and nobody bothered to throw more wood on it. At some point, Ben left and quickly returned with a blanket. He wrapped them in a blanket and again propped himself up against a canoe. They cuddled for a while, but Dahlia fell asleep in his arms. Maybe Ben fell asleep too. Dahlia dreamed the sweetest dreams.

Dahlia and Ben awoke when the kids noisily returned from the Beit Am. The sky was brightening; the stars had retreated from view, even Dahlia’s special star. Dawn was about to break. A cool breeze blew lightly. Dahlia and Ben scrambled to their feet, a bit sleepy and disheveled. Dahlia’s tightly braided hair had come undone and was hanging loose.

The camp was not really a beautiful place. It consisted of dozens of ramshackle buildings and bunks scattered around rough fields and scraggly woods. Train tracks ran along the far shore of the lake. A few times a day freight trains rumbled by. Dahlia never considered it an idyllic spot. But this morning, as the sun began to break across the sky while gentle ripples moved across the lake, she thought it was as beautiful as anything God had created.

Jessica came up beside her, along with Shira and Deborah and Emily and Molly and all the others. With one arm around Ben and the other around Jessica, Dahlia experienced a wonderful warmth surging through her despite the coolness of the dawn air. Everyone gasped as the sun finally rose above the trees, illuminating the water. In barely a whisper, she heard Ben: “Blessed art thou, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has created such wonders as these in your world.”

“Amen,” Dahlia murmured and then to herself: thank you, thank you, thank you God for all you have given me. The gentle breeze stirred; she could feel it lightly tossing her hair, and she thought for an instance that she could hear her father’s voice whispering in her ear.


For the sin which we have committed before Thee with wanton looks; for the sin which we have committed before Thee with haughty eyes; for the sin–oh, gimme me a break, thought Steve. The Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service wasn’t even an hour old and Steve already felt he had had enough. Steve looked around at the congregation; many people, his parents and older sister included, were swaying back and forth, tapping their chests with their fist as they recited each sin. His two little sisters, a pair of twins, were sitting on their chairs playing with Beanie Babies. How about the sin which we have committed before Thee by playing with Beanie Babies in synagogue, thought Steve.

Steve had been attending the adult services since his bar mitzvah three years ago. He had heard all the sermons about repentance and forgiveness, but reciting these sins still seemed silly to him. Maybe it was the old fashioned, awkward English translation, laced with terms like unchastity, usurious interest, stiff-necked pride, idle gossip, wanton looks, and haughty eyes. Those wanton looks and haughty eyes always made him want to laugh out loud. Maybe it was the melodrama; people standing and hitting their chests. Some just symbolically tapped themselves, but others gave themselves pretty big whacks.

“I never did half this stuff. I don’t even know what some of this stuff is. What sin associated with impurity have I ever done or you or Mom or the twins?” Steve had asked his father once on the way home from synagogue. Well, no, certainly they hadn’t touched any dead bodies or done other gross things covered by the laws of purity, his father admitted, but everyone commits most of these sins at some time in their lives. So, it is symbolic and collective; we are repenting for everything on the part of everyone in the community as a community. Still, Steve would read down the list of sins and always think it was weird.

Steve was tall and thin, leading most people to think he was older than sixteen, although his awkwardness suggested that he still hadn’t grown into this tall, adult body. At school, his nickname was Beanpole or Bean for short. He didn’t like the nickname, but it stuck. If he had any talent for basketball or even liked the game, he might have been a star on his high school team, but he was klutzy and didn’t do well in sports.

Instead, he was very good at chess and played the violin really well, earning the first violin position in the high school orchestra his freshman year, but these weren’t the kinds of things that made a kid popular at his high school. He had a best friend, Davy, who had some kind of genetic disease that made him deformed and kept him in a wheelchair. But Davy was smart and funny. He loved watching sports and always dreamed of being tall and straight like Steve. “If I had your body, Steve, I’d play center on the basketball team,” he would say. Davy was the only kid who called him Steve. Everyone else called him Bean. The kids had a nickname for Davy–Pretzel–because of his twisted shape, but Steve had never called him that.

Steve and Davy were quite a pair, one tall and straight as an arrow, the other twisted and wheelchair-bound. They played chess together and just hung around. They talked a lot about the kids at school. Davy was brilliant at seeing through the boasting and pretension of a lot of the kids. He could cut through all the bullshit in an instant as if he could read your mind.

“That girl really likes you,” he would say to Steve.

“How do you know? I’ve never even spoken to her,” Steve would usually reply. Steve was not very popular with either the boys or the girls, at least not the cool kids or the jocks. He would have liked to be more popular, but he didn’t really know how. He thought a lot of stuff the kids did was stupid or gross, like drinking beer at the park at night until they threw up. So he spent a lot of time with Davy, which was fun but definitely wasn’t cool. In fact, when kids weren’t calling him Bean, they were calling him Nursey, as in Davy’s nurse.

But this year might be different. A girl in the orchestra who was also part of the cool group of kids showed some interest in Steve. He actually got up the nerve to talk with her a little. Jenny, a tall, outgoing girl, didn’t seem as snotty or clique-ish as the other kids who thought they were so cool.

“There’s Davy, coming in with his family. I wonder why they are so late,” Steve’s father said, nudging Steve. “Davy doesn’t look very good. What do you think?” he asked. Steve mumbled something about Davy looking okay. But he didn’t look okay at all, Steve thought.

Steve had been wondering where Davy was and for once was sort of glad when Davy wasn’t at synagogue early while everybody was arriving and talking. Steve and Davy had had a big falling out this past week at school.

And the stupid thing was how unfair Davy had been. Davy never liked Jenny from the start. “She’s not interested in you. She’s using you,” he insisted. “She’ll drop you like a rock,” he predicted.

“How do you know? You don’t know anything about girls. You’re just jealous,” Steve argued, but he wasn’t so sure Davy was all that wrong about Jenny. Steve sure didn’t know what Jenny saw in him, except, maybe, that he was taller than she was, unlike most of the boys at school. When they were together she mostly made little observations about other kids in the orchestra or talked about becoming a model. Steve didn’t know what he wanted to be. He usually just listened.

Anyway, Jenny had invited him to join her and some other kids after school. They were going for ice cream. Steve eagerly agreed. He had planned to hang around with Davy, but he figured he would take Davy along since it wasn’t really a date or anything like that–just a bunch of kids going off for ice cream.

Davy was against the idea. “They don’t want anything to do with me. Let’s play chess like we planned.” Steve insisted. But when he showed up after school with Davy, the kids made a big scene. They were going to go to an ice cream place in a car one of Jenny’s friends had and there was no way they could take the Pretzel along. Davy was right.

“Are you coming with us or not?” asked Jenny. Steve felt torn. He really wanted to join these kids. It was his chance to make new friends. Why should he let Davy ruin it, he reasoned. He wasn’t married to Davy or anything. He hoped Davy would just tell him to go ahead, but he didn’t.

“Hey Nursey, make up your mind. It’s us or the Pretzel. We want to get moving,” another kid shouted.

“We’ll play chess later,” Steve said to Davy, and he left Davy.

Steve was happy just being included for once. The kids talked a lot about other kids and teachers and rock bands. Jenny seemed nice, but Steve didn’t have too much to say. He was thinking about Davy and that he shouldn’t have left him.

The next day at school, Steve tried to talk to Davy, but Davy avoided him. When Steve finally caught up with him, Davy didn’t want to hear anything he had to say. They hadn’t even tried to talk to each other since.

So when Davy and his family weren’t at synagogue at the start of Kol Nidre, Steve was relieved. Davy’s dad was an old friend of Steve’s dad. The families were pretty close. He hadn’t told his family anything about the incident after school. He sort of guessed what his father and mother would say about it. They would not have approved of leaving Davy like that. But it was so unfair. What special claim to him did Davy have?

The service moved forward, but Steve was still staring at the list of sins. Was there one that covered betraying a friend? He had to admit, that’s what he did. He had promised to do something that afternoon with Davy, even if it was just play chess and hang around, but then he cut out. He studied the list of sins: breach of trust, deceit, spurning, vain oaths, confusion of mind. Confusion of mind! That was a great one–he’d had nothing but confusion of mind since that afternoon after school.

Walking home, his father turned to each of them and said, “If I have done anything to hurt you or that was unfair this past year, I am sorry. I try to be fair and respectful of each of you although I might not always succeed. But I promise to keep trying.” Steve mumbled something like it’s okay.

Steve walked on in silence as his mother, father, and sisters chattered away. Suddenly Steve turned to his father. “If you say you’re sorry to someone, they have to forgive you, don’t they?”

“Not necessarily,” his father replied. “If you’re really sincere and you really commit yourself to fixing whatever it was that you did wrong and you follow through, then they should forgive you, but I don’t think they have to. Why? Did you do something that you’re troubled about?”

“Nah. I was just curious whether if you repented they had to forgive you.”

The next day Steve looked around for Davy. He had decided to apologize and try to set things straight just like his father had the night before. He knew exactly what he would say. But Davy and his family never showed up.

After the Torah reading and a bunch of appeals for money, Steve slipped out of the service. A lot of kids were hanging around on the steps to the Hebrew School wing. Usually Steve hung around in the lobby with Davy, who couldn’t maneuver his wheelchair around the steps where the kids gathered. Without Davy around, Steve drifted over to the kids on the steps. A few were part of Jenny’s crowd at school. Steve hung around there until his parents were ready to leave.

Most of the kids were okay. A couple were jerks. “Hey Nursey, where’s your good buddy, the Pretzel?” one shouted. The others watched for Steve’s response.

“I don’t know. He’s not my good buddy, and I’m not his nurse,” Steve replied.

“Ya coulda fooled me,” the kid continued.

Steve decided to ignore him and started talking to a couple of the other kids. He liked most of these kids and wanted to be liked by them. They’d never accept Davy so why push it. Still, it bothered him that he didn’t even want to admit he and Davy were good friends. But heck, maybe they weren’t good friends anymore. He tried to talk to Davy, but Davy didn’t respond. It wasn’t his fault.

The mystery of where Davy and his family had gone was solved walking home that afternoon. They took a route that passed Davy’s street. He looked down the street and saw an ambulance in front of Davy’s house. Even though it was still Yom Kippur, Steve’s father called Davy’s family. Davy had suddenly gotten very sick, a complication from his condition. The doctors decided to put him in the hospital for a few days.

Steve felt very confused. He wanted to apologize to Davy and ask his forgiveness for the incident after school, but he also liked being around the other kids. And now Davy was in the hospital. What if he died? Well, it would solve one problem, he almost thought. But it was such a terrible, horrible thought it scared Steve. “Oh God, please make Davy well, please, please please,” he prayed with a sincerity and fervor that he hadn’t had for any of the Yom Kippur prayers. All through Ne’ ilah, the concluding Yom Kippur evening service, Steve prayed that Davy get well.

Steve finally got to visit Davy a few days later, when the doctors let him go home. Davy, who seemed smaller and more twisted than usual, was lying in bed. An oxygen tank stood next to the bed, but it wasn’t being used. It was an awkward visit.

Steve asked some stupid questions about the hospital, like how the food was, and made a lame joke about getting to skip the Yom Kippur fast. Davy barely responded. Steve tried his apology. “Look, I’m really sorry if I did anything to offend you or hurt your feelings this year. I know you’re mad about my going off with Jenny that day, and I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done it.”

Davy didn’t say anything at first. Then, in a weak but angry voice, he asked, “Do you call me the Pretzel too?” He spit out the word Pretzel.

“I never have. Never. I swear it,” Steve insisted.

Just then Davy’s mother entered and announced that Davy needed rest. Steve patted his friend on the arm as he left, but Davy didn’t respond.

The following weeks were uncomfortable, at least regarding Steve’s friendship with Davy. While Davy was home recovering, Steve spent increasing amounts of time with Jenny and her friends. When he was with them, he hardly thought of Davy. He also visited Davy often at first. Steve would sit with him, they’d play chess and talk, but it wasn’t the same as before. They avoided the subject of Jenny and Steve’s new friends. Steve stopped coming as often.

Steve’s father was the first to comment about it. “I hear you’re not visiting Davy like you used to. You know, his dad told me that he could use some companionship. You guys used to be great friends.”

“Well, things have changed I guess. We’re not such great friends anymore,” Steve replied evasively.

“Just because he got sick is no reason to end the friendship. He’ll be returning to school soon. I know it is a lot to ask, but his dad would appreciate it if you could help him a bit at school like you did before. I think you both enjoyed it,” his father said.

Steve didn’t know what to say. “I’m not sure Davy wants it. Anyway, I have different friends now. We do different stuff. I’m not sure Davy will fit in.”

“What happened between you two?” his father asked.

“Nothing. Things just changed,” Steve insisted.

“I don’t believe that. Something happened.” His father started thinking very hard. After a moment he turned to Steve. “Did something happen between you and Davy before Yom Kippur?” his father asked, recalling the walk home following Kol Nidre.

Steve suddenly was tired of being evasive. He told his father all about his fight with Davy, about Jenny and her friends, about his confusion and torn loyalties, about kids calling Davy the Pretzel, about leaving him that day, about apologizing, about everything. His father thought quietly for a few minutes before speaking. “There is more to repentance than just saying you’re sorry. Even more than just being sincerely sorry. Repentance means changing your ways. It means fixing the wrong thing you did.”

“But I don’t want to give up my new friends and…” Steve started to protest.

“Repentance doesn’t mean you have to give up your new friends. It doesn’t mean you have to be Davy’s friend forever. But it does mean you have to treat Davy with respect, to be honest with Davy, with your new friends, and with yourself. Davy’s body may be weak, but his mind is sharp. He senses your disrespect and your dishonesty, even if your new friends don’t. But they probably pick up on it too in their own way. That’s not how to build any kind of friendship. If you’re sincere about repentance, then you should start by thinking about practicing respect and honesty.”

Davy was back in school the next week. Things were as awkward as before. Steve still felt torn between Davy and his new friends. And despite thinking over what his father had said, he hadn’t even begun to figure out how to practice respect and honesty in this situation. He was sitting with some of his new friends in the cafeteria when Davy rolled his wheelchair down a nearby aisle. Steve spontaneously waved, beckoning Davy to join them.

Davy guided his wheelchair up to them. One kid jumped up. “Hey Pretzel, you asshole, get lost. We don’t want a spaz around here.”

Steve felt a sudden rush of anger. “He has as much right to be here as you do. And his name is Davy. Don’t you dare call him Pretzel,” he shouted.

“So Nursey suddenly has a voice. We don’t fucking need you either.” The kid pushed Davy’s wheelchair hard. “Get the fuck out of here now.”

Steve grabbed the kid and pulled him away. “Leave him alone!” he shouted. The kid turned on Steve and started punching and kicking. Steve had never been very good at fighting–too thin, too klutzy–and he wasn’t any better now, but he did manage to land a couple of wild punches before the cafeteria monitors broke up the fight.

Both boys were automatically suspended for the rest of the day for fighting, even though the principal agreed that the other boy had instigated the fight. Davy came to Steve’s house right after school. “Hey, everybody at school is buzzing about you. All your new friends think you were great!” he said, showing more enthusiasm than he had shown in weeks. “Some of those kids aren’t so bad,” he added. Davy then handed Steve a folded note. “Jenny asked me to give you this.”

Steve opened the note. She had drawn a big heart with a message inside. It read: Stick to the violin. Love and xxxxx, Jenny.

“What did she say?” asked Davy. Steve handed him the note. “I guess she wasn’t impressed with your martial arts skills, but she still likes you,” he concluded. They both laughed together for the first time in a long time.

“I’m really sorry for leaving you that day. And I’m sorry that I wasn’t being straight with you or with any of the others. I should have stood up for you sooner.”

“It’s okay. Forget about it,” Davy said.

But Steve didn’t forget about it. He remembered it every Yom Kippur as he read through the list of sins and thought about what repentance really means.

Dancing with the Torah

Once, at a crowded Simchat Torah celebration, a rabbi took the Torah and danced out of the synagogue and into the street. The huge crowd followed the rabbi and the Torah, dancing right behind them like a giant, zigzagging snake, up and down the street. The street was packed bumper to bumper with cars, which couldn’t move because of the crowds. The rabbi, carrying the Torah high up in the air for everyone to see, jumped up on the hood of a parked car, and then started dancing from car to car, jumping from hood to hood, on the roofs, across the car trunks. From where a child holding onto his dad was standing in the crowd that followed the rabbi, it looked like the rabbi was dancing in thin air. People sang and danced and clapped their hands. Rebecca loved to hear her father tell the story of the rabbi who danced on air with the Torah.

Rebecca and her family belonged to a small synagogue. They loved to celebrate Simchat Torah. Everyone sang and danced enthusiastically while the grownups carried the Torahs. Sometimes, if the night wasn’t too cold, they took the Torahs outside, onto the lawn in front of the synagogue. Cars driving by would honk their horns. Her father, who had been the little child in the crowd, often told her about the rabbi who appeared to dance in the air. She would have loved to see it, to do it even, but she would have been afraid. Rebecca couldn’t imagine their rabbi or anybody ever jumping up on a car while holding a Torah. What if they fell and dropped it?

Simchat Torah is the holiday that celebrates the completion of the reading of the Torah. Jews are always reading the Torah, every week, year after year, generation after generation. During the Simchat Torah celebration, we Jews read the last portion of the Torah and then immediately start again at the beginning. In this way, we never really finish because when we get to the end, we start all over. And each time we read the Torah, we find something new and important to our lives in it.

Rebecca loved Simchat Torah, especially the dancing and singing. It was more fun, she felt, than Sukkoth with its Sukkah, Passover and its Seder, Rosh Hashanah with its apples and honey and sound of the shofar, Purim with its costumes and sweets, and even Chanukah with its lights and presents. This year, however, she felt a little nervous as Simchat Torah approached.

The previous spring Rebecca had turned 13 years old and had celebrated her bat mitzvah. She read from the Torah, chanted the Haftarah, and led half the entire service. Afterward, she had a party with her family and friends. It was a great time. But now, she would be expected to carry a Torah during a Hakkafah, a procession of Torahs, because she was considered an adult, and she was quite large and strong for her age.

There are seven Hakkafot during the Simchat Torah celebration. For each one, someone would take a Torah and lead a group of dancers. Her small congregation had 14 Torahs, some bigger, some smaller. Unless you were a child or were too old or sick to carry a Torah, everyone took a turn. Some people had more than one turn. She felt that people expected her to carry a Torah and she really wanted to, but she was a little afraid.

“You better eat your Wheaties if you’re going to be strong enough to carry a Torah on Simchat Torah,” her big brother said one morning at breakfast during Sukkot. “If you drop it, everyone in the congregation will have to fast for 40 days, and they’ll all be mad at you.”

“Nobody could fast for 40 days. They’d die. You’re lying,” she answered. But still, Rebecca was worried that she might drop a Torah. She had heard that 40-day thing before. The woman who led Junior Congregation had explained that there were other ways the congregation could show it was sorry for dropping the Torah, but she still never wanted to be the one to drop a Torah.

Rebecca had never carried and danced with a big Torah. They used a small Torah in Junior Congregation, which she carried all the time. But the Torahs in the Aron Kodesh in the grownup up service were much, much bigger.

In the years before her bat mitzvah, her dad and her mom and her big brother had taken turns carrying a Torah in a hakkafah. When she was a little child, she would hold onto her dad’s tallit or her mom’s skirt and be pulled along by them as they danced and sang and spun around. Sometimes she would get all tangled in her dad’s big tallit. Once, he held her in his arms just like he held the Torah. “You know, you are just about the size and weight of a Torah,” he told her, “but the Torah doesn’t wiggle and squirm.” They both laughed.

Now Rebecca knew she would be expected to carry a Torah in a hakkafah, and she was afraid she might drop it. She mentioned her fears to her mom, but she didn’t want to make a big thing of it. “They will give you one of the smaller Torahs, and there will be lots of people around you so you’ll have plenty of help if you need it. But nobody will make you carry a Torah if you don’t want to,” her mom explained. Rebecca really, really did want to carry a Torah in a hakkafah. She was just a little nervous.

Like all Jewish holidays, Simchat Torah starts the night before. Rebecca’s congregation does the hakkafot that night and the next day, but it is the night service when the dancing gets most enthusiastic.

The night of Simchat Torah was clear, dry, and cool. “It’s a perfect night for hakkafot,” observed her dad as the family left for the synagogue. “I guess you’ll be carrying a Torah this year,” he added, nodding in Rebecca’s direction.

“Maybe. I’m not sure,” Rebecca replied, very quietly.

“What’s the matter? You love Simchat Torah. You know more songs and dances than anybody,” her dad continued.

“She’s chicken,” her brother chimed in. “She’s afraid she’ll drop the Torah, and she probably will.”

“That’s not a nice thing to say, and it’s not even true. I have never in my life seen anybody ever drop a Torah, not ever. I have seen old people, sick people, frail people—all sorts of people—carry the Torah and no one has ever dropped it. If Rebecca decides to carry a Torah, she won’t drop it either,” her dad said, reassuringly. Rebecca wasn’t so sure.

By the time her family arrived, the synagogue was already crowded. All Rebecca’s friends were there. It wasn’t long before the Aron Kodesh was opened and the rabbi and cantor started taking all the Torahs out of the ark. They passed them first to the leaders of the congregation. They paraded around the synagogue. People chanted Torah Torah, Oseh Shalom, and song after song. Everybody sang, clapped, and danced in circles around each Torah.

With the second hakkafah, the rabbi and cantor started handing the Torahs to any adult in the congregation. By the third and fourth hakkafot, the rabbi and cantor had each offered a Torah to Rebecca. She politely declined each time.

By the fifth and sixth hakkafot, the crowd of dancers had pushed beyond the sanctuary. People were dancing with Torahs in the hallways. Some of her friends had already carried the Torah but still Rebecca declined. “It’s great!” one of her friends insisted. Maybe she really was chicken, Rebecca thought. The songs grew louder, the dancers went faster and faster. Sometimes two or three Torah carriers would join up, raising their Torahs high as people clapped and sang and gathered around them.

“This is your last chance, chicken. I’ve already had two hakkafot. Want me to take yours too?” said her brother, as the rabbi and cantor passed out Torahs for the seventh and final hakkafah. The rabbi held one out to Rebecca. She hesitated.

The rabbi smiled at her, reassuringly. “Please, take it. It won’t bite you,” he said quietly, confidently. Her arms felt weak, but she reached out and took the Torah. She was surprised. It didn’t feel so heavy, and it didn’t squirm. Rebecca rested it against her shoulder. She put one arm securely underneath it. She wrapped the other around it. She could feel energy pulsing through her body.

Rebecca felt the surge of the crowd as she danced down the aisle of the sanctuary and out into the lobby. All around her were Torahs, people, singing, clapping. Everything seemed in motion. Suddenly, she saw the big double doors to the outside. Holding her Torah high she danced to the doors. The crowd pushed them open and everyone streamed outside behind her. The night was cool and clear. A million stars twinkled in the sky.

Dancing with the Torah under the stars and surrounded by her community, Rebecca suddenly felt like she was Miriam, dancing with her timbrel on the shore of the Red Sea as the Israelites surged across. With the Torah, seemingly as light as a feather in her arms, she danced and sang and twirled. She imagined herself at Mt. Sinai celebrating the gift of the Ten Commandments. In the next moment, she felt she was entering the Promised Land with Joshua, at the head of the Israelites. She saw herself marching alongside Deborah, leading the Israelites against Sisera. Then she was standing with King Solomon dedicating the Temple in Jerusalem.

Other Torah carriers joined her as they danced across the lawn and around the trees. The crowd streamed around them. Among the crowd Rebecca imagined she could see Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, Joseph, Moses, Aaron–all the Jews who live forever in the Torah. They were all there, dancing with her. Rebecca could have danced on and on without stopping, and she might have until her father tapped her and motioned her and the others to head inside the synagogue.

All the scrolls except one were returned to the ark. The rabbi took the last scroll and finished the service. The Simchat Torah service ended, although to Rebecca it seemed as if something new had just begun. She felt fresh, energized, and excited. She had carried a Torah like a grownup and led a hakkafah by herself, as Jews had done all through the ages. She now felt as one of them, that she had truly joined them. Dancing with the Torah, Rebecca felt for the first time that it really was hers, that she was a part of the Torah, passing it from generation to generation, dor v’dor, forever and ever.


The day Miriam’s father, Noah Levine, showed up unexpectedly as a chaperone at a school dance she wanted to die. He wore his kippah, a little prayer cap, on his head and had his tzitzis, the special fringes some Jews wear, hanging out from under his shirt. She knew how weird he appeared to all her friends. She could see the guys snickering as he joined the other parents along the wall. They, at least looked normal. She wished she could fall through a hole and disappear.

“What’s your dad doing here?” asked Jessica, her best friend.

“He really looks a little out of place, even over with all the other parents,” added Ann, another good friend.

Before she could answer, her father spotted her and walked over. Everybody saw him. “You aren’t supposed to be here,” she blurted out.

“Bob Kaufman got sick at the last minute and asked me if I could take his place. Just ignore me. I’ll be with the other parents over by the refreshments,” he said. Miriam’s father appreciated that she didn’t like being seen with her parents. He tried to let her have her independence, within bounds. He briefly said hello to Ann and Jessica and slipped away.

Her father stayed out of sight the rest of the night, but as far as Miriam was concerned the damage had already been done. All the kids had seen him, had seen how.. how.. how different he was. He was an observant Jew. She could accept keeping kosher and attending synagogue regularly and missing things that other kids did on Friday night and Saturday–that was part of being Jewish. Being Jewish was okay, most of the time anyway. But when her father wore his yarmulke and his tzitzis in public and showed up at school, well, she could die of embarrassment.

The dance wasn’t the first time something like that happened. She remembered the time he picked her up early because she had a doctor’s appointment. Usually her mother did those kinds of things with her during the day because her father worked in an office downtown. But this time he showed up and walked right up and stood in the classroom doorway instead of picking her up at the school office downstairs. The moment he appeared with tzitzit hanging out and wearing his kippah some of the kids started laughing. Miriam, who was getting ready to go down to the school office to meet her mother, quickly grabbed the rest of her things and left. He was out in the hallway by now and as she rushed out of the room one boy he whispered: “Tell your father he has little Jew things hanging out. Maybe he should tuck in his shirt.”

Miriam stopped for a second and wanted to say something. Not only was it disrespectful of her father it seemed anti-Semitic too. Still, she couldn’t think of any smart comeback. Anyway, her father motioned to her from the hallway so she hurried out.

“Why didn’t you just go to the office? I would have met you there. That’s what you’re supposed to do,” said Miriam in an angry, scolding tone.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I went to the office and they looked at your schedule and told me where you were, so I went to get you. Your mother called me at the last minute because she was delayed,” he said, only somewhat apologetically.

They walked quickly down the hallway. Miriam wanted to get out of there before anyone else saw him, or worse yet saw her with him. “If we have to do this again, I’ll just meet you at the car, okay,” she snapped.

“No, that’s not okay. I will pick you up at the office if that is how it is supposed to be done. Frankly, I don’t see what’s wrong if I come up to your classroom.”

“Just forget it,” said Miriam, pushing through the doors leading outside. She knew it wasn’t her father’s fault. She loved her father, but sometimes he made things hard for her without even intending to. He just didn’t understand.

The morning after the dance, Miriam complained to her mother about her father chaperoning at the dance. “Did any of the kids stay away from you because he was there? Was there something that you would have done but didn’t because he was there?” her mother asked the next morning.

“Well, no. It’s nothing like that exactly. But, uh, but its embarrassing. Just look at him,” Miriam said, struggling to put into words exactly what she felt.

“I do look at him, and I think your father is quite handsome,” her mother replied.

“Not that. His clothes, the yarmulke, the tzitzit, and the hat, that stupid black hat. He doesn’t look like anybody else, not even other Jewish dads. It’s so embarrassing,” Miriam continued.

“Embarrassing? You don’t know what embarrassing is. In the Torah, Noah–the original Noah–became drunk after the flood, took off all his clothes, and passed out naked on the floor. Now that’s embarrassing! Your father is a Jew, an observant Jew,” said her mother. “How do you expect him to look?”

“I just wish he didn’t look so different, at least in public,” Miriam said quietly.

“You know what Noah’s oldest children did when they saw their father? They covered him up with a blanket so he wouldn’t embarrass himself. They knew what was right. They protected their father and respected him, and God blessed them for it.”

Miriam loved her father, but she couldn’t imagine how she could protect him. The original Noah’s kids had it easy. They just had to throw a blanket over their father. They didn’t have to deal with lots of other kids in school or say anything. Like when she wanted to say something to the boy when her father came to pick her up that day at school but she couldn’t think of anything to say. She knew, however, what the kids said about her father. They made fun of his Jewish appearance and clothing and mannerisms. Some kids didn’t want to carpool with her because they didn’t like riding with him. The nicer ones called him Mr. Rules and Regulations. A few called him the rules Nazis or the Gestapo. Other than glare at them, she didn’t know what to say so she said nothing. “Please, just don’t let him chaperone anymore school dances,” she asked. Her mother agreed; she understood.

Miriam loved her father and would love to defend him like Noah’s children did in the Torah, but she didn’t know how. And even she had to admit that he looked kind of silly compared to the other dads. They wore baseball caps outdoors but he wore black felt hat, a fedora, over his kippah. It looked like he stepped out of a movie or just got off a boat from the old country. And she was afraid of what her friends would say. And he was strict about rules. Sometimes she wished he were more flexible at least when it came to her friends. It was one thing to be strict with her in their house, but it was something else when she was off doing something with her friends.

She remembered the time she and some girlfriends were going to a dance at the Jewish Community Center, the JCC. None of the other parents were able to drive so her father agreed to drive. He was always willing to drive Miriam and her friends or pick them up. Some of her friends thought that was how he spied on what they were doing. Yes, he always wanted to know where she was going and what she was doing and who she was with, but it wasn’t spying. It was just being a parent, she thought.

For the JCC dance, he picked up Jessica and then Ann. When they arrived at Sarah Martin’s house, she came out wearing a really short skirt and a tight top with spaghetti straps and her belly button was showing. The moment she got into the car her father declared that he wouldn’t take her to the dance unless she put on something decent.

“But this is what I always wear to JCC dances, Mr. Levine,” Sarah protested.

“Do your parents know what you are wearing? Do they approve of this outfit?”

Sarah hesitated a moment and then said yes.

Mr. Levine put the car in park, turned off the ignition, and started to get out of the car. “I want to hear them tell me that directly.”

“Wait. They’re not home,” Sarah explained.

“Then we can call them on the phone,” Mr. Levine insisted.

“We can’t. I don’t know how to reach them.”

“Then I guess it is up to me, and I’m not driving to the dance until you put on something decent to wear in public.”

Miriam felt she should say something. Of course she wouldn’t dare wear an outfit like that in public. And she knew Ann and Jessica would not be allowed to go out wearing that kind of outfit, but she didn’t say anything. She even felt Sarah went a little too far and actually agreed with her father. Here was an opportunity to defend her him, she thought, but she sat there embarrassed and said nothing.

“I can wait here all evening or I can take you girls home right now,” said Mr. Levine.

Sarah went inside and changed. Miriam could easily guess what Sarah would say to the kids in school. Mr. Rules and Regulations, the rules Nazis, strikes again.

But that wasn’t nearly as bad as the time she invited Davida, a girl she didn’t know very well, to her house. They were playing on the computer and hitting various Internet sites for teens. They looked at a journal Miriam and some of her other friends kept on a website. Then Davida showed her another site where she kept a personal page.

Miriam and her brother each have computers at home in their bedrooms. Those computers, however, aren’t connected to the Internet. The only computer in the house connected to the Internet is in the family room so it isn’t exactly private. Davida’s personal page was titled Sucky Girls and named girls she didn’t like and described all the things she didn’t like about those girls. Miriam scrolled through the page. She didn’t know most of the girls. The few she did know she didn’t think were so bad. In fact, some of them were kids she liked.

“How can you say some of this stuff? It’s not even true,” Miriam asked.

“It’s just for fun. Everyone knows I’m just goofing on them. Don’t worry. Nobody takes it seriously. It’s just for fun,” Davida replied.

Miriam’s father had entered the room looking for a book on the shelves by the computer. Miriam and Davida had been so absorbed in the website they didn’t notice him at first. When they did notice him, he was reading Davida’s web page.

“You find writing hateful things like this fun?” Mr. Levine asked in his most sarcastic tone. Miriam braced for her father to launch into one of his Mr. Rules and Regulations lectures and she couldn’t really blame him. She found Davida’s web page pretty offensive too.

“It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a personal web page. Nobody takes it seriously. Probably nobody even sees it,” said Davida.

“It’s on the Web. Millions of people can see it. What if those girls see it? Will they find it funny or will they be hurt? Would you like somebody to write these things about you?”

“I mean it’s just a stupid website. You don’t have to make such a big deal about it. It’s nothing,” argued Davida.

“I don’t think it is nothing, and I don’t believe you think it is nothing either. Have you proudly showed this to your parents?”

“My parents are divorced,” Davida replied.

“That doesn’t matter. You still must talk to at least one of them. Did you show it to either of them?”

“No, they wouldn’t be interested,” Davida mumbled.

“We’ll see,” said Mr. Levine, picking up his book and leaving the room.

Davida turned to Miriam. “Is your father always weird like this?”

“I guess so. He studies a lot of Torah and Talmud and believes the Second Temple was destroyed because people were hateful. So, he doesn’t like hateful things,” said Miriam.

“You mean he believes that old stuff? Do you?”

Miriam knew she should say yes, he believes it and she does too, sort of, but she didn’t.

That evening Miriam’s father told her that he called Davida’s home and talked with her mother about the website. She had no idea what Davida was doing with her website. “Do you know what that kind of personal, groundless hate talk leads to?” he asked Miriam.

“No, not really. To the destruction of the Temple, I guess,” answered Miriam.

“Yeah, well the Temple is already gone. I’m more concerned about the alienation and the violence and the suicide it could lead to today. It’s more than just goofing if it drives a child to deliberately take an overdose of pills or sneak a gun into school and start blowing away people. And those things do happen as you know.”

Miriam felt his disappointment in her although he didn’t criticize her explicitly. Instead, he gave her a hug and kiss. Even worse was her disappointment in herself. She knew Davida’s website was wrong, but she didn’t speak out, at least not very strongly.

Predictably, word got around school that Miriam’s father had told Davida’s mother about the website and she made her take it down. “Your father’s a real dork,” one girl said, walking by her. Miriam didn’t know what to say.

The school dance matter was pretty much forgotten by everyone over the next few weeks. Miriam, Ann, and Jessica spent a lot of time together. They were part of a loose circle of friends who played in the school orchestra and worked on the school newspaper. A few, including Miriam, played sports, mainly soccer or field hockey. Miriam’s parents generally approved of her choice of friends, and gave her some freedom to come and go. Of course, she had to have all her schoolwork finished before she went anywhere, and she had to tell them where she was going, who would be there, and when she would return.

Sometimes her mother or father called one of her friend’s parents just to check. Her parents, she and her friends agreed, were stricter than anyone else’s parents. Mr. and Mrs. Rules and Regulations. Still, they were always willing to give Miriam and her friends rides to places and pick them up. The rides probably were part of how her parents checked up on her, but she and her friends didn’t really mind most of the time. They needed the rides, and the other parents usually said they were too busy. One or the other of Miriam’s parents always made themselves available for chauffer duty.

Especially her father. Once her father even told her: “If you ever find yourself someplace and you need help–even someplace you know we don’t approve of–you can always call me or your mother, no matter what. It is more important that you be safe than whether we’d be angry.” She insisted she would never get herself into a situation like that. “But just in case you do, you can always call us,” he repeated.

Months later Miriam told her parents that she was going to meet Ann and Jessica and they were going to the house of another girl, Carol. Miriam didn’t know Carol very well, but Jessica’s parents were friends with Carol’s parents so the girls were friends. Miriam promised to be home by dinner. But when the four girls got together they decided to go to the nearby shopping mall.

Miriam didn’t want to go at first. She knew her parents didn’t like the idea of hanging out at the mall, and she hadn’t told her parents she was going there. “I have to buy a birthday present for my mom. Besides, we’ll still be back for you to get home by supper,” said Carol. Miriam was uncomfortable about it, but she went along. They walked to the nearby mall.

At the mall they went into music stores and listened to the latest releases. They forgot all about buying a birthday present. They bought some snacks. Then they checked out some of the newest clothing styles, but soon they got bored. They were thinking of leaving when they bumped into some older boys from school, mainly friends of Carol, who sometimes hung out with a faster sort of crowd. One of them had a car, and they were going to a party. They invited the girls. Miriam knew she shouldn’t go, but it did sound fun and exciting. And it was just the afternoon. What harm could it be? The boy had his mother’s van. They all piled in.

Miriam didn’t know the boy who was having the party although she had heard of him. He was a troublemaker at school. His parents were away for the day. It seemed like a million kids were crowded into the house when they arrived. At first it was fun. Kids were playing music on the stereo real loud. In another room a couple of kids turned on the big screen TV and were watching a loud music video.

Pretty soon, however, some kids found liquor in the house and a lot of kids began drinking it. Another found pills–prescription drugs–in the parents’ bedroom. Some kids started taking the pills and drinking liquor. Miriam, Ann, Jessica, and Carol were getting scared. Then some of the older boys started pushing liquor at them and threw their arms around them. The girls wanted to leave, even Carol, but they weren’t sure how to get home. It was way too far to walk.

They needed a ride, but the boys who brought them had no intention of leaving. They were drinking the liquor and taking pills too. In fact, Miriam decided she wouldn’t even get into the car if the boy drove. His eyes looked funny and he could barely stand up. Another boy kept trying to pull Jessica onto a sofa. “We have to call one of our parents for a ride,” Jessica said urgently. However, each girl was afraid to call her parents.

“They would kill me if they knew I was here,” said Ann. Jessica’s parents would be furious too. As they were trying to decide what to do, a few kids pushed past them holding up a boy.

“Get him to the bathroom fast,” one boy said.

But before they could get past the Miriam and the other girls, the boy being helped suddenly threw up. The stream of liquid hit the floor and splashed onto Carol’s sneakers and jeans. “Hey, watch out, you asshole,” she screamed. It really smelled.

“We gotta get out of here,” Jessica insisted. Then Miriam remembered what her dad once said about getting into bad situations. “I can call my dad. He’ll come for us,” she volunteered.

“Don’t do that. Your father is the rules Nazis. He’ll tell all our parents. Then we’ll be in trouble,” Carol argued even as she was trying to wipe clean her sneaker with an old Kleenex tissue.

“Then call your stupid parents,” said Miriam in exasperation and anger.

“I can’t do that. They’d kill me if they found out I was here,” Carol admitted.

“Then I’m calling my father. He’ll come and get us, and whatever he does, it won’t be as bad as staying here,” Miriam declared. The party was getting noisier and crazier by the minute. Some kids were getting very rough and breaking things. “You can stay here if you like, but I’m leaving now,” she announced. Miriam found a phone in the kitchen.

All four girls were standing on the street outside the house when her father pulled up. Ann, Jessica, and Carol had decided it was better to go with Miriam than stay at the party any longer. “What’s happening in there that you didn’t want me to come to the door?” he asked, suspiciously.

“Nothing much, just a lot of kids being obnoxious. What’s for supper?” asked Miriam, trying to change the subject.

Her father wouldn’t change the subject. Instead, he kept asking questions and he didn’t accept evasive answers. Before long the girls spilled all that was going on in the house–the liquor and the drugs and throwing up on Carol’s shoes and breaking things. He stopped the car. “I’m calling the police right now,” he said and pulled out his cell phone.

“You can’t!” shouted Carol in a panic. “You’ll get them in trouble. They’ll think we’re assholes for telling on them. You can’t. You’ll turn us all into outcasts, lepers, whores. They’ll think were the worst kind of bitches.”

Carol was right about what the kids would think of them, Miriam thought, but her father was right too. The party was way out of hand. She was scared. “No. Dad’s right. You know about mixing alcohol and drugs. They could get real sick. Someone could even die,” argued Miriam, jumping to her father’s defense. Jessica and Ann quietly agreed with her.

Acting on the call from Miriam’s father, the police quickly arrived at the party. More kids were throwing up. A couple of others had already passed out from the combination of liquor and drugs. Several were rushed to the hospital in ambulances. On the TV news that night, a doctor said several of the kids might have died if they hadn’t gotten help as fast as they did.

Miriam expected to be severely punished. She had gone off without telling her parents where she was, and she had done things she knew were wrong. She expected the worst when her father came into her room. “You called me when you were in a bad situation, so I don’t feel I can punish you. You already know what you did was wrong. I think you’ve learned a very good lesson. And, I’m thankful to God that nobody died.”

“I did learn a lesson, more than one,” whispered Miriam, contritely. She was also thinking about how she finally had stood up for her father in front of her friends, how she had defended his decision to call the police. It wasn’t a lot, but it was something, more than she had ever done before.

“But, there is still the problem of all the damage done to that family’s home. I have spoken on the phone with some of the other parents,” her father continued. “Although I believe you didn’t do the damage, you were there. We decided that all the kids will have to help pay for the damage and help clean up the house. That means you and Ann and Jessica and Carol too. Their parents concur.”

“I’ll use my babysitting money,” Miriam agreed. She had worked hard for that money and was planning to use it for a big trip with the synagogue youth group.

Her father gave her a kiss and a hug. As he was leaving her room, he paused: “Thank you for sticking up for me when I stopped to call the police. I appreciated your support. I know it is hard to tell on other kids, and your friends think I’m a creep. But we may have saved somebody’s life by not waiting until we got home to call.”

Miriam hugged him again: “I don’t think you’re a creep, and I don’t care if they do.” Then, remembering the story her mother told of the biblical Noah, “I guess I am Noah’s child in more ways than one. I love you.”

The Meaning of Prayer

Ezra had never learned to pray. Oh, he learned lots of Jewish prayers all right. He learned prayers as songs with his mom in the tot services at their synagogue. He learned to lead prayers in front of other children at Junior Congregation. And, of course, he had a bar mitzvah and led half the service with everybody he knew sitting there. So he knew how to say lots of prayers. But he still wondered why he bothered to learn these old Jewish prayers. It wasn’t until one summer when he was in college and his bubbie¾ his grandmother¾ asked him to go on a special trip for her that he learned what it really meant to pray as a Jew.

Bubbie was very old and sick that summer. She had escaped the Holocaust in Europe, come to America, and started a family here. Ezra was 21 years old, the oldest of her many grandchildren. Now Bubbie was in a nursing home. Ezra knew that she would never go back to her own home again. His parents, her doctors, and everybody else believed she had only a few weeks to live. Ezra had a job for the summer but made a point of visiting Bubbie every few days, even if he just stopped in for a few minutes.

He arrived one day and found his bubbie in bed holding a cloth folded on her lap. She picked it up and unfolded it when he walked in. “Do you know what this is, my sveeteleh?” she asked. She called all her grandchildren sveeteleh, gently mixing Yiddish and English.

“It looks like a tallit,” Ezra said, admiring the prayer shawl embroidered with beautiful golden threads, “a very old tallit. It’s beautiful.”

“It is my father’s tallis. Your great-grandfather. He asked me to take it when we fled the German invasion. We all had to escape in different directions. My mother and sisters and I went west and ended up here in America. My brother went east toward Russia. My father got us all out, but he was arrested before he could get out himself. In case something happened to him, he wanted me to give his tallis to my brother, your great uncle Jacob. Now, I want you to take this tallis, find my brother or his family, and give it to them.”

Ezra was stunned by this surprise request. He barely remembered hearing about a great Uncle Jacob when he was little. “Do you know if he even got out alive? Do you know where he is?” he stammered.

“We got one letter from him. It came after the War. He was alive and living in Russia somewhere. We tried to get him out, but with the politics and everything at that time, we lost touch with him. I want to get this to him. Now, I am too old and sick to do it myself, but you, sveeteleh, you can do it. You are smart and strong. Go now. Take this tallis and do this for me.”

“But I can’t leave you now,” Ezra protested. “What if…, what if..?”

“What if I die? I will surely die before you get back. But it will mean so much to me if I know that you are taking the tallis to Jacob. Please. Here is money to buy plane tickets and train tickets and hotels and food–whatever you will need,” she said, handing him a check.

Ezra knew he couldn’t refuse her. He took the tallit and the check and hugged and kissed her. “I will try to find them,” he promised as he left his bubbie. There were tears in his eyes.

Over the next few days, with his father’s help, Ezra did some research and made plans and preparations, getting all the necessary travel papers. He visited his bubbie once more, just before he left to catch a plane for Europe to start his search.

In Europe there are Jewish organizations that help families track down people who were separated during the Holocaust. Ezra visited these organizations and looked through their records, but couldn’t find anything.

He grew increasingly frustrated. Ezra had looked through thousands of files trying to find anything that matched the little he knew about Jacob. Every time he thought he had something, it didn’t work out. By the time he reached the last organization on his list, he was afraid he’d have to give up. “Try going to Moscow. Things have opened up there. You might find some records,” a young woman at the organization told him. She gave him the names and addresses of some Jews in Moscow who might help him.

By that time, it was late Friday afternoon. “Do you have a place to go for Shabbat?” asked the young woman, who introduced herself as Leah. Ezra had no plans for Shabbat and had been so busy, he hadn’t even thought of it. Leah invited him to Kabbalat Shabbat at her synagogue.

Ezra felt funny walking into this strange synagogue filled with strangers in a strange city. When the congregation began the service, Ezra recognized the words of familiar prayers¾ L’Chu N’ran’na, Yismichu, L’Cha Dodi¾ but the tunes were all different. “The cantor is a Sephardic Jew. I didn’t recognize his tunes at first.,” Leah pointed out, which explained why Ezra didn’t recognize the melodies either.

“It’s beautiful,” Ezra replied, happy to be there with his new friend. Soon, he picked up the melodies and joined right in praying with the others. Before the service was over, he felt he was among friends. It didn’t feel so strange after all.

“Let me know what you find in Moscow,” Leah said when it was time to leave.

Ezra left a few days later for Moscow. When he arrived there he immediately started to look for the people Leah had told him about. He wanted to call them on the phone but couldn’t find their telephone number. So he took a cab to one of the addresses Leah had given him. It was evening. The cab left him standing in front of a dark building in a very poor part of town. Ezra was scared, but he knocked on the door.

An old woman came to the door and opened it just a crack. She didn’t speak English, and Ezra didn’t speak Russian or even Yiddish. He couldn’t make himself understood. But behind her, he heard familiar sounds. It sounded like Jewish prayers.

The old woman was about to close the door on him. “Jew, Juden, Eretz Yisrael, Shalom,” Ezra blurted out, thinking of any word she might recognize that would identify him as a Jew. The woman stopped and then motioned him to come in. Only later did he learn that the Russian word for Jew is Yevrai.

Inside, Ezra found a minyan. There were a couple of dozen men and women, some old, some young, and they were all praying. He picked up an old Hebrew siddur and joined in. Again, he found himself praying with strangers but surprised that the prayers were so familiar, even here in Moscow, so far from home. After the last kaddish, the people crowded around Ezra.

A few of the younger people spoke English. Ezra explained why he had come to Russia. They offered to help him, but they weren’t very hopeful. “It sounds like your great uncle, if he or his family is still alive, is probably in one of the former republics. There aren’t many Jews left there and it is hard to reach them by phone, but we’ll ask around,” one of the men said. Then, they all drank tea and ate some bread.

Ezra spent the next few days going through files at the office of an agency that kept information about misplaced people from past wars. But as before, he could turn up nothing on Jacob.

Returning to his hotel one evening a few days later, he found a message from one of the Russians he met at the minyan. They had found someone who knew someone who knew someone else who had known Ezra’s great uncle many years ago in the Ukraine. Ezra joined them again for minyan the next morning. After davening, they filled him in on the details. Everything seemed right, but many things could have changed in the years since this man last heard of Jacob. Still, Ezra wanted to leave immediately. “It will be a difficult trip,” his new friends warned. While he was arranging the paperwork to go to the Ukraine, he called his father with the news that he was pretty sure he had located Jacob and was going to deliver the tallit. He wanted his bubbie to know.

The trip to the Ukraine was difficult, as his new friends in Moscow said. It took a rough airplane ride and two uncomfortable trains to get to the small city deep in the Ukraine where Jacob was last known to live. Ezra arrived late on Friday and found a hotel. Nobody at the hotel had heard of Jacob. Ezra wasn’t surprised.

How would he find Jacob, Ezra wondered. He spoke a little Hebrew he had learned in Hebrew school and Spanish he had studied in high school and college, but he didn’t speak Ukrainian or even Russian. It seemed hopeless. Then, he realized: tomorrow is Saturday, Shabbat. If there are Jews still in this community, some of them would be at synagogue for Shabbat prayers. They would know of Jacob if anyone did.

Ezra, carrying the tallit Bubbie had entrusted to him, left his hotel early on Saturday morning looking for a taxi cab. He finally found one and jumped in the back. But he didn’t have an address of where he wanted to go. He didn’t even know if there was a synagogue. He tried to explain, but the driver didn’t speak English or Spanish and certainly not Hebrew. Then, Ezra remembered the one Russian word he had learned, Yevrai, which meant Jew. “Yevrai,” he said.

“Yevrai?” the driver repeated, puzzled.

“Yevrai. Yevrai. Yevrai!” Ezra persisted. The driver seemed to think for a minute and then started to drive. He took Ezra into a rundown section of town, finally stopping across the street from an old building with peeling paint that might have been an abandoned warehouse.

“Yevrai,” the driver said, pointing at the building. Ezra noticed some men walking along the street and going into the building. A few wore kipot. He paid the driver, got out of the cab, and entered the building.

Again, Ezra found himself in an unfamiliar place filled with strangers but surrounded by familiar things: a Hebrew siddur, the prayer book; the Aron Kodesh, the ark containing the Torah; and the Ner Tamid, the eternal light. He put on the tallit he had carried so far–his great-grandfather’s tallit¾ and joined in. A man invited him to take an aliyah. On a makeshift bimah, Ezra chanted the first of the ancient blessings¾ Barchu et Adonai ham’vo’rah¾ and the congregation responded–Boruch Adonai ham’vo’roh l’olom voed¾ just as it would at home. The Torah reading, the Musaf service, it all seemed so familiar.

After the service, the people crowded around Ezra. Stumbling through a mixture of Hebrew and English, he managed to explain why he was there and asked if anyone knew Jacob, his great uncle. Jacob, Ezra learned, had indeed been a member of this congregation, but he had died years ago. However, his children and their families lived not too far away. They would be sent for. It would be a great reunion, the people promised.

One man offered to try to get someone to put a phone call through to Ezra’s family in the US. It wasn’t easy and didn’t always work, but this time they got lucky. That afternoon, the call went through. But Ezra’s joy at finding Jacob’s family was clouded by sad news: Bubbie had died.

By evening, at Maariv, the word of Ezra’s arrival had spread. Jacob’s children, sons and daughters, were there with their children, along with the entire Jewish community. Ezra gave the tallit to Jacob’s oldest child, a big man about the age of Ezra’s father. The man gave Ezra a great bear hug in thanks and immediately wrapped himself in the tallit. Together Ezra and his cousin led the congregation in prayers. They chanted the Mourner’s Kaddish for Bubbie and for Jacob. They thanked God for their blessings–and Ezra felt truly blessed–and they praised God’s greatness. They prayed for peace and health. After Havdallah, they ate and drank and talked and sang Jewish songs until late into the night.

The trip home was long, with stops in Moscow and Europe, where Ezra thanked all those new friends who had helped him and once again joined them in their prayers. At every prayer service Ezra and his new friends recited the Mourner’s Kaddish for Bubbie. Leah seemed particularly surprised and pleased that Ezra came by. After lingering with her a few days and promising to visit again soon, Ezra got on the plane for home. Only then, thinking over all that had happened, did he realize how many minyans and Shabbat services he had joined. Praying together had created a special bond, not only between him and God but between him and all these different people, who stopped being strangers and became more like family. It was through the saying of these ancient prayers that this special bond was forever strengthened, even across different languages, different countries, and different generations. Now, Ezra finally understood what it meant to pray as a Jew.

Honor and Revere

“Mom lets me stay up late!” David screamed.

“That’s her problem. Turn off that TV and go to your room and get into bed. It is too late for a seven-year old boy to be up. You have Sunday school tomorrow,” countered his father, Mark, trying to keep from losing his cool altogether.

“You can’t make me. I’m not going to bed. You’re not my dad anymore!” he shouted.

Mark, a big powerful man, suddenly slammed his fist down on the cluttered table in the small apartment. A glass, precariously balanced on a pile of dirty dishes, jiggled off and shattered on the floor. “I sure as hell am your father, and I will be for as long as you live, no matter what. Now get into bed while I clean this up. And watch where you step,” he ordered.

Frightened by his father’s anger and the shattered glass, David scooted to his room, carefully avoiding the area of broken glass. “Brush your teeth. I’ll be in to kiss you goodnight in a couple of minutes, as soon as I sweep this up,” Mark added.

Ten minutes later Mark entered the spare room where David slept. The room was bare. A suitcase with David’s weekend clothes lay open on a folding table. A few toys and games were strewn about. David was in bed, which was little more than a camp cot, with his special animal, some Beanie Baby whose name Mark could never seem to remember. Mark picked up storybook lying on the floor. “Wanna story?” he asked.

David nodded. Mark read the story and hugged and kissed the boy before tucking him in for the night. “No matter what happens between your mother and me, you are my son, and I am your father, and I will always love you, always,” he said quietly yet emphatically, and then turned out the light.

Back in the kitchen, Mark finished cleaning the dishes, threw out the pizza box, and dropped empty soft drink bottles into the recycling bin. He tried to sort out his angry feelings, but there were so many of them, he didn’t know what to be angry about first. He was furious with Myra, his ex-wife, if she was letting David stay up late.

And who knows what ideas she was putting in his head if David thought he wasn’t his father anymore? The hefty child support payments Mark made to cover David proved to him more painfully than anything else that he was David’s father. It had been Myra’s idea to have a child in the first place. From the time Mark was a kid, he had never gotten along with his father. So Mark didn’t really want children, but Myra talked him into it. Now he was paying the price and would pay for the rest of his life, he thought.

Despite his reluctance to have a child, Mark had grown to love David and tried to be a good father, although, admittedly, he really wasn’t very good at it. He had forced himself to play those silly toddler games with colorful plastic sorting pieces, but he never got into it with any natural enthusiasm and would stop playing as soon as he could find an excuse. At home, he preferred to be left alone to fool around with computers or watch sports on TV or just read a book. Maybe when David got older, the two would toss a football or baseball around, Mark had always hoped. They tried, but Mark didn’t have a lot of patience with the boy. His own father didn’t have much patience with him either, he recalled. His father, the successful big shot who had been a cheap bastard with his family for as long a Mark could remember, had barely spent any time with him at all while he was growing up. Anyway, at the least he hoped he could be a better father to David than his father was to him. And he certainly didn’t want to resent David over the support payments, but …well, he would try.

Then there was this crummy apartment with castoff furnishings and stuff he could pick up cheap. The money thing again. If he wasn’t sending Myra so much child support each month, mainly to support that damn house she insisted they buy, he could have a better place for himself, not some cheap apartment right off the highway. He didn’t plan to bring David here very often because it just wasn’t much of a place for kids. Here was this big complex of junky apartments populated, it seemed, mainly by divorced dads. They didn’t even have a crummy playground nearby.

Mark was at work a few weeks later when his father called. Mark, a senior software engineer and a project leader at a hot, fast track high tech company, worked in a small cubicle with a dozen engineers in their cubicles surrounding him. Sitting at their workstations, the engineers couldn’t see each other, but they could hear just about everything going on in nearby cubicles, so phone conversations, especially personal phone conversations, were awkward.

Mark’s mother had died a few years ago after a long illness. Mark and his father disagreed over how to care for his mother at that time. A lot of the disagreements revolved around money; his father, Mark believed, was so cheap he wouldn’t hire decent home nursing care. Mark, who was just starting out, had little money to spare. The issue of spending money on his mother’s care became just another in a long string of grudges against his father stretching back to his earliest memories of birthday parties and school pageants and baseball games that his father never managed to attend.

His father was still living in the house where Mark grew up. It was not far away. Mark could get there in less than an hour, which was the problem. His father called him for every little thing, which took a lot of nerve, Mark thought, for a guy who was never there when he needed him. Mark’s brother was smart; he got a job on the other side of the continent. His father never called his brother.

Mark answered the phone and instantly recognized his father’s frantic breathing. The message came in jumbled, agitated phrases. Cooking lunch. Oil. Accident. Spill. Turned off the wrong burner or maybe he turned on some burner instead of turning it off, Mark couldn’t quite tell. A piercing noise made it even harder to understand.

“What’s that noise?” Mark cut in. Then he realized; it was the smoke detector. “Is there a fire? Is that what you’re trying to tell me? Is the kitchen on fire? Then get out! Get out right now. Hang up and get out! I’ll call the police. Go. Get out of the house.”

Mark slammed down the phone, instantly snatched it up again, and dialed 911. Then he realized that he was reporting a fire in a town fifty miles away. It took a few frantic tries but he finally got through to the local police in his father’s town and reported the problem. Fire engines had already been dispatched, he was told. A neighbor saw the smoke and called the fire department. Mark’s father had gotten out safely.

The fire might be under control but Mark was fuming. His father was losing it. He had been losing it for years. He couldn’t take care of himself. He couldn’t take care of the house. The cheapskate wouldn’t hire any home care. He wouldn’t consider any kind of assisted living. He could manage by himself, he stubbornly insisted. Except he called Mark 20 times a week. And Mark dragged himself over there at least three times a week. Here was a guy who had been so successful–new cars, important business deals, fancy clothes–but wouldn’t spend a dime on decent home care, even for himself. So Mark had to put all his father’s medications into a tray with little compartments for each day’s dosage and his father still screwed up taking his medications. Mark went shopping for him and fixed things around the house and now he almost burned it down. Mark even cleaned the house, something he hated to do at his own house. And what did he get? Complaints and more demands. Not even a thank you.

Mark refused to drop everything and run over there again. Let the neighbor or the Red Cross take care of him for a while. Mark had his own problems. His ex-wife was creating hassles for him. He missed one lousy visitation date. OK, he was sorry. He called. He brought David a new toy. What more could he do? He was leading a big project that would pay him fat stock options and bonuses if his team finished it fast. Big venture capitalists were in on the deal. Talk about pressure. Now his father was burning down the house. Well, screw him.

Another visitation day. Mark planned to take David to a big park with a zoo and paddleboats and a carousel. David was excited. The weather, however, wasn’t promising. They rode the carousel, but before they could go out on a paddleboat it started to rain. They went to a kid’s movie instead and then found themselves hanging around in a mall. Mark was ready to take David home, but Myra wouldn’t be back to receive him for three more hours.

It had been a decent outing, Mark felt, even if the weather screwed up their original plans. But now David was getting whiny and cranky. They had already hit the chocolate chip cookie store in the mall. Mark didn’t know what to do next. “Wanna ride the escalator?” he offered.

“No,” snapped David, with an angry, defiant tone.

“How about a pretend trip in the car? You can sit behind the steering wheel and drive. I’ll be the passenger,” Mark suggested.

“No. I want to go home to Mommy,” David demanded.

“I’d like to take you home, but Mommy won’t be there for a couple more hours so we have to find something to do,” Mark said, exasperation coming through.

Suddenly, David was on the floor screaming and kicking. Mark was embarrassed and confused. “Stop that,” he ordered but immediately knew it was useless. People were starting to look at them. Out of desperation he scooped David up kicking and screaming, carried him to a nearby bench, and rocked him in a tight embrace. David continued to scream and struggle, but gradually he quieted down to a whimper.

A young woman, holding a bag from the bookstore in the mall, watched the scene, first with concern and then with something like admiration. As David quieted, she approached. “Do you need any help? Here’s a clean tissue. Can I get him a drink or a cookie or something?”

“Thanks,” Mark replied, taking the tissue and gently wiping David’s face. “I think we’ll be all right now, if we can just manage for another hour or so.”

“You handled that amazingly well. You must be a wonderful dad,” she continued.

“You kidding? I’m probably the worst dad–or maybe the second worst; my father was even worse,” said Mark, hiding how flattered he actually felt. “I’ll be able to take him back to my ex in a while,” he continued. “I mean his mother,” he quickly added. Mark had begun to notice that the woman was quite attractive in a quiet, unassuming way. She had big round brown eyes and long wavy brown hair pulled back in some kind of fancy braid. He guessed she was a few years younger than he was. With nothing that looked like a wedding or engagement ring on her left hand, he concluded she was single. David was watching her too.

She fumbled in her bag from the bookstore. “Maybe I can help fill some time. I bought this book for my nieces,” she offered, and then addressed David. “They must be about your age. These are stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, a very famous writer. Would you like me to read you a story, if your dad doesn’t mind?”

David nodded yes. “The teacher read one of his stories in Sunday school,” he added.

“You really don’t have to. I mean, we’d love it, but you probably have to get going,” Mark stammered.

“I’m happy to help,” she said, and began reading. She had a sweet, soothing voice, yet quietly expressive. By the time she was finished, David had fallen asleep in Mark’s arms.

“I’m sorry,” Mark started to apologize. “He’s been under a lot of stress lately, with the divorce and all.”

She dismissed his apology. “I expected it might relax him, and I’m not surprised he fell asleep,” She did not, however, get up to leave.

Mark and the woman, Shira, sat on the bench and talked for the next couple of hours while David slept, snuggled on Mark’s lap. Shira was a Hebrew teacher who recently started a job at a nearby synagogue school. Mark tried not to bore her with the details of his divorce and his father. Instead, they talked about the Internet and education, about what little he knew of Jewish Web sites, the weather, apartment hunting, and the usual things people talk about when they are first getting to know each other, feeling out common ground. After the hassle of his divorce, another relationship was the last thing on Mark’s mind, but he couldn’t help notice that this woman was warm and kind, smart, and very attractive. Her eyes, he thought, we deep beckoning pools someone could fall into and never want to leave. Before they left the mall, he learned she usually attended Shabbat services at the same synagogue where she taught during the week. The synagogue wasn’t far from Mark’s apartment.

A few days later Mark was standing in the kitchen of his father’s house. He recalled its better days when his mother was alive and healthy. It was so spotless then; someone literally could eat off the floor. Now Mark wouldn’t even eat off the table. “You can’t stay here by yourself,” Mark insisted. The wall behind the stove was burned and peeling. He had cleared out the debris left from fighting the fire and cleaned the kitchen as best he could, but it still reeked of smoke and sooty grime seemed to cling to everything. “Don’t you understand how close you came to a disaster?”

His father seemed utterly unfazed by the fire. “You’ll have to fix that wall,” he said.

Mark was losing his patience. “Aren’t you even listening to me? You can’t live here alone because you can’t take care of this house or yourself. You could have been killed. You could have burned down the whole damn neighborhood. Listen, you cheapskate; either hire somebody to come in here and help you or move to some kind of home. Anyway, I’m tired of fixing stuff for you. Fix it yourself,” Mark said vehemently.

His father wandered away. He picked up an old pan that had warped in the heat of the fire. “Your mother got this pan from her mother when we got married,” he said. Mark knew the old man would now drift off into reveries of the old days. He generally ignored these ramblings. None of those memories included anything about Mark and his brother Steven or their years of growing up. As far as Mark could tell, the good old days started and ended before Mark and Steven arrived on the scene. He and his brother counted for nothing.

Mark grabbed his father, knocking the pan out of his hand. It clanged onto the floor. “Listen to me, for once. This is serious. You can’t stay here alone, and I’m not going to stay here with you!”

Suddenly his father started gasping for breath and slumped into Mark’s arms. Mark propped him up in a nearby chair. “Where are your pills?” he demanded, as he frantically searched the kitchen. His father clutched at his chest. Mark lunged for the phone and dialed 911.

Today was Saturday, Shabbat. After wasting so much time in the hospital with this father this past week Mark knew he should be at work, but here he was in a synagogue. Mark hadn’t been in a synagogue since the High Holidays months before. He couldn’t remember when he had last attended a Shabbat service that wasn’t also a major holiday. He never even showed up to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, a special prayer, when his mother died, for which he now felt guilty. He scanned the small crowd in the sanctuary. Shira was nowhere to be seen. He slipped into a seat toward the back. Maybe a few dozen people were scattered about. An usher invited him to take an ark-opening honor late in the service. Mark didn’t want to, but he felt it would be ungracious to refuse.

He had arrived early, well before the Torah service began. Mark preferred to arrive on the late side, but he didn’t want to miss Shira. By the time the Torah service began, the sanctuary had become comfortably full. While the Torah was carried around the room, Mark scanned the crowd. He couldn’t spot Shira. The rabbi announced the start of children’s services in another part of the building.

It was a beautiful spring day and without any sign of Shira, Mark was ready to leave, but then he remembered his ark-opening honor and felt obligated to stick it out. Maybe it was better she didn’t show up. He hadn’t figured out how he would approach her if she had been there. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to start something with this woman. Then he recalled how sweet she had been that afternoon at the mall and her delicious eyes. The rabbi began his d’var Torah, a sermon based on the week’s Torah reading, Kedoshim. Mark glanced around one more time. Shira wasn’t in sight. If she wasn’t here by now, he thought, she isn’t coming. The usher was standing by the door so there was no slipping out gracefully.

He wondered how long the rabbi would talk. Probably 15 minutes, he thought, enough for a nap. Then he caught the rabbi say something about honoring one’s parents. “What if one disagrees with one’s parents? How can we honor and revere them, as the Torah commands?” the rabbi challenged.

Just disagrees? That’s nothing. What if the child detests his father, Mark thought to himself. Honor and revere? When he thought of honoring and revering his father, he almost laughed out loud. But he suddenly found himself caught up in the rabbi’s words. The obligation of the child to his parents, the rabbi insisted, takes precedent over financial circumstances, personal feelings toward the parent, and even other obligations. The rabbi recounted recent conversations with adults who came to him confused and conflicted over their obligations to their parents. “Should they give up special ice skating lessons for a gifted child to pay for care for an aging parent? Should they put a promising career on hold to attend to a sick parent who, they felt, had been abusive toward them as children?” recounted the rabbi. Even hardships, the rabbi insisted, do not relieve anyone of the obligation to honor and revere one’s parents. The Torah accepts no excuses. The Talmud recognizes no mitigating circumstances. “Even if one’s father is evil and a man of iniquity, one must honor and revere him,” the rabbi explained, quoting from Maimonides, a great sage. “The most difficult commandment to observe,” the rabbi continued, “may be the one to honor your mother and father.” You can say that again, Mark whispered to himself.

The rabbi’s comments disturbed Mark as he mulled them over in his mind throughout the rest of the service. He resented his father, he admitted, which made him feel more than justified in walking away from any obligation to the man. The rabbi, however, argued otherwise and had a lot of Talmudic sources to back him up. Mark wasn’t a particularly observant Jew, so why should he care what some old rabbis in the Talmud said? Would David honor and revere Mark? Mark couldn’t even tell how much David respected him now after his ex-wife poisoned the kid’s mind despite the fact that he was knocking himself out to support the kid.

The usher suddenly tapped Mark on the shoulder. He had been so wrapped up in his thoughts he lost track of the service. He had to open the Ark. He hurried to the front, opened the Ark, and turned around to face the congregation. Far in the back he saw a pack of young children. Standing among them was Shira. She saw him, smiled, and waved discretely. A few minutes after Mark returned to his seat; Shira led the children to the front to lead Adon Olam, the last prayer. When the service ended, she rushed up to him.

The next week was a blur. Mark spent what seemed to be hours on the phone with the hospital staff, doctors, social workers, and kitchen contractors as he scrambled to piece together some kind of arrangement for his father. Meanwhile, it was crunch time for his project at work. Management was applying the pressure. Venture capitalists, he had heard, were threatening to pull the plug. Mark was putting in long days and nights.

Mark wanted to put off dealing with his father for a few weeks, but the hospital was determined to release him. The insurance companies weren’t going to pay to keep him in the hospital a moment longer than necessary. Mark dashed out of work for an urgent meeting at the hospital. The only solution he could come up with was that his father, whether he liked it or not, would have to cough up some money and hire home care. Medicare or one of those government programs might cover some of it, but it didn’t matter. Mark didn’t have the time to screw around with his father now, so the old man had no choice.

The meeting at the hospital was tense. Crowded around his father’s bed, the social worker explained the situation. Some administrator-type brought in a bunch of forms and explained the limited home care covered by the insurance company. When they left, Mark stared at his father. “You’re going to have to pay somebody to come in more often than the insurance company will pay for. I can’t come by every day to check on you.”

“I’m not asking you to. I’m not asking you for anything. I’m not asking anybody,” retorted his father. “I’ll manage.”

“Bullshit. You’re always asking for everything. Do this. Do that. Fix this. Change that. You can’t manage to make a meal. You can’t keep your medicine straight. You can’t clean up after yourself. Just ask the fire department about how well you manage by yourself,” Mark exploded. “You’re just going to have to dig into your pocket and pay for some home help, you stubborn cheapskate.”

His father turned away. His body shuddered slightly and Mark could hear a whimpering sound. “Are you having another heart attack?” Mark asked. His father shook his head no. That’s when Mark noticed the tears. He had never seen his father cry. He couldn’t imagine his father ever crying. Not when Mark’s grandparents died. Not when Mark’s mother died. Never. But he was crying now.

“I can’t hire anybody. I don’t have any money,” his father said quietly.

Mark was flabbergasted. All those years. All that running around and not being there. He was supposed to be doing big deals. Making big money. And there were fancy suits and gifts of jewelry for his mother and nice cars. “But I thought you had money. What did you do, gamble it away or something?”

His father shook his head. “We spent it taking care of my parents first, your Bubbie and Zadie, and then mother’s parents, Oma and Opa, as they got old. Neither of them ever had very much. By the time mother got sick we didn’t have anything left. Your mother and I agreed that we didn’t want to be a burden on you and your brother, not the way our parents were on us,” he said. “I guess it’s time for me to die.”

“No, I didn’t mean that. I didn’t know,” Mark stammered. He didn’t know what to say. He was confused and angry. He suddenly pictured himself mortgaging his entire life. For what, to support a father who didn’t give a damn about him when he was growing up and an ex-wife with rich tastes? “I gotta get back to work. We’ll figure something out,” he said, almost spitting out the last words.

When the weekend rolled around Mark knew he should go into work. There was just too much to do. The project team had gotten signals that a rival might get up and running first, which would be disastrous. But this weekend Mark was scheduled to take David. Myra had made her own plans. If he stood the kid up again, Myra would haul him into court or worse. But what was he going to do with the David? He planned to park David in front of some video games while he worked from a computer in his bedroom. Then he remembered Shira. Mark decided to return to the synagogue with David.

“Synagogue?” David asked, making a sour face.

“Yeah, It’s Shabbos, like they talk about in Sunday school. It will be fun,” Mark promised. This time they attended Shira’s children’s service.

Shira again looked lovely to Mark in her long skirt and blouse, her dark eyes twinkling. She welcomed David warmly although David barely remembered meeting her before. She led David into a circle with other children, introduced him and began singing a song. She led them in some prayers. Later they played some games. Finally, she told a story from the Torah. David quickly got into the program. He answered some questions and even joined with a couple of other kids in leading a simple prayer. Mark faded into the background and watched Shira. For the first time in weeks he forgot the pressures of work and his father. She’s magical, he thought. Why isn’t she married, he asked himself. Then his thoughts returned to his project and his father, and it felt like the weight of the world again had been dropped on him.

Shira led the children into the adult service for the concluding prayer, Adon Olam, as Mark had seen previously. David bounded onto the bimah, the raised area in the front of the sanctuary, along with the other children. At the kiddush that followed, David gobbled some cookies and raced around with a bunch of other boys. Mark finally had a chance to talk with Shira.

“You looked wonderful,” Mark said as they slipped to a quiet corner of the social hall.

“Thanks. You look terrible,” Shira blurted out. “No, I didn’t mean it that way. I mean you look really really troubled. Has something happened?”

“Nah, just more of the same old stuff,” said Mark. But he didn’t realize how desperate he was for a sympathetic listener, and he spilled out far more than he intended–the fire, his father’s heart attack, the rabbi’s sermon from the previous week, work hassles, even his father’s financial straits.

When he was finished, she squeezed his arm. “You know, I think I can help you a little bit. David is such a sweet boy. If you and David would like, I’ll bring him to my apartment, and you can do some work or get some rest. I’ll take David to a nearby playground. We’ll have a good time, and you will join us for dinner. I boil up great pasta.”

“You don’t have to,” Mark protested half-heartedly.

“But I want to,” Shira insisted.

Shira’s apartment had a small balcony and a second bedroom full of toys she kept for the times when her nieces visited. The dining area was an extension of the living room. Mark arrived in the evening and read David a story while Shira bustled about in the kitchen. After dinner, David played with toys while Mark helped Shira clean up in the kitchen.

“Both my parents have been dead several years,” Shira recounted. They had died relatively young, in an auto accident right around Thanksgiving. “I never had the kind of problems people have with aging parents, but I also never had a chance to honor them in their old age. I wish I had,” she continued. Mark felt the gentle rebuke.

“I don’t wish he was dead. I don’t know what I wish. I guess I wish he would just go away for awhile, like when I was little. He was always disappearing then,” Mark said, trying to sort out his own feelings. “But that’s not going to happen. I’m going to end up honoring him with my checkbook and all my savings now and for years to come–it’s not such a privilege, I can tell you.”

“I know the money is important. I’m not naïve. I have to pay the bills each month too. But in the end, it is just money. The Torah knew what was really important–the chain from parents to children, from generation to generation. That’s why I said the Mourner’s Kaddish every day for the entire year following my parents’ deaths. Mark, you need to somehow reestablish a connection with your father. Then the money won’t seem like such a burden,” Shira urged.

The next week, Mark thought a lot about what Shira had said. The money remained a concern, but he put some pressure on his brother, who reluctantly agreed to help contribute to their father’s upkeep, at least until some government program kicked in. His brother was even angrier with his father than Mark was. Ironically, Mark found himself defending the old man. “Look, he took care of Bubbie and Zadie as well as Oma and Opa. How much can you expect from the guy?” Mark argued.

The pressure at work was still intense, but Mark managed to cut out on Sunday afternoon and take David to see his grandfather. He told himself it was a way to kill two birds with one stone–check in on his father and do something with David. His father, however, barely knew the boy, and Mark wondered what they would do for an afternoon in the old man’s house.

“He has his grandmother’s eyes, those deep, dark eyes,” said Mark’s father on seeing David again. “Do you see how much of your mother is in the boy?” he asked Mark. If anything Mark saw Myra written all over David. His father’s remark made him think of Shira’s eyes. Were they like his mother’s? He didn’t know.

Seated in a chair, Mark’s father started playing with the boy. First, he took a coin from his pocket and began doing little tricks with it. He would make it disappear in his hand and then pull it out from behind the boy’s ear. “Do it again, Zadie,” the boy would squeal each time. He never did anything like that with me, Mark thought. He didn’t know his father could even do tricks.

“Here is a game my Zadie played with me,” said Mark’s father. He taught David a hand slapping game, which required fast reflexes. David laughed and laughed as they repeatedly played the game. Again Mark wondered where this game suddenly came from. His father never played it with him or Steven.

“Come on my lap, and I will tell you a story,” Mark’s father offered. David crawled on the lap. Mark’s father starting telling stories of relatives Mark barely recalled. He told of family incidents Mark had never heard. David pumped the old man with question after question, which led to more and more stories. Mark was flabbergasted.

The afternoon flew by. David was reluctant to leave. “Your mother will be waiting,” Mark said, “but we’ll come back soon,” he promised. His father gave David a big hug and kiss, and then turned and gave a hug and kiss to Mark. Mark couldn’t remember when he had last kissed his father.

Mark and David returned repeatedly to visit Mark’s father in the months that followed. The old man poured out stories from his life. David eagerly absorbed every word. Mark listened in astonishment, his emotions careening back and forth between envy of David and resentment toward his father. The father Mark never had but would have loved suddenly emerged in his son’s grandfather; the situation galled him. He also noticed his father growing steadily weaker, almost fading away, as if he were emptying himself into his grandson. The two of them would talk and play while Mark puttered around keeping up the house or, more often, just eavesdropped.

His big project at work finally was completed. It was enough of a success to allow Mark to collect some bonus money. He moved into a nicer apartment, closer to his father. Otherwise, the money was simply sucked up by child support and in the care of his father. Shira was right, he realized, it was just money.

Between his attention to his father and pressure at work, Mark had had little time or emotional energy to invest in developing a relationship with Shira. Attractive as she was and as different as she was from Myra, he wasn’t ready for another emotional commitment. Maybe someday, but not now.

Mark’s father died that fall. A heart attack, an urgent phone call from the doctor, a mad dash from work to the hospital, and some hurried good-byes. Standing by his father’s bedside, Mark saw all the monitors and meters suddenly go flat. “I’m sorry,” said the nurse as she started to pull the sheet up. Mark leaned over, touched his father’s check, and then reached up to gently close his father’s eyes. I really am sad to lose you, he thought.

David was spending Thanksgiving with Mark. He guessed they would go a nearby restaurant. Afterward, they might hit a movie. That morning, however, Mark wanted to take David to a synagogue where he could say the Mourner’s Kaddish for his father. “It is a way to honor Zadie. We’re reminding God how much we loved Zadie and that God should take good care of him,” he explained to the boy. David loved the old man and missed him too, Mark realized. They hurried out to Shira’s synagogue.

“Will Shira be there?” David asked excitedly.

“I doubt it, but I don’t know. It’s a short service. We’ll be there together, you and me,” Mark replied. He wondered how much David missed Shira. Then he wondered how much he missed her. He tried not to think about it.

The Thanksgiving morning crowd was sparse, just over the 10-person minimum required for a minyan, for prayers to begin. Mark and David slipped into the back of the room. Then he noticed Shira sitting along the side. She quickly saw them and waved. David dashed up to her. She swept him up in her arms. “My Zadie died,” he blurted out.

When it came time for the Mourner’s Kaddish, Mark rose to recite the prayer. David jumped up too. Mark held his own son’s hand as he uttered out loud the ancient words praising God, a son’s tribute to his father: “Yitgadal v’yitkaddash shmay rabba … (Exalted and sanctified be His great Name…)

First Fast

“No way! I’m not going to wear that… that… that stupid rag!” shouted Tamar.

“Well, I’m certainly not going to buy you this thing. Just look at you,” insisted her mom.

“What’s wrong with it? All the kids where stuff like this,” Tamar argued. She was trying on a tight, slinky, jet-black dress with a revealing neckline that emphasized her budding figure.

“It’s too short. And, I don’t like the neckline. It makes you look too, uh, too..,” her mom sputtered.

“Too grown up? That’s it, isn’t it? I’m not a child anymore. I’m not going to let you dress me like a child. I’m thirteen. I’ve had my bat mitzvah. Face it. This is what kids my age wear,” Tamar insisted.

Tamar’s mom, Ann, had grown increasingly frustrated with Tamar. It started before her bat mitzvah last spring. The smallest thing suddenly could trigger an argument, even unimportant things like watching TV or listening to music or talking on the phone. And then there were the big arguments. Friends, parties, clothes, and, most recently, boys. Tamar wanted to go alone with her friends to movies or to the mall. What were they going to do at the mall? Just hang around? That’s how kids got into trouble, Ann believed.

Ann knew that Tamar; tall, with a budding figure, and beautiful long, wavy dark brown hair, was growing and needed more independence. She was a good kid, smart too. But Tamar wanted more independence than Ann or her husband, Joel, thought a 13-year old should have. The world was a far more dangerous place than it had been was when Ann and Joel were growing up.

Today, they were doing back-to-school shopping. Tamar was going into the eighth grade. She wanted to select her own clothes and shoes. Needless to say, she and Ann disagreed often.

Tamar was still simmering when she and her mom arrived home. Ann had grudgingly let her have some jeans and warm-ups and tops, the kind that all her friends liked, but they couldn’t agree on a dress, which was particularly important again this year. Tamar expected to be invited to a number of bar and bat mitzvah parties this fall, and she had no intention of looking like a child. She wanted something that, in her mind, was really, really awesome.

“Am I going to get a fashion show?” asked her father.

“Why bother?” said Tamar as she tossed down the shopping bag and headed up to her room.

When are they going to treat me like a grown-up, Tamar wondered as she sat in her room, which her dad had recently painted blue after removing the childish teddy bear wallpaper she had long outgrown. She put on one of her favorite tapes, one her mom hated, and let the sound wash over her. She did well in school. She played in the all-city school orchestra, which was an honor. She played sports and didn’t sit around watching a lot of TV. And she had done a good job for her bat mitzvah and even continued to go to Shabbat services sometimes, more than a lot of adults did. Her parents didn’t have any complaints, unlike the parents of other kids who sometimes got into big trouble. But they still treated her like a baby. It was unfair. The more she thought about it, the angrier she got.

The school year started off pretty well, although Ann and Tamar still hadn’t solved the dress issue. Tamar’s parents allowed her to meet friends after school by herself and join the drama club, which sometimes had rehearsals at night. Maybe things would be better this year.

The big back-to-school dance came early, before the High Holidays. Tamar planned to go with a bunch of her friends. Her parents gave her permission, although they wanted her home by 11 o’clock, when the dance ended. “But Sarah is having a party afterward. Her parents will be there. It’s okay with them,” pleaded Tamar.

“Go to the dance. That’s plenty for now. We’ll see how it goes,” said her father.

“What can go wrong? I’m not going to do anything bad,” she argued.

“If we thought something would go wrong, we wouldn’t let you go at all. You can go to the dance. I’ll pick you up at 11,” said her father, ending the discussion.

The dance was packed with kids when Tamar, Sarah, Jennifer, and Molly arrived. Jennifer’s parents drove them over. Sarah’s parents would pick them up and take them all back for the party, except Tamar, who would go home with her father. She arrived at the dance in a bad mood.

A boy Tamar liked seemed interested in her, which quickly changed her mood. She danced with him. Other boys approached her as well. Sarah, Jennifer, and Molly were also having fun. They would all have a lot to talk about.

“Let’s go the girl’s room,” said Sarah, tapping Tamar on the shoulder. “We can talk,” she whispered. Molly and Jennifer were with her. Tamar knew they wanted to talk about the boys. She excused herself and joined them.

The girls rushed into the restroom and began comparing notes on the boys. They were leaning against the sinks when they heard loud noises from a group of girls at the far end of the toilet stalls. Suddenly, two of the girls slumped to the floor. From inside a toilet stall came sounds of someone getting sick. The other girls in the group started to scream. Somebody dropped a bottle of pills. Tamar and Sarah rushed over.

“We should call someone,” said Tamar. She turned to leave, but the biggest of the girls grabbed her.

“You can’t. We’ll get in trouble. Here, hold these,” said the girl, pushing another bottle of pills into Tamar’s hand. “They just need to throw up and drink some water. They’ll be all right.” Jennifer and Molly, afraid that the girls might be really sick, had already run out to get the chaperones. Within a minute, the adult chaperones pushed into the restroom.

Tamar’s father had decided to arrive early, just so see what went on at school dances these days. What he found was chaos. Several ambulances were open to receive stretchers. Many kids were milling around outside. Chaperones and police were everywhere. Joel couldn’t find Tamar, Sarah, Jennifer, or Molly anywhere outside.

“I’m looking for my daughter,” Joel said, frantically pushing his way into the building. Inside, he found the police questioning Tamar and her friends about the pills. It took a while before the true story got sorted out, and it was well after midnight when Tamar, Sarah, Molly, and Jennifer finally left, each with her own parent.

The problems at the dance seemed to erase all the progress Tamar felt she had been making since the start of the school year. Her parents interrogated her about everything, every little phone call. “I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t bring the pills. I didn’t take any pills, and I didn’t give anybody pills. Those kids admitted it. The police believe me. Why don’t you?” she exploded, when her mother asked for the umpteenth time about whether Tamar ever did anything with the girls who had taken the pills.

By this time, the Jewish High Holidays had arrived. For the first time in her life, Tamar really looked forward to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and not just because they provided a few days off from school. It’s a time for a new start, a fresh start, her father always said about the holidays. Tamar couldn’t agree more. She hoped he was right.

She not only wanted a fresh start, but a whole new relationship with her parents. How could she convince her parents that she could act responsibly, that she wasn’t a child who had to be constantly held by the hand?

The idea of the Yom Kippur fast jumped into her head. This was the first year she, a bat mitzvah, was obligated to fast as an adult. She had never before really fasted the full day, but this year she would. She was determined. How else could she demonstrate that she wasn’t a child anymore?

The synagogue was crowded on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The family belonged to a small synagogue that relied on volunteers to handle a lot of the programs. Volunteers ran the tot service and Junior Congregation for older kids. On high holidays, a volunteer also arranged for babysitting. Since Tamar was a bat mitzvah, she intended to skip all the kids’ programs and sit through the grownup service.

About halfway through the morning, Tamar whispered to her mom that she had to go to the restroom. “Come right back. They don’t like you kids hanging around in the hallways,” her mom said as she left.

Geez, I can’t even go to the bathroom, thought Tamar as she slipped out of services. Her friends were hanging around in the hall.

As Tamar was leaving the ladies’ room, Mrs. Weinberg rushed up to her. “The babysitters never arrived. We have a room full of little children and no babysitters. Tamar, can you grab a couple of girls right away and go in there, read them some stories? We also have some blocks and toys for the children to play with.”

Tamar agreed. “But you have to tell my mother where I am,” she said.

“Of course,” said Mrs. Weinberg, but then she went rushing off in the wrong direction. Tamar quickly rounded up some girlfriends and went into the babysitting room. In no time, she had a story circle and a building block circle going.

Ann grew nervous when Tamar didn’t return promptly and slipped out to find her. She looked in the ladies’ room first, and then started checking the hallways where the bigger children hung out. Tamar was nowhere to be seen. Ann was both worried and angry. Finally, she found Tamar in the babysitting room.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she demanded angrily.

“I didn’t have time. It was an emergency. I asked Mrs. Weinberg to tell you and she said she would,” Tamar insisted. Her mother looked doubtful and mumbled something about it being Tamar’s responsibility, but it was clear that Tamar was busy. As Ann left, Tamar felt that she couldn’t get a break; even God, it seemed was against her. She had hoped the High Holidays would show her parents how grown up she was, but on the first day she blew it.

Only later did Mrs. Weinberg finally catch up with Tamar’s parents and explain that she was the irresponsible one, not Tamar. “Tamar saved us from a babysitting disaster. She performed a wonderful mitzvah,” Mrs. Weinberg added.

“I’m sorry for getting angry,” Ann said to Tamar.

Yom Kippur followed the next week. The Yom Kippur fast started earlier than Tamar expected. The family sat down for dinner before five o’clock, so they could finish and clean up in time for the Kol Nidre service, which began before sundown. Tamar wasn’t used to eating dinner so early and didn’t even feel hungry. She ate as much as she could, but the fast wasn’t getting off to a good start, as far as she was concerned.

The next morning, the family left for synagogue without breakfast, of course. In years past, her mother would insist Tamar, a child, eat something, but Tamar made it clear that she, a bat mitzvah, was fasting like an adult this year.

The synagogue was crowded when they arrived. Mrs. Weinberg rushed right up to her. “Can you help with the tot service, Tamar? Mrs. Kaplan was going to do it, but her child is sick. You’ll be helping Mrs. Bloom. You read stories so well last week.”

Tamar had hoped to just concentrate on fasting. She hadn’t planned on chasing little kids today. Already her stomach was gurgling, but what could she say? Her dad was beaming at her.

By the time the tot service had ended, Tamar was tired. She had sung Hebrew songs and played games with the children. She read stories. Giving them snacks was the hardest part. These, the very youngest children, received juice and cookies. By snack time, Tamar was pretty hungry, but she resisted the temptation.

The afternoon dragged on. A headache that started during the tot service got steadily worse, making the afternoon seem endless. Tamar would glance at the sun in the sky, but it barely seemed to move. She had to last until sundown before she could eat. By the time her family was ready to return for Neilah, the concluding service, Tamar had a blinding headache. The ark would be open throughout most of the Neilah service, which meant the congregation had to stand. She was determined to make it, but when her dad came to get her to go to Neilah, Tamar stumbled. Her dad caught her.

“You’ve got to eat something before we leave,” he offered.

“I won’t. I’m not a baby. I want to finish the fast,” she insisted.

“You can barely stand up. The Torah doesn’t ask people to hurt their health. You’ve done a great fast. Anyway, Yom Kippur is about much more than fasting. It is about thinking about your actions and how you can be a better person. I think you’ve shown more responsibility through your mitzvahs these holidays than any fast.” he said.

“You and mom fast the whole time. I can do it too,” she still insisted.

“Mom and I know when enough is enough. This is your first fast. You’ll have plenty more,” said her dad.

Tamar’s mom walked in. “Here is an aspirin. Take this. It’s medicine, which is allowed,” she said.

When the final shofar blew, signaling the end of Yom Kippur, Tamar was standing with the other adults, thanks to the aspirin, which she considered cheating no matter what her mother said. The whole congregation moved into the social hall and ended the fast with a delicious buffet: bagels and cream cheese, lox, kugel, and brownies. People were congratulating Tamar for helping with the tot service, for rescuing the babysitting during Rosh Hashanah, and for davening and fasting like an adult. But Tamar was disappointed in herself. She hadn’t really completed the full fast. Maybe I’m not really ready to be an adult, she thought.

She was standing around with her friends when her mom and dad walked up. “You know that black dress you wanted? Your father and I think you are grown up enough to wear it,” her mom said. “If you still want it, we can go get it tomorrow.”

Healing the World

Becky still seethed with anger as she drifted into Harvard Square, a seemingly irresistible magnet for young people. Becky, with long dark hair, eyes wide and deep, and wearing tight jeans and platform sandals, fit right in with the throngs of kids who crowded the area along with the usual tourists.

Hours before, Becky stormed out of her family’s large suburban home after yet another fight with her mother. This time it was over clothes, but it could have been about anything. These days Becky not only got into fights with her parents but with her boyfriend, or former boyfriend as she now thought of him, friends at high school, teachers, anybody and everybody.

Everything is so damn phony; everybody is such a goddamn hypocrite, she seethed. Her parents, her teachers, her friends, everybody. She couldn’t pick up a newspaper or turn on TV without getting angry. Innocent people were being bombed and killed in one place. Or ethnic cleansing. Or kids starving. Or racial hate stuff. Companies were poisoning the air and killing whales. It was all too gross, and nobody seemed to care. People just chatted on their stupid cell phones, drove around in their stupid sports utility vehicles, watched their stupid stocks go up, and talked about how much their stupid houses were worth. It was all so phony. Becky was sick of it all.

A camera hung over Becky’s shoulder. It was a present from her bat mitzvah three years earlier–the only positive thing that came out of her bat mitzvah, which she considered as phony as everything else. She used the camera to take pictures of some of the things that bothered her. Maybe she could shake people up. Her pictures of junked cars, dead animals in the road, or disgusting garbage strewn about shook people up all right, but they didn’t understand what she was trying to get at. Everyone just thought she was weird or disturbed.

She was so engrossed in her own thoughts, she didn’t even realize she had arrived at Harvard Square. It was a lovely spring Sunday afternoon. The area around the university was jammed with people–college students, high school kids like Becky, all sorts of young people, tourists, everybody. Street performers–jugglers, magicians, musicians, mime artists–were everywhere. Becky wafted among the crowd like smoke, drifting from street performer to street performer.

One group of musicians, a couple of young guys with guitars and a girl with a tambourine, especially caught her interest. She couldn’t put her finger on it exactly at first, but then it dawned on her: it was the Jewish music. She vaguely recognized some of the songs. They were singing Jewish and Israeli folks songs, but the music really sounded fresh and fun, not like the pathetic, stupid singing she remembered from Hebrew school. This was totally different. Some people joined in singing. A group of cool-looking kids appeared to hang around with them. Other people jumped up and started dancing. Before she knew it, a spontaneous hora, a circle dance, was spilling into the street. Drivers started honking their car horns. Becky watched and listened.

Off to the side, she noticed an old man, dressed in the black coat and old-fashioned black hat. He had the tzitzit of a really observant Jew dangling by his side and dancing alone. He didn’t really know how to dance. He was just jerking around to the music. He looked kind of ridiculous, but he didn’t seem to care. He appeared not to have a care in the world. His face glowed with a look that seemed to Becky like pure happiness. He seemed oblivious to everyone and everything but the music. She snapped his photo.

Becky stayed the rest of the afternoon. Each time the musicians passed the hat, she threw in a little money. When they started packing up to leave, Becky approached them cautiously. “Hey, our best customer,” one of them greeted her.

“I really like your music,” Becky said. “Are you here all the time?” The musicians, she learned, were high school and college students who played on street corners all around Boston and Cambridge, whenever the weather was nice. They tried to be in Harvard Square every Sunday afternoon. They passed the hat but they didn’t make much money. Mainly they really believed in their music. They wanted to bring people back to Torah through music. Becky envied them. She wished she believed in something like that.

A week later, Becky returned to Harvard Square. She found the Jewish musicians right away. She talked with them a little as they set up and tuned. Some of the other kids were there too; they seemed nice. She noticed some of the boys wore kippot, which they clipped to their hair with bobby pins. Usually something like wearing a kippah would be enough to turn her off immediately–too much like Hebrew school, which she hated. But she didn’t seem to mind this time.

As soon as the musicians started playing, a crowd began building. Becky found a good spot on a doorstep. She scanned the crowd, wondering if the old Jewish man would return.

After a while Becky noticed him off to the side. He was wearing the same rumpled black suit and hat. He was dancing in his silly way. No one seemed to pay attention. A crowd was swaying and singing along with the musicians. Becky watched the old man intently. He seemed so joyous, so at ease with himself, so utterly unselfconscious.

At the first break, he stopped dancing. Becky found herself staring at him. He looked very kind. He noticed her staring at him and smiled. Embarrassed, she turned away and pulled from her camera bag the photo of him she had taken the week before. When she looked back, he was walking up to her. She jumped up.

“Shalom, sad little girl. May Hashem bless you with peace,” he said with a gentle, warm smile. Still, Becky suddenly felt defensive.

“Why do you call me that? I’m just sitting here listening to the music like everybody else,” she replied.

“Last week when I saw you here, I thought here is a girl so full of all the troubles of the world that she cannot even enjoy the music. Now you are here again, but you don’t seem to enjoy the music. But if I insulted you, I apologize,” he said.

“It’s OK,” said Becky, who suddenly blurted out, “Here is picture of you.” She thrust her photo toward him. Becky was stunned and sort of flattered that he had noticed her last week.

He looked at the picture, and then handed it back to her. “So, what do you see in this old face that made you think it was worthy of taking a picture?”

“I don’t know,” Becky slowly replied. “Happiness. Joy, maybe.”

He took the picture out of her hand. “Happiness, joy, yes. Maybe celebrating the joy of beautiful day, of just being alive, or the wonder of Hashem’s creation,” he offered.

“I don’t think Hashem’s creation is so wonderful. Maybe at the start, but things are a real mess now,” Becky snapped back.

“You’re right. I don’t think Hashem is happy with his creation right now either,” the old man said in a sad but soothing tone.

“Then why doesn’t he do something about it?” Becky continued, trying to maintain her indignation.

“Hashem needs you to help fix it, to finish creation,” the old man said.

“Gimme a break,” said Becky, disappointed.

The musicians resumed playing. “Come, the music has started. You dance too,” the old man said, and immediately began his a jerky shuffling around. Becky started tapping her foot, but pretty soon started moving in a dance of her own. Some of the other kids who had been hanging around with the musicians joined them. Quickly, the dancing coalesced into a hora; Becky found herself being pulled in and ended up dancing next to one of the boys wearing a kippah.

The musicians started another song. “I love this song,” the boy said, as they stopped to catch their breath.

“I don’t know it,” Becky mumbled.

“It’s Lo Alecha,” he said, “one of my favorites. The song says ‘it is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.’”

Complete what, Becky thought. She was confused. Still, she stayed the rest of the afternoon.

Returning home, Becky found her mother furious. “Carla called me this afternoon. She saw you hanging out with some punky kids in Harvard Square,” her mother charged.

“They weren’t punky kids. They were musicians,” Becky fired back.

“Street musicians. That’s punky as far as I’m concerned,” her mother continued.

“They’re Jewish street musicians who play Jewish songs and try to get people excited about Torah, okay,” Becky argued.

Becky tried to explain about the musicians who really believed in Torah and the old man, who Becky had learned was a rabbi. He didn’t work anymore at the usual rabbi jobs, but he spent a lot of time on the streets trying to help street people. He knew shelters for homeless people and free clinics for poor people who needed medical care. For an old guy, he was really cool. He was the coolest rabbi she ever met. And the kids were really cool. Her mother didn’t care to hear any of it. She didn’t want Becky hanging around in Harvard Square, no matter what, ever.

“What if I get into Harvard?” Becky hissed, and stomped off to her room.

Slamming the door, Becky flopped onto her bed. The walls of her room were still the soft pink color her mother thought looked so cute for a little girl. Becky hated it. She tried to cover most of the pink with glaring posters of her favorite rock groups and movie stars. On the back of the door and over her desk, she had lately started tacking up her own photos. There were pictures of smashed up cars, a dead bird snared on a barbed wire fence, industrial waste pouring into a river from a big pipe.

Becky had to get back to Harvard Square. She fought with her mother all the time. Maybe she’d relent. Becky would talk to her dad. He was a computer consultant who traveled a lot. A big, quiet man, he often calmed Becky’s mother down. Like the time Becky got a tattoo, a pretty little flower on her thigh. Her mother went ballistic. Her father had a tattoo from his college days–a really ugly peace sign–so he couldn’t get too mad. He smoothed things over.

Becky’s father worked out a truce when he got home. “Look, you remember what it was like when we were in school. Let’s cut her some slack. She’s a good kid. Her grades are good,” he told Becky’s mom. Becky remembered looking at pictures of her parents when they were in college–they participated in anti-Vietnam War protests. There was even a picture of her mom, with really long hair and a loose tie-dyed shirt, burning her bra at a women’s lib rally. Becky couldn’t imagine her mom not wearing a bra today. She cut her hair really short and mainly wore gray stockbroker power suits.

Her parents allowed Becky to return to Harvard Square, but she had to let them know when she was going, when she would return, and whom she was seeing. Becky chafed at being so closely monitored, but she went along with it. “Thanks Daddy,” she said grudgingly, giving him a light kiss on the cheek. When he tried to hug her, she pulled away, angry about having to tell them everywhere she was going.

The next week, Becky was back at Harvard Square with her camera. She also brought some of her photos. The street rabbi, as Becky thought of him, had asked about her photos the previous week.

“You have seen a missing part of creation,” the rabbi mused, looking at the photos. Wow, thought Becky, feeling flattered. Becky and the rabbi talked about her pictures, about all the things wrong with the world. He didn’t disagree or argue or tell her she was weird or sick. From his comments, she thought she finally found someone who understood what she was thinking, what she was trying to say in her photos–things she couldn’t explain in words.

“Hashem needs you to take these pictures as much as he needs them to sings songs about Torah,” the rabbi said, gesturing toward the musicians. They talked about how creation was unfinished. How God counted on people to finish creation. People finish the work of creation by doing mitzvot and living the Torah. The rabbi’s own efforts on behalf of street people were his way of helping to finish creation through mitzvot.

The word mitzvot set off alarms in Becky’s head. She suddenly felt let down, angry, betrayed. What she heard from the street rabbi was just more of the same old stupid stuff she’d heard a million times at Hebrew school about doing mitzvot–a bunch of hypocritical lies. She had repeated similar things in her d’var Torah at her bat mitzvah. Then someone’s stupid cell phone rang while she chanted the haftarah. She got angry just thinking about that farce. She also remembered how she gotten thrown out of nursing home during a USY mitzvah project just because she brought an old lady some measly M&Ms. “The lady begged me to get them for her. She said she was desperate. I was doing a mitzvah,” Becky insisted. Still, it was against their stupid rules.

“I’ve done all that mitzvot stuff. I’ve visited old people in the nursing home. It was all hypocritical bullshit. That’s not what I’m about. That’s not what these pictures are about. You don’t get it either!” she cried.

The rabbi put an arm around her and hugged her like he would a granddaughter. “Listen to me, Becky. Playing music that leads people to Torah is part of finishing creation, a mitzvah. Helping old people in a nursing home is part of finishing creation, a mitzvah. Taking pictures that open people’s eyes to problems in the world–pictures like yours–are part of helping with creation too. It also is a mitzvah,” he said soothingly. “There are lots of ways to do mitzvot. I don’t want you to do something you don’t believe in. Hashem doesn’t want that either.”

Becky curled into his hug. She hadn’t been hugged in a long time, she realized. She hadn’t let anybody hug her. She missed it. She felt so alone. Quietly he began to hum the tune to Lo Alecha. “Do you know what this song is about?” he finally asked.

Becky shook her head, “Not really.”

“Literally, it is about rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, but it is really about finishing creation. It’s about tikkun olam, healing the world, maybe the greatest mitzvah of all. The song says that you can’t complete the work of rebuilding the Temple and healing the world–you can’t finish creation–all by yourself, but you are obligated to try to do as much as you can, in the best way you can,” he said. “Through your pictures, you open people’s eyes to parts of creation that need finishing. People may not like what they see, but Hashem needs them to see it just the same. So, you are important to finishing creation. You are doing tikkun olam whether you know it or not.”

Tikkun olam, healing the world: Becky really wanted to believe the rabbi, to see her pictures as part of finishing the work of creation and fixing the world. But she wasn’t sure. “It sounds so simple, so easy,” she said after a while.

“Simple, yes. Easy? No, not at all,” the rabbi relied. “It is the hardest thing in the world.”

The rest of the afternoon seemed magical to Becky. She talked with the old rabbi about her fears and her anger, about the phoniness and hypocrisy that so bothered her. She talked about her parents. She also talked about the stupid things she did out of anger and frustration; once she had cut herself with a razor on purpose, another time she stole prescription pills. She knew they were dumb things to do, but the rabbi never lectured her or told her she was bad or dumb. He understood, and he reassured her that Hashem also understood exactly what she was feeling. She didn’t feel so alone anymore.

“Talk with your parents,” he gently suggested.

“You gotta be kidding. They’d kill me. They’d go crazy. They’d never let me out again. And, they’d never understand. All they care about is their big fancy house and their work,” she insisted.

“From what you tell me, they will understand, maybe not right away but eventually,” he replied.

In the weeks and months that followed, Becky returned to Harvard Square often. She became close friends with the musicians and their friends. They welcomed her into the group. When she showed her photos, they understood and accepted her. They didn’t think she was weird. Together, they were healing the world by finishing creation. And not just through music but other mitzvot–the kind she used to consider stupid. But when she joined in with them it wasn’t stupid at all; she discovered tikkun olam could be satisfying and fun.

At home, Becky kept taking her kind of photos. They weren’t masterpieces, she knew, but some seemed pretty good. She even entered a few in photo contests. Her parents grew less uneasy with her photos. They started talking and listening more, instead of shouting and fighting. Becky liked that. Once during their discussions her father even admitted that Becky–rebellious, headstrong, and idealistic–wasn’t so different than what he and her mother were like when they were young. How far he and her mother had drifted from their ideals, he observed sadly. Becky appreciated hearing that. There were fewer fights. Maybe the fights with her parents wouldn’t ever stop completely, but at least they were talking, listening, and learning to respect each other. That was a start.

The bad things in the world still outraged Becky. The bad things in the world happen because creation isn’t finished, the street rabbi had told her. Hashem needs people to help finish creation through tikkun olam, and over time Becky really grew to believe it. Creation probably wouldn’t be finished in her lifetime, if ever, but at least she felt she could help it along. And by healing the world a little bit, Becky was healing herself.

The Secret Place (a Sukkoth story)

Jo leaned back against the fallen log. Nathan edged over closer to her. He was a nice guy but really shy. She wondered if he would finally get up the nerve to hold her hand or put his arm around her. Although she had sort of known him for years, she only had been attracted to Nathan since the spring when he had been paired with her on a really dumb USY community service project–all synagogue mitzvah projects seemed stupid to Jo because they never seemed to do anything that really helped people. It all seemed so fake, so phony, like they were just playing at helping people.

Maybe it actually was kind of like play. Nathan clowned around a little and turned a project that involved painting fences at a community garden into a lot of fun. Of course they got more paint on themselves than on the fence, but who cares. And, on those few occasions when she drives by that community garden, she sees the fence they painted, and still looks better than it did before they got there. So maybe some mitzvah projects aren’t so bad.

Anyway, Nathan was funny and sweet and pretty good looking with short hair and a silver stud in his left ear. She had been dropping hints about her interest for weeks, and it was already mid August. The summer would be over soon. If he didn’t do something tonight, she’d have to do something, although she wasn’t sure what.

All around Jo was her group of friends, both girls and guys from high school. They all lived in the same neighborhood of single-family houses with two-car garages, small yards, and neat front lawns. Nearby was a small wooded area with a little creek running through it. Officially it was called the Memorial Woods, but everybody in the neighborhood just called it the dingle. Tonight already eight kids had gathered: Jo and Nathan, Emily, Rina, Dave, Steve, Ben, and Sharon. More would probably show up. As little kids, they had been afraid of the dingle. They thought it had ghosts or was haunted because the trees were big and twisted and looked scary if you were a little kid.

As Jo and her friends from the neighborhood grew older, they realized the dingle was just a little wooded area that for some reason the developers never touched, maybe it was a protected wetland or something. Now they thought of it as their secret place, a private spot where they could get together, make noise, just hang around, and have fun without having their parents looking over their shoulders. Many of the kids had known each other since they were children. Most of Jo’s friends were Jewish and their families went to the same synagogue.

Steve and Ben started a small campfire inside a circle of stones they had arranged. Rina brought some popcorn, the kind that came in an aluminum pan with a foil covering that could be popped over the fire. Jo had brought marshmallows. Sometimes kids sneaked into the dingle to drink beer or do some drugs, but Jo and her friends weren’t usually interested in that. Occasionally someone might bring some beer or something. Jo didn’t even like the taste of liquor. Once, a couple of the guys got drunk and threw up all over themselves. It was gross.

As Steve popped the popcorn, the tin foil over the top expanded into a big ball, like a balloon. When the popping sounds stopped, they slit the tin foil and the kids dug in. “Here are some sticks,” shouted Ben, who had sharpened a few twigs to use for roasting the marshmallows. Everyone took a stick. A couple of other kids arrived with soda. Another had a portable boombox and popped in a CD. The kids were all talking and laughing. Emily knew all the lyrics and liked to sing along.

“Let me make you a marshmallow,” Jo offered Nathan, who had been talking to her about sports. The local baseball team was about to choke again; she didn’t much care. Jo played soccer for the high school team, but she didn’t really follow sports as a fan. Nathan was a big sports fan. He was on the track team at school although he really wanted to play basketball. He tried out for the team but he got cut pretty early. She totally burned the first marshmallow; the next came out golden brown. She slid it off the stick with her fingers, leaned into him, and gently put it to his mouth. He gulped it down in two bites.

“Thanks,” he whispered. Jo’s finger had some gobs of marshmallow stuck to it.

“You’re not finished. Here. Lick,” she commanded. She slid her sticky finger into Nathan’s mouth. He licked her finger, and she saw his eyes light up. She nestled up against him as he slipped his arm around her. Finally, she thought, he gets it.

Suddenly a large shaggy figure jumped into the middle of the fire and started stamping it out. “What do you damn kids think you’re doing! You’re gonna fuckin’ burn us all down,” the figure shouted. It was a man, and he was jumping around like a nut, ranting and stamping on the burning sticks. It was a warm August night, but he was bundled in an overcoat. His hair was long and shaggy and he needed a shave. On top of his head was a misshapen cowboy hat. The boys jumped up and started pushing him away. He grabbed a burning stick and thrust it at them, forcing them back. Jo and the other girls quickly started collecting the stuff.

“Let’s get out of here. We don’t want trouble,” Sharon called out. Others agreed.

The boys started shouting at him, calling him a drunken bum. After their initial surprise, they all recognized him as the wino that hung around near the shopping center. But the boys backed off. They could still hear him raging even as they hurried out of the woods and back into the neighborhood.

Jo and Rina worked that summer as counselors at a local day camp on a nearby lake. A bus picked them up along with some other counselors and a large group of children every morning at the shopping center. As she waited for the bus the next morning, Jo and Rina kept looking around for signs of the wino. Jo wondered if he was crazy or dangerous. He had to be crazy, she concluded. Who else would jump into their fire like that? She couldn’t decide if he was really dangerous or maybe just pathetic, but she didn’t want to find out. Anyway, she didn’t see any sign of him by the time the bus pulled up. They herded the children on board.

That afternoon Jo again found herself looking for the wino as the bus pulled into the shopping center to drop everyone off. “See ya later,” she said to Rina, who had to run off on some errand with her mother. But Jo lingered, even after the last of the kids rushed up to their waiting moms. She wanted to see if that wino was around. She didn’t know what she’d do if she saw him. She wasn’t sure she really wanted to see him, but she couldn’t resist looking around. She wished Rina had stayed with her.

Jo aimlessly wandered around the shopping center, looking in windows. This was not a fancy mall; those were out on the highway. This was a shopping center built around a central green. It had some decent local stores but none of the cool national chains. She admired some of the clothing styles, but she was short, with a solid frame, flat stomach and a large chest. Her legs and thighs were muscular from her soccer training. Still, she knew she wasn’t going to slip into one of those skimpy tank tops with thin spaghetti straps that many of the kids liked. She’d look too chunky, she thought.

Some nearby shouts yanked her thoughts away from of fashion. She turned around to see what all the commotion was about. A few stores way from her she saw him, the wino. She should have recognized his shouts, the same angry, nasty voice. He was standing outside the liquor store facing some guys she recognized from school. They thought they were part of the cool crowd. Jo and her friends considered them loud, obnoxious, and stuck up.

The wino threw something at the boys. “Take your fuckin’ money. I ain’t buying you no fuckin’ beer. Beer is shit! Liquor is shit! How old are you little shits?” he screamed. One of the boys grabbed the money off the ground as the others started to backpedal away from the wino. Some adults began to pay attention to the commotion. The boys turned and ran away as fast as they could. Jo couldn’t help but laugh. So much for being cool, she thought. She couldn’t wait to tell Nathan about this.

Now the wino turned and started walking toward her. Jo pressed herself against the store window, leaving a wide sidewalk for him to pass. He was muttering loudly: “Fuckin’ liquor, fuckin’ liquor, nothin’ but shit, fuckin’ liquor…” He looked at her, and Jo almost thought he recognized her from the night before. He hesitated a moment but then kept walking and swearing about liquor. His clothes were dirty and tattered, and he smelled like he hadn’t washed for a long time.

After he passed, Jo watched him as he wandered through the rest of the shopping center. Now she was really curious. He obviously wasn’t a wino. He clearly didn’t like liquor; that much was certain. They all had been wrong about that. She sort of followed him, stopping to window shop as she stayed a few stores away from him. Once he calmed down and stopped muttering, he stopped at every trash bin and rummaged around. He would pull out soda bottles and cans–the state had bottle deposit law so each bottle and can was worth a nickel. He pulled a plastic trash bag out of the pocket of his ratty, oversized coat, and shoved the bottles into the bag. A couple of times he turned and caught Jo staring at him; she would quickly turn back to the store window or look for something in her camp backpack.

A shopping center security guard stood near Jo and watched the guy too. “Hi,” she said, cheerfully.

“Is he bothering you?” he asked.

“Not me. I think he scared some boys though,” she said.

“Those assholes. Serves them right. He’s not going to buy them beer. He’s not like that,” the guard continued.

“What is he like?” Jo asked.

“I don’t really know, except he doesn’t drink liquor that I can tell. He comes around here a lot, mainly looking for returnable bottles. As long as he keeps moving, doesn’t bother anybody, and doesn’t sleep here, I don’t care,” the guard said, starting to leave.

“Where does he sleep? Where does he live?” Jo asked.

“Beats me. That’s not my concern,” said the guard as he walked away.

That evening Nathan came by and invited her out for ice cream. They went back to the shopping center, which had an ice cream place. Jo kept looking around, wondering if the guy from the dingle, she couldn’t think of him as a wino anymore, was still there.

“What are you doing? Are you looking for something?” asked Nathan.

“No, nothing. I’m just curious if that guy is here. You know, that guy who jumped into the fire when we were in the dingle.”

“I hope not. He gives me the creeps. I’m surprised they don’t arrest him. He’s nothing but a drunken bum,” said Nathan with a meanness that surprised Jo.

“That’s not a very nice thing to say. You don’t know he’s a drunk.”

“Not drunk? Who else but a drunk would jump into a fire like that? You gotta be nuts.”

By this time, they had reached the ice cream shop. It had a walk-up window right in front. Nathan got a chocolate chip cone. Jo ordered a dish of Heath bar crunch. They left the window and went to sit a nearby bench. A trash container nearly overflowing with empty ice cream dishes stood nearby.

Jo resumed the conversation right where they left off. “He’s not a drunk. I know. I saw him here when we got back from camp.” She told Nathan about the encounter with the drunk outside the liquor store and what the security guard told her.

“Yeah, well he acts like a drunk. Maybe he’s just a crazy,” Nathan concluded. He slipped his arm around Jo’s shoulder and pulled he closer. She squished up close to him, their bare legs touching, sending a tingle through her. She fed a spoonful of ice cream into his mouth. He offered her a lick of his ice cream cone, holding it up to her mouth. She teasingly dabbed at it with her tongue. They gazed into each other’s eyes. If the ice cream wasn’t in the way, he might kiss me, Jo thought. Nathan must have read her mind and lowered the ice cream cone.

Just then they heard a racket coming from around the trash container. Startled, they saw the guy from the woods madly digging through the trash containing, wildly throwing ice cream cups aside. Some of the trash landed at the bench beside Nathan and Jo. Then he reached in and pulled out some soda cans.

“Hey, whaddaya think you’re doing,” shouted Nathan, who had jumped up. Other people stopped and looked too.

“Fuck you! Fuck you!” shouted the guy, who stared a Nathan and then turned his gaze on Jo. She wondered if he would recognize her.

“Let’s get out of here,” Jo said, tugging a Nathan’s arm.

Jo was swinging gently on a hammock her father had strung between two trees in their yard. It was a lazy August Sunday afternoon. Earlier she had gone swimming at the community beach with Rina and Sharon. There they met most of the other kids, at least those that hadn’t gone away for the weekend. Nathan had some family thing he had to attend so he wasn’t around. Jo was a little disappointed. Although as romances go, this wasn’t heating up very much; it was more like a low level simmer. She had little questions about Nathan and what kind of guy he was. She didn’t exactly like the way he put down that poor pathetic man from the dingle.

She was reading and didn’t notice Nathan walk into the yard. “Hey, how ya doing?” he called out.

“I thought you were with your family,” Jo replied.

“Everyone finished and left, so I decided to take a walk. Wanna join me?”

“Sure,” Jo agreed. She slipped into her sandals, called to her mom that she was going for a walk and they left together. They held hands and wandered aimlessly, chatting about their summer jobs–Nathan worked in his father’s warehouse loading trucks. And they talked about the other kids and what the new school year would bring. It was coming up soon. They also talked about the synagogue. Nathan’s father was a vice president, next in line to be president, and sometimes forced Nathan to go to services on Saturday, even when there weren’t holidays, even in the summer. The synagogue had hired a new, young assistant rabbi who wore an earring in one ear and played in a rock band, Nathan told her. He thought he might like the guy. Maybe, he hoped, synagogue wouldn’t be so bad this year. It didn’t take long before they found themselves at the dingle and started down one of the paths.

“I haven’t been here in the daylight for a long time,” said Jo after they had gone a considerable distance down a path. It was getting to be late afternoon and the sun was slanting through the trees, casting strange shadows.

“Look at the long shadows,” Nathan pointed out. “Remember when we used to be so scared of this place?” Arm in arm they ambled aimlessly through the woods. Nathan kissed her along her hairline and pulled her closer to him. “Let’s find a comfortable spot to sit down,” he suggested.

Jo looked around and suddenly stopped. “What’s that?” she asked, pointing to what looked like a lean-to, something she hadn’t remembered ever seeing before in the dingle.

“I dunno. I’ve never seen it,” said Nathan. “Let’s check it out.”

It was a shelter of some sort, made of scrap lumber and fallen tree limbs and pieces of plastic and metal. Within its shelter she saw a rickety old folding table and what looked like personal possessions: a few books, a flashlight, a beat up old pot, a rusting charcoal grill, some dirty blankets, a water bottle, and some empty cans of food. “Do you think somebody actually lives here?” Nathan asked.

Then Jo noticed a plastic trash bag with empty returnable bottles spilling out. “I bet that guy lives here, the one who broke up our campfire last week, the one we saw at the shopping center the other day,” she said. “Let’s get out of here.”

They cut through some brush and quickly found themselves at their usual place in the dingle. “You know, he isn’t very far from here, just over there,” said Nathan. They turned and left the dingle by another path.

The Friday night after school started the dingle was packed with kids. Everybody who could get out of the house came down to hang out, talk with friends, compare notes about school and teachers and classes, and just have a good time. Jo was there, of course, along with most of her friends. Nathan quickly made his way through the pack and found her. He threw his arm around her and gave her a kiss.

The kids started a couple of campfires after it got dark. Not surprisingly, somebody brought marshmallows and popcorn. Boomboxes began blaring. It was turning into quite a party, and very loud. A couple of boys left to try to get beer. It made Jo think about the guy who lived just a little further over in the dingle. Nathan almost read her mind: “Do you think that bum is going to barge in here like he did that other time?” he asked with a mocking tone.

“I hope not. He’s scary, kinda creepy,” said Jo.

“You mean the wino,” said Steve, who was standing next to Jo and Nathan. “If he tries to pull that shit again, he’ll be in for a shock. He caught us by surprise last time. That won’t happen again,” he vowed.

“He’s not a wino, I know that for sure,” said Jo. “I think he lives in the dingle, just over there in a lean-to sort of thing.”

“He better stay there and not bother us if he knows what’s good for him,” said another boy.

“I don’t think he is bad. I think the whole thing–living in a lean-to and picking through the trash to find returnable bottles–is kinda sad,” said Jo.

“It’s really pathetic. Why doesn’t he get help?” added Rina.

A couple of other kids joined them, and the conversation quickly shifted to the latest bands and movies. Everybody forgot about the guy living in the woods. Then suddenly, someone noticed lights coming through the trees. “That’s him!” shouted Steve.

But it was more than one light. In an instant police burst into the clearing. “OK, party’s over. These woods are closed after dark. Let’s clear out of here,” shouted one officer. Other policemen started stamping out the fires. “These are conservation grounds. You’re not supposed to have fires.”

The kids grumbled and protested, but more police poured into the clearing and started herding the kids out. “It’s not fair,” one kid wailed, but no one paid attention.

Out on the street alongside the woods, Jo stood with Nathan, Rina, Steve, and a bunch of others. A dozen police cars were parked with their lights flashing. Police officers and neighbors milled around. Standing near a police car and looking back toward to woods, Jo noticed the guy from the shopping center escorted out of the woods by two police officers, each holding one of his arms. His head sagged. They pushed right past Jo. “That’s him,” whispered Nathan.

The guy, who had seemed out of it, unexpectedly lifted his head and stared right at Jo, the way he had at the shopping center. “I’m sorry,” she said very softly.

“Why did you say that?” asked Nathan. “This isn’t our fault.”

“I don’t know,” Jo replied. “I guess he doesn’t have any place to go.”

The policemen pushed the guy into a police car and drove off.

Jo turned to a policeman standing nearby. “What’s going to happen to him? Is he under arrest?”

“Nah, they’ll take him to a homeless shelter,” he said, and then turned to address the larger group. “OK, you kids move along home. And don’t come back here after dark,” he ordered. “And no fires!”

Jo didn’t see Nathan the next day. He had to go to services in the morning. It was Shabbat. She was babysitting that evening. On Sunday Nathan called wanting to do something. “Let’s go over to the shopping center,” suggested Jo.

“What for?” asked Nathan. He sounded leery.

“Maybe we’ll see that guy from the woods. I want to help him,” said Jo.

“You can’t help him. He’s in jail or a homeless shelter. You heard the cop.”

“He might be out. He might be there. I mean, it wasn’t like he committed some crime.

“You don’t know if he committed a crime or not. Anyway, how are you gonna help him?”

“I dunno. I hadn’t thought it through. That’s why I want you to help me. I mean, I have money from my job this summer. I could give him some or buy him something he needs.”

“Forget it. I’m not going to the shopping center. And I certainly don’t want to waste time with that guy. This is the last weekend before the homework really starts. Some kids are going up to the beach. Do you want to go with me?”

Jo had spent just about every day all summer at the beach. That’s where the camp was. Of course it would be different with her friends, but she was mad. “No,” she said curtly and hung up.

She really wanted Nathan to be as concerned about the guy from the woods as she was. Now she was mad at him. Maybe it was unreasonable, but she couldn’t help it. She went to the shopping center by herself. It was crowded with moms and kids doing school shopping. She wasn’t interested in shopping. She wanted to see if that guy was there. She wandered around for about two hours and didn’t see him. A security guard told her that he hadn’t seen the guy–he referred to him as a bum–for a couple of days.

The High Holidays began a few weeks later. The synagogue was packed. All the kids, the teenagers at least, would congregate in the corridors of the synagogue as soon as they could slip out of services. If the weather were nice they would gather on the steps of the Hebrew School next door. The kids still buzzed about the police raid at the dingle, which now had signs plastered all over it warning people not to be there after dark and not to light any fires.

The first day of Rosh Hashanah was a beautiful fall day with clear dry air, a bright blue cloudless sky, and warm temperatures. Jo, wearing a sleeveless spring dress, couldn’t wait to escape from the stuffy sanctuary and join her friends on the steps. The old rabbi and cantor stood on the bimah and droned through the service. Services were so boring, and she didn’t feel any sense of God in the synagogue anyway, with its dark, stained glass windows and plastic seats. Why couldn’t they have services in the dingle, she thought. It would be like the Jewish overnight camp she went to when she was younger. There they had services in a beautiful grove. The sunlight and the pine needles and the fresh air made her feel that God could actually be there.

The end of the Torah reading was the unspoken cue for the kids to leave. But when Jo, Nathan, and their friends arrived at the Hebrew School steps, they found the new assistant rabbi waiting for them.

The new rabbi was a young man fresh from rabbinical school. He had an athletic build like he worked out and wore stylish clothes, unlike the main rabbi, a kindly old guy who had worn the same rumbled gray suit, it seemed, since creation, or the cantor, a plump guy with a girl’s voice who acted like a prima donna and whose pants were too short, not even reaching the top of his shoes. And sure enough, the new rabbi wore a diamond stud in his ear. Maybe he really did play in a rock band, Jo wondered.

“Are you going to make us go back into the service?” one kid asked.

“Not me. If you don’t want to be in services, I’m not going to force you. What do I look like, your mother?” the rabbi replied. The kids laughed.

The rabbi sat down on the steps and began to hold services right there. Not the usual service, but more of a discussion. He talked about the meaning of Rosh Hashanah, about how it provided an opportunity for introspection, for looking at yourself and your life. And how it presented an opportunity to make your life better.

But he didn’t lecture. Instead, he asked questions about lots of different things. He asked how they felt about preferential treatment for minorities at the expense of people like themselves who had a lot of other advantages. He asked about saving the environment even if it meant that good people lost their jobs. And he didn’t let the kids get away with pat, easy answers. By kidding with them and probing, he forced the kids to confront his questions, and he listened, really listened, to their answers and took them seriously.

When he asked how the kids felt about seeing poor and downtrodden people walking around the streets, Jo couldn’t help but wince. She had been thinking about the guy from the dingle since the police took him away that night. Nathan said that poor people rummaging through trashcans at that sort of thing was a real problem and made the town seem trashy and unsafe. Jo could have killed Nathan for saying that. To her surprise, a lot of kids agreed with him. “Maybe you don’t really know them? Maybe you haven’t ever been close enough to see how they have to live?” suggested the rabbi. Jo didn’t really know any poor people or understand them. And she was confused. Why couldn’t they just get a job? She and her friends all got jobs. She felt sorry for them. She also felt guilty.

“We ought to do something about some of these things,” the rabbi suddenly declared.

The kids were flabbergasted. “What do you, like, mean?” one stammered.

“Let’s take on one of these issues and do something meaningful, something that will have an impact,” he said urgently. “You know, the environment or racism, anything you want. Let’s do something about it.”

“Now?” another asked.

“As soon as Rosh Hashanah is over. Let’s pick an issue right now and do something starting the day after tomorrow. What issue should we focus on?” the rabbi continued.

The kids were quiet, caught off guard. “How about poor people? We could volunteer in a homeless shelter and do something for really poor people,” Jo blurted out, surprising even herself.

The kids were dumbfounded. Jo elbowed Nathan. “Yeah,” Nathan agreed, although he didn’t sound terribly enthusiastic.

“OK, that’s a great idea! We were just talking about poor people. We can do something to help and get to know about them,” said the rabbi with what seemed like genuine enthusiasm. “I’ll make a few phone calls right after Rosh Hashanah and see what we can do. Are you guys with me?” The kids seemed confused, a little shell-shocked and not quite sure of what they were getting into, but they agreed. “Cool. Get back to me with your name right after the holiday. L’shana tova,” he called as he turned and headed back into the synagogue.

Jo wasn’t sure how she was going to fit another activity into her hectic schedule alongside soccer and music and some other school activities, but she knew she’d figure it out. She called the assistant rabbi the day after Rosh Hashanah and volunteered to participate. She made sure Nathan called although he wasn’t thrilled. Rina, Steve and most of her other friends–the Jewish kids from the dingle–joined too.

At Yom Kippur, a huge crowd of kids waited for the assistant rabbi on the steps. Even kids who did everything they could to avoid synagogue were there. The word was out: this rabbi was different, kind of cool. Besides, many wanted to find out what they had actually volunteered for. The rabbi, wearing a white robe over his suit, a sign of the special nature of Yom Kippur, bounded up to the kids. “Whaddaya think about God?” he asked, not even introducing himself. No one answered. “C’mon. It’s Yom Kippur. Surely one of you has at least one teeny weensy thought about God.” Silence.

“There is no God. Not the kind that rabbis talk about anyway,” one boy finally said. Kids giggled nervously.

“OK. That’s a start. What kind of God is it that us rabbis talk about?”

“You know, some old guy with a white beard who sits on big throne in the sky and judges you,” the kid continued.

“Or maybe he listens to your prayers and grants your wishes,” another chimed in.

“You mean like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy? That ain’t my kind of God,” the rabbi replied. He spun around to the rest of the kids. “Do any of your wishes get granted by God? Do any of you get judged by God? How do you even know?”

More kids giggled. But pretty soon kids were talking about whether and how God responded to prayers or whether there was a personal God at all. Again, the rabbi didn’t lecture the kids or put down anyone’s ideas. In fact, he did very little talking at all, just throwing out a question here and there to fuel the discussion. Then the discussion turned to the Holocaust and why God didn’t save all those people sent to concentration camps.

“Every discussion of God always comes down to this, doesn’t it, the Holocaust,” said the rabbi sadly. “Maybe God thinks he did save Jews by sending the Allied armies to beat Germany; they just didn’t get there fast enough for some of us. But the people who were still alive when those camps were liberated thought the soldiers were the answer to their prayers. Or maybe those millions of lives were some terrible price that had to be paid for something wonderful in the future, maybe 100 or 1000 years from now, but we can’t see it today.” He paused and looked around. Every kid was listening to every word. “I don’t know the answer. Nobody does. And if any rabbi tells you he knows for sure, he’s bullshitting you. Personally, I like to think that God created a world with free will, which is a wonderful thing. Free will is why each of us can be who we are. But because human beings have free will, they also are free to do terrible things, and they do. God gave us the Torah along with free will so we would know the right things to do, but it isn’t easy to follow the Torah, is it?” he continued.

Jo liked that idea about free will. She had never heard anything like it, not in Hebrew School or from her parents. Nobody ever really talks about God. The rabbi took some more comments from kids and then started to head back into the synagogue. “Oh, we start at the homeless shelter on Union Street. We’re helping in the kitchen with the dinner meal starting the day after tomorrow. Check the synagogue website tomorrow for the schedule and details. We’ll have a party to kick this off later, but they have a staffing emergency and need us to get started real quick.”

Nathan, Jo, Steve, and Rina drew the first night at the homeless shelter. The assistant rabbi brought them over and filled them in on the program along the way. Jo was thrilled. It wasn’t some silly made-up mitzvah project but real, meaningful work. The homeless shelter had a sudden financial problem and had to let go most of its paid kitchen staff. They needed all the volunteers they could get, at least until they straightened out the financial mess.

The kids went right to work in the kitchen. They spent the first hour filling serving bowls and platters. This night’s menu included mashed potatoes, corn, and pork. Most of the kids, whose families kept kosher at home, had never even seen pork. At six o’clock, the dining room doors opened and the homeless people, who had been waiting outside filed in. Jo looked through a window in the kitchen door trying to see if the guy from the woods was there. There weren’t that many homeless shelters in their town, but she didn’t see him.

The homeless shelter seemed depressing to Jo. The walls were painted a dull, faded green. The linoleum floor was gray and cracked. The furniture in the dining room consisted of beat-up folding chairs and long tables tattooed with cigarette burns. The homeless people smoked heavily as they waited for the food. The smoke looked like smog hovering over the tables.

Once everyone was seated, the kids started to wheel wobbly carts loaded with food platters around the room. They would place the platters on the tables. Jo started near the kitchen door and worked toward the back of the large room. She smiled a lot and tried to be friendly, as they were instructed to do. Some of the people were friendly, others were silent, a few seemed mean, and some were just really weird, mumbling and bobbing their heads and drooling. Even though the shelter insisted everybody wash up before eating, the homeless people still were a pretty ragged, disheveled bunch. Most of them smelled of dirt and sweat and God-knows-what. She kept looking for the guy from the woods.

Jo finally saw him as she got near the far corner of the room. At first she didn’t recognize him because he was cleaner than when he lived in the woods, but he was still pretty grungy with a stubble beard and dirty clothes. She tried not to stare at him. Instead she concentrated on putting out the food. As she got closer, however, she could feel him glaring at her. She knew he recognized her, and she knew she had to say something. She just didn’t know what.

She rolled the cart up to the table and stopped at an empty seat opposite him. “Hi,” said Jo as cheerily as she could. The man just glared at her. She started putting the food on the table. “I’m sorry you had to leave the woods. They don’t let us go there either, and we’d been going since we were little kids. We miss it,” she said. She thought she saw him smile just for a second.

Then, he picked up the platter of roast pork menacingly. Jo gasped; he was going to throw it at her. He reached across the table and slammed it onto her cart. The whole room became silent for a moment. “I don’t eat treyf shit,” he said with disgust.

“I don’t eat it either,” Jo said quickly as she moved on to the next table.

Many of the homeless people ate their dinners fast and left. A few seemed to be friendly with each other but most stayed pretty much to themselves. She even heard angry shouts occasionally and wondered if a fight might break out. A policeman stood alongside one wall. But Jo was so busy with serving chores she couldn’t focus on what was going on elsewhere in the dining room. When most of the people had left, the kids started around with their carts again, clearing the serving platters. The homeless people had to clear their own plates. Jo saw the homeless guy still sitting at the table. He was watching her.

When Jo got to his table, he reached over and gently placed the remaining bowls on her cart. “Are you Jewish?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said, nervously. “Our synagogue teens are working here as a mitzvah project.”

“How old are you?”

“Sixteen.” She sensed him doing a fast calculation in his head.

“My daughter would be sixteen,” he said, his eyes seemingly focused on something only he could see.

“Where is she?” asked Jo, who immediately realized from his painful expression she had asked the wrong question.

He was silent for a moment, and then drew a deep breath. “She died. In an auto accident. My wife was driving. They were both killed by a drunk driver,” he said flatly.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jo mumbled. She started clearing up the last platters. “I have to finish up. They’re waiting for me,” she said hurrying away.

Jo, Nathan, Rina, and Steven weren’t scheduled to work at the shelter again until a week later, in the middle of Sukkoth. In the meantime, Jo had asked around and learned that the guy from the woods was named David Kahn. He had lived with his family in another state when the drunk driver killed his wife and daughter. He was Jewish, but their deaths, it seemed, had killed any feeling he had for Judaism and anything else. In his grief, he refused all help from his Jewish community. Instead, he became a drifter and one day drifted into Jo’s city. The Jewish community here tried to reach out to him, Nathan’s father told her, but he ignored them too. “You can’t force yourself on somebody,” he added defensively.

Jo kept thinking about him. “He doesn’t like the food. He’s Jewish, and they served him pork,” Jo said to Nathan as she hatched a wild plan to help Kahn.

“I don’t think every meal is pork,” Nathan pointed out.

“I want to invite him to dinner in a Sukkah this week. We can serve him kosher food from home,” Jo continued, ignoring his last comment.

“But he has plenty of food there. You’re not going to bring him home for dinner, not like he is now. Your folks would have a fit,” Nathan insisted.

“No, not home. Let’s set up a Sukkah at his old camp in the dingle and bring the food there. It will be a secret Sukkah, just a bunch of us and him. We won’t tell any of our parents about it,” she said, the idea suddenly taking shape in Jo’s mind. She quickly began to explain the plan she was just starting to pull together. “Help me,” she pleaded.

“But they’ve posted the area,” Nathan protested. “My father will kill me. He’s a synagogue officer. I can’t get in trouble with the police, and that’s what will happen.”

“It’s posted for after dark. We’ll be out of there by dark,” Jo insisted.

“Look, I don’t know what you see in this guy, but I don’t want anything to do with him. You talked me into doing the homeless shelter thing but that’s it. Besides, I’m too busy. Don’t you have a ton of homework?”

“Well pardon me. Forget I ever asked. I will do it myself,” snapped Jo.

A few days later, Jo, Nathan, Rina, and Steve were back at the homeless shelter. It was the middle of Sukkoth. Jo watched for Kahn and saw him take the same seat in the far corner of the room. She loaded up her cart with food and started right toward him. Nathan grabbed her arm. “Are you going through with this crazy idea?”

“I think so,” she said, hesitating.

“Just don’t count on me,” he said.

“You don’t have to worry about that,” she hissed.

Kahn watched her coming toward him. She wanted to go right to him before her courage failed, but the other tables called to her. She had to stop and follow the same route as before. He didn’t take his eyes from her.

“Hi!” she called as she finally pulled up. “Chicken. No treyf tonight,” she said cheerily as she plunked some bowls and platters down on the table.

“You think this is kosher chicken?” he said sullenly.

“Well, no, but at least it’s not pork. Does it really matter to you?” she asked.

“No, I guess not. God sucks. It all sucks,” he said without much feeling.

“I hope you don’t really believe that,” she responded.

“God let my wife and daughter die. God put a drunk behind the wheel of a car. That sucks. It worse than sucks,” he said loudly, with sudden vehemence. Everyone in the room turned to look at them. Nathan started edging closer to her.

Jo tried to think how she could turn the conversation back to something where she could drop in the invitation to her impromptu Sukkah in the dingle. But she couldn’t think of anything to say. Then she remembered what the assistant rabbi had said on Yom Kippur. “God didn’t have anything to do with it. God created free will. That drunk chose to drink and chose to get behind the wheel, and when people choose to do the wrong things bad stuff happens. You should be mad at drunks,” she blurted out.

“I despise drunks,” he said quietly. “Most of the people here are drunks.”

Jo didn’t know what to say. And she had to finish her work. “We’re having a Sukkoth dinner in the dingle, right by your old campsite. Tomorrow night. Come and join us. We’ll start an hour before sundown,” she said quickly. “We’ll have good kosher food, parve and dairy. Will you come? Please,” she pleaded. He looked at her. He didn’t say anything but she thought he nodded.

An hour before sundown didn’t give the kids much time to prepare. Sundown was arriving earlier every day, and Jo and her friends had sports practice, soccer or football or field hockey, after school. The kids converged on the dingle, everyone but Nathan. Steve and a few other boys started dragging over fallen tree limbs and assembling the Sukkah using string, rope, and duck tape to hold it together. Other kids began arriving with food and soda: hummus, pita, chips, dip, salad, tuna fish, fruit, peanut butter and jelly, cheese–whatever they could scavenge from home on short notice and without telling their parents. They propped up the rickety old folding table to set the food on. The decorations, consisting of some crepe paper streamers and gourds dangling by strings, looked more meager than the food.

The sun was setting. One boy lit a Coleman lantern. The kids stood around. Everything was ready, but Kahn was nowhere in sight. “Maybe he isn’t coming,” suggested Steve.

Then they heard someone moving quickly through the woods. “That will be him,” said Jo, feeling vindicated. But it was Nathan who stepped into the clearing. “What brings you here? I thought you were too damn busy,” said Jo.

“I am busy. And my father wouldn’t let me go anyway. So I snuck out.”

“You told your father? But this was supposed to be our thing, our secret Sukkah,” said Jo angrily.

“I had to. He knew something was up. Boy, this better be worth it. My father will kill me if he finds out I’m here.”

“I’m getting hungry,” said another boy.

“We might as well eat,” said Jo dejectedly. “I guess he isn’t coming.” She turned to Nathan: “Thanks for coming.”

“Maybe we should at least say Kiddush and Sukkoth blessings,” suggested Steve. He pulled out a small prayer book from his jacket pocket. The others followed along. Then the kids dug into the food. Only after they began to eat did someone notice the figure standing at the far edge of the lantern light. Darkness was coming on fast. Everyone stopped.

“Hi,” stammered Jo. “C’mon. You better eat something before it’s all gone.” She handed him a paper plate.

He filled his plate with a selection of foods. But before he started to eat, he turned to Jo. He seemed shaken, maybe sick or distraught, she couldn’t tell. Jo thought she saw tears forming in his eyes. His mouth was moving, silently counting. “We have enough people here to say Kaddish. I’d like to say Kaddish,” he said, referring to the mourner’s prayer.

“Sure, whatever you want, ” Jo agreed.

As they were about to start the prayer police with flashlights rushed into the setting. “We’re not doing anything wrong. It’s not sundown yet. We don’t have any fires,” Jo protested. All the kids started shouting to let Kahn finish eating at least. A few started pushing. The table got knocked over. Some policeman yanked down the decorations. Things were about to get out of hand.

“Stop! All of you,” shouted Nathan’s father above the tumult as he burst into the middle of the scene. He turned to the officer in charge and started to explain the situation. The police finally agreed that the kids could finish eating quickly and then clear out. It was already dark.

“What about Kaddish?” said Jo. “We need to say Kaddish for his family.”

Nathan’s father looked toward Kahn and then stepped forward. Steve handed him the prayer book: “Yiskadol v’yiskadash…” he began, with solemn dignity. Kahn stepped up beside him and joined in “sh’meh rabba…”

Jo watched the scene and began to sob. She couldn’t believe that their little project, a real mitzvah project, actually helped somebody. She shuddered, almost as if she were witnessing a miracle.

After the Sukkah in the dingle, the Jewish community renewed its efforts to reach out to Kahn and this time he responded, although he remained a troubled, sad man. At one point, he returned to his hometown, where he still had family, and someone offered him a job. Jo never heard about him after that.

The kids continued to gather in the dingle, but they were more careful not to get caught there after dark. The police never came back. So, the dingle again became their secret place, although obviously not so secret. But somehow, Jo felt, it was better. The other kids who had been there that night felt it too. It had been sort of sanctified. As children, they thought of the place as haunted. But now Jo saw it differently: by building a Sukkah and doing a mitzvah here–a mitzvah of their own, straight from their heart–this ordinary little place and the kids who were here that night had been touched by God.

Search for Meaning

“Do you accept Jesus?” exhorted the leader or minister or whatever title he went by–Arnie never really bothered to keep it straight. As if on cue, someone in the large crowd would just jump up and yell “I believe.” A wave of shouts invariably followed: Yeah brother. I do. Go for it. Awright. Do it… To Arnie, it almost sounded like he was sitting in the bleachers at a ball game with the home fans trying to spark a rally.

Then other people started jumping up and shouting “I believe,” and the whole thing began all over again as more and more people joined in. Arnie started to giggle. The image of popcorn popping rushed into his head. He could imagine the crowded tent where they were gathered expanding like the aluminum foil of popcorn packages. He knew this was serious, but still it was a funny thought so he giggled.

“What’s the matter with you?” Kris hissed in his ear. “Don’t you believe? Tell them you believe. Say you accept Jesus. It’s that easy,” she urged.

Kris was Arnie’s newest girlfriend, a cute, petite blond with short hair, a wide toothy smile, and infectious optimism. He met her at work, where they were both computer programmers. He had discovered that she was a follower of a local charismatic Christian leader. Arnie had envied her assurance and her calm and her positive outlook. At work things often got incredibly hectic and intense, but she remained utterly unperturbed. People might be working all night or working through weekends and pulling their hair out, but Kris always took time out for prayer meetings. The managers would glare at her, but she didn’t care. He liked that.

She had found Jesus, Kris told him. That gave her peace and serenity, she claimed. Life was so simple, she insisted, when you accepted Jesus. Arnie had spent the last few years looking for just that kind of thing. He had been searching what turned out to be the whole world–India, Nepal, Japan, Africa–looking for meaning, for peace, for something spiritual that he could believe in and live by. And Kris had found it with some charismatic something-or-other right here in Dallas.

“It’s not that easy for me,” Arnie replied.

“Yes it is. Do it. You gotta do it before you feel anything. Just friggin’ do it,” she urged.

Arnie took a deep breath, muttered what the heck to himself, and jumped up. “I believe,” he called halfheartedly.

“Do you accept Jesus?” the congregation called up.

“Sure,” Arnie replied almost casually. Still, he felt like a hypocrite. People swarmed around him. They hugged him. Others smacked him on the back. Kris jumped into his arms kissing him.

Arnie might have declared himself for Jesus, but nothing had really changed. He still felt frazzled and pressured. He would go to prayer meetings with Kris but didn’t find any kind of solace there. He would only come back to feel even more pressure at work to make up for the time he lost. Sure the sex was better with Kris now; they had enjoyed sex before, but since he accepted Jesus, Kris had become utterly uninhibited with him. He loved it, but it left him wondering. Is this what it is all about, good sex? He didn’t feel any greater sense of spirituality. Jesus was just a word to him, a name. He felt like a liar.

“You have to give it time,” Kris assured him.

Arnie tried. He went to prayer meetings. He went to Bible study groups. The study groups were nothing like the intense Torah and Talmud study Arnie remembered from growing up in an orthodox Jewish family, which would pour over every word of the Torah, discussing the smallest point, even down to the significance of dots over individual letters. By contrast, this group accepted every word literally but on the most superficial level. Arnie remembered Torah discussions from his childhood where people argued over various points and extracted what seemed like deep insights. He remembered his father or his teachers citing one dead rabbi or another, arguing over the possible meanings of some ancient Hebrew or Aramaic word, of the significance of the use of a singular or plural form of a word. He had despised that kind of nit-picky Torah study when he was a kid, but at least there was substance to the discussions. These people were studying the Bible as a comic book.

Occasionally, Arnie brought up contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible, two versions of the expulsion from the Garden, two versions of the Flood. The Bible commanded people not to kill, but the Bible was full of killing and even prescribed death as a punishment. The others looked at him like he just arrived from Mars. OK, he could accept Jesus and the Bible, but it cried out for interpretation. He wanted it to make sense.

“You embarrassed me,” Kris complained, returning after one study session to the apartment they now shared. “Why did you have to start asking all those stupid questions? The sacrifice of Isaac was a test. Abraham passed it with flying colors. Everybody knows that. End of story. Nobody cares whether God ever talked to Abraham again. Anyway, it’s just a story. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you accept Jesus.”

“I’m sorry,” Arnie said. He slipped his arm around her waist trying to pull her close to him. She spun away.

They didn’t do any lovemaking that night. Shortly after, Arnie dropped the study sessions altogether. A little while later he started skipping the prayer sessions. Their lovemaking grew infrequent and without much passion. Without talking about it, both realized their relationship was sputtering to an end. Arnie began to accept calls from headhunters. He was a topnotch programmer and frequently received calls from headhunters. In the past, he politely declined the various offers. Now he found himself interested in what they were offering. It wasn’t long before he landed an attractive job in Boston.

His final goodbye with Kris was brief; they both recognized the end. He packed only his clothing and some personal belongings, mainly books, and left Dallas, leaving Kris and Jesus behind. Like his embrace of Buddhism and Hinduism and Shintoism and half a dozen isms before, his embrace of Jesus had failed to satisfy his need for spiritual substance. What did life mean? What was our purpose? He still didn’t feel any closer to an answer or even a means to an answer.

On the flight to Boston Arnie tried to think when this search for meaning began. His orthodox Jewish parents had divorced when he was in college. It turned into a nasty affair with his father refusing to grant his mother the Get, the Jewish document legally dissolving the marriage. She had her civil divorce so what did a stinking Get matter, he told his mother. The Get was just an irrelevant Jewish legal technicality. That’s what he hated about Judaism. Everybody was so wrapped up in these technical legalisms that they lost whatever spirituality Judaism might have to offer. To Arnie, Judaism became rules without humanity. Anyway, at one point he called his mother stupid because of her insistence on the damn Get. Why didn’t she just move on with her life?

Still, he called his father a few times on his mother’s behalf to bug him about the Get. His father was bitter about the divorce. His mother was demanding a lot of money, his father said. The Get was just one of a lot of unresolved issues. Arnie and his father exchanged angry words, with Arnie calling him a stubborn asshole during the last exchange. “Don’t you ever talk to me like that,” snarled his father, who then slammed down the phone.

Ok, Arnie thought; I don’t ever have to talk to him again. Arnie had been a loner growing up. He had a few friends but more often preferred to spend time alone. He read or took long walks. On those walks he would think about lots of things–why people were like they were, why bad things happened in the world, what happened to you after you died–stuff he didn’t feel comfortable talking about with others. Once, before his parents got divorced, he thought he would find the answers in Judaism, in the Torah and the Talmud, but he found himself turned off by the picky rules and endless quibbling over technicalities. When was it permissible to recite Mincha, the afternoon prayers? Pages and pages of the Talmud, it seemed, were devoted to this and equally stupid questions. Did God really care if you recited Mincha an hour earlier or later? His parent’s divorce and the fight over the Get really shook him up. That’s probably when he began thinking about other ways of viewing the world and life.

Armed with a degree in computer science, some awards, and a stellar track record, Arnie found it easy to land computer work. He would stay on a project for a few months until he had completed his part, adding another accomplishment to his resume, and then move on to the next project. He made very good money and lived inexpensively. His tastes and needs were modest, so he managed to save a considerable amount of money very quickly. That’s when he finally decided to take time off to conduct his great search for meaning. His savings allowed him to travel the world seeking insight from supposedly the best teachers. He learned to meditate, he practiced yoga, he adopted vegetarianism, he read tons of sacred texts, he bathed in the Ganges, but he never found the answers he sought. While he picked up a few ideas along the way, he didn’t find in any of them the path to the kind of life he wanted to live or the answers he sought. Maybe this was all a stupid waste of time, he thought.

Arnie didn’t go to Dallas to find the answer in Jesus. Disillusioned with his search for meaning, he took the Dallas job for the money, to replenish his savings. But then he met Kris and she introduced him to Jesus. And, well, another disappointment.

He didn’t expect to find the answer in Boston either; he was going there to get away from Kris and Jesus and because the technology was tops. The financial opportunity was huge, the recruiter repeatedly pointed out, but money didn’t really drive Arnie. More recently, he had been bothered by the thought that there might not be an answer to the big questions. That was depressing. Maybe there wasn’t any more to life than the next trip to the shopping mall and the latest electronic gadget.

The bearded, heavyset man wedged into the seat next to him on the flight was given a kosher meal. Arnie, thin and lanky, had requested a vegetarian meal. They both unwrapped their meals. Before actually eating, the man closed his eyes and started mumbling a distinctly Hebrew blessing, the motzi, Arnie thought. However, the man didn’t just rattle through it fast. He almost appeared to be meditating as he prayed, relishing each word. When he was finally finished, the man turned and looked closely at Arnie. “You understand that? You Jewish?” he asked.

Arnie wasn’t quite sure how to reply. “I was born one,” he said. “I guess I have been everything but a WASP,” he added with a laugh. They talked briefly of inconsequential stuff while they ate their meals. Then the man started asking more pointed questions. Arnie didn’t want to get into his life story; he pulled out a book on programming technique and buried himself in it. He preferred to avoid a deep spiritual discussion about the meaning of life or anything like that with a stranger, especially an observant Jew.

The plane landed in Boston and taxied to the terminal. As Arnie put his book away, the man turned to him with a business card. “Here. I know a lot of Jews who have been everything else too. Call me sometime. I’d like to hear your story.”

Arnie was still holding the card in his hand as he walked briskly through the terminal to the baggage claim area. He glanced at it. The guy was a rabbi from some congregation in Cambridge, a city across the river from Boston. Printed on the card under the rabbi’s name was a line that read: New age spiritualism for Judaism. I don’t want any more to do with this kind of shit, he thought. Arnie crumpled the card and dropped it into a nearby trash bin.

Boston was caught up in gold rush frenzy. Young people like himself were flocking to Internet startup ventures that were multiplying faster than email viruses. The scent of money was everywhere. Even casual conversations revolved around IPOs and venture capital funding. People followed the stocks of hot companies more closely than the local sports teams. Stores seemed bursting with expensive stuff. Cell phones, fashions, electronics, jewelry were all the rage.

Arnie dived right into work. He was a top programmer in one of the hottest of the hot companies. Lured with stock options and a high salary, he was richer, on paper at least, than he ever imagined he could be and was poised to become far richer still. His co-workers seemed to him obsessed with the money. They kept the company’s stock price continuously displayed on their computer screens. They programmed their cell phones to beep them whenever the stock price changed. The company offered luxury high performance cars as incentives for exceeding financial objectives. Everything was driven by money. He and his co-workers spent days, nights, and weekends pounding out the next feature, the next enhancement, the next whatever.

Arnie hadn’t even gotten around to buying a car. Besides, he had little time to use a car and had plenty of money to take taxis or rent cars when he needed one. He actually found the focus on money disturbing, but he tried to ignore it. His co-workers thought he was weird. He did his work, he beat the goals management set for him, and his bank account grew anyway. But he wasn’t happy. Far from it. The same questions started to creep back. Why? What does it all mean?

At the same time, Arnie began to think about his parents again. During his travels he had pretty much lost touch with them and his brothers. Following the divorce, the family had scattered. Passover was coming. Arnie remembered large, rambunctious family Seders packed with his brothers, cousins by the score, and a platoon of aunts and uncles. Food overflowed the table. His father and uncles rattled through the Seder in high speed Hebrew, stopping only to argue some obscure point.

Arnie made a few phone calls to his brothers and learned that there would be no family Seder this year. He didn’t even bother calling either of his parents; he would only end up arguing. The family Seder as he knew it was gone for good. Life is change, one of the so-called gurus he visited had told him as if delivering a stunning revelation. That indeed may be so, but Arnie thought even then that it was a sophomoric thing to say. Thinking of his family now, he preferred something he saw on a bumper sticker: Shit happens. Maybe that was the answer spent so long searching for.

“What are you doing for Passover? Are you going to a Seder?” Steve, a co-worker asked Arnie as the first Seder approached. Steve, who had recently married, was as close to a friend as Arnie had at work. They shared an orthodox Jewish background that each had rejected.

“At this rate, I will probably be having pizza here,” Arnie replied.

“No, seriously. Come to our house. We’re having a lot of people over, people who have no family Seder to attend. I’m calling it the orphans’ Seder,” said Steve.

“I’m more a refugee than an orphan,” Arnie responded.

“Come. You’ll like it. No laptops, cell phones, or pagers allowed. And you won’t be the youngest, so you won’t have to ask the Four Questions,” Steve insisted.

Steve’s house was packed for the Seder. A long table ran through the dining room and into the living room. Fortunately, the newlyweds had very little furniture. The crowd consisted of young couples and a bunch of single women, friends of Steve’s wife Amy. A few couples brought small children. Arnie was one of the few single men present. It was a very different crowd from the seders of his childhood, which were noisily packed with cousins and aunts and uncles by the score.

Arnie ended up seated next to Karen, a friend of Amy. Karen was a schoolteacher. She came from a Reform background but was becoming increasingly observant as she sought more spirituality in her life.

The Seder itself turned out to be quite different from the family seders Arnie remembered. The first thing Arnie noticed was an orange sitting on the Seder plate along with the shankbone and egg and other traditional items. “It symbolizes the inclusion of women as equals at the Seder. God freed all Israelites, men and women,” Karen explained.

Steve led the Seder in a mix of Hebrew and English. Songs were sung. The Seder wove together Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions and a variety of tunes, modern and traditional. People freely added their own comments.

Early on, the children asked the traditional Four Questions. “The rabbis who created the Seder wanted people to ask questions. Everything is set up to elicit questions,” Steve explained. Then Steve directed each guest to ask one question. One by one, guests asked their questions. Some questions, such as the one about the orange, could be expected. The famous fifth question, when do we eat, was asked. Others asked more provocative questions.

Arnie had had so many questions racing through his head for so long that he hardly new what to say as his turn came. “You’re the last one, Arnie. We can’t move ahead until you ask a question,” Steve chided him.

Finally he said: “Our lives are so short, and the universe is so huge. What are we to make of it all?”

The room exploded in discussion. People eagerly offered comments from every conceivable angle. And that’s how it went for the rest of the Seder–wide ranging discussions around every point. Arnie was impressed. Unexpectedly, he found people versed in Torah and Talmud discussing those source texts in what he considered a very erudite yet humanistic, spiritual way.

Hours later, long after the meal, after the songs, after four cups of wine, after a debate over a fifth cup of wine, the discussion was still going strong. Karen was telling Arnie of a congregation she had joined in Cambridge, the geek congregation she called it. “A bunch of high tech people formed a Havurah and then sort of took over an old dying congregation,” she explained. They brought in an unconventional rabbi who was very charismatic and spiritual. He combined traditional Judaism along with new age stuff and the teachings of the Dalai Lama.

Arnie smiled and nodded, feigning interest, but he had had his fill of charismatic religious leaders. Karen invited him to join her on any Shabbat. “Maybe. Thanks,” was all the enthusiasm he could muster.

The pressure at work intensified. Investors were pushing the company to exceed expectations every quarter although the Internet economy overall began to sputter. The company’s stock price began falling. Managers grew panicky, trying desperately to slash costs while increasing their demands on the employees. The programmers along with everybody else felt the heat. People were edgy and nervous. Many turned angry and testy as they watched their big score–their big financial killing–evaporate before their eyes. Visions of early retirement, bigger houses, and fancier cars imploded.

As it turned out, Arnie never made it to the synagogue in Cambridge to which Karen had invited him, not that he ever intended to go. So soon after Kris, he wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship, certainly not one with a woman who followed another charismatic religious leader. And Judaism in any form had long stopped interesting him. If he wanted to spend his life sorting out legal technicalities, he would have been a lawyer.

At least he didn’t worry about the stock price. He never much cared about the company’s stock price when it was rising, and he sure didn’t worry about it now when it was falling. He had never gotten around to exercising his stock options. He didn’t have big expenses. He wasn’t interested in acquiring things. He didn’t have to support a family.

But he was distracted in other ways. Following the Seder, Arnie had started to think more about his family and his parents in particular. He kept telling himself that their divorce was their business. He wasn’t a child. It didn’t affect him. Why should he care? But he did care. It did make him angry, he realized. He just couldn’t figure out who or what he was angry at, or why. So he grew angry at all of them: his father, his mother, God, Judaism, the rabbis who made rules about divorce, everybody.

The summer flew by. When Arnie wasn’t immersed in work, he was aggravating himself over his parents’ divorce. For Arnie, it was a summer without sunshine or the beach. Usually, an active, outdoors type, he found himself trapped at work. He had no time to time go hiking or biking or to just relax outdoors. He had no social life either, but he wasn’t feeling very sociable anyway. Suddenly it was Labor Day weekend, and where had the summer gone? Arnie made plans to join Steve and Amy and some their friends for a weekend-long party at a house they had rented at the beach. At least he’d salvage some summer.

The first inkling of trouble came from email messages that began buzzing around on Friday morning. The software testing guys were complaining about having to spend the entire holiday weekend testing new code. What new code, thought Arnie. His group produced the new code, but they weren’t expected to finish it for a couple of more weeks.

Then the vice president appeared in their area and called everybody over to the conference room for an important announcement. They were being ordered to make a big push to get the new code finished early, this weekend in fact. Everybody would be expected to work around the clock through the holiday weekend, no exceptions. They all started complaining; everybody had made plans for the weekend.

“Change your plans. This is big,” ordered the vice president.

“I’m not changing my plans,” said Arnie quietly.

The vice president spun around and glared at him. “You better adjust your attitude fast,” he threatened.

“There is nothing wrong with my attitude that a holiday weekend won’t fix,” Arnie replied.

“In case you forgot, I will sum up our corporate work ethic for you in three short words–go, go, go,” the vice president declared, raising a finger with each repetition of the word go.

“What a coincidence,” said Arnie, feigning astonishment. “My personal work ethic can be summed up in three short words too: Get a life.” The room became dead silent. Arnie stood up, turned around, and walked out.

It was a gorgeous late summer day. The sun was bright and warm. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. A slight breeze kept the air refreshing. Arnie walked aimlessly. Maybe Steve would cancel his plans and work through the weekend, but Arnie wasn’t going back until Tuesday. If they fired him, he didn’t mind. Getting a job was the least of his worries.

He walked past office buildings like the one he just left, people streaming in and out. He wandered into the university area nearby. The student neighborhood was crowded with rental trucks as students moved in for the start of the new school year. After a while he came upon the river, sparkling blue in the sunlight, and followed a popular walking path along its green grassy banks. Sailboats glided through the water. Joggers ran along the banks while musicians performed at various park benches. Tourists with their cameras and guidebooks and their children in tow took in the sights. Arnie noticed pretty girls in halter tops and skimpy shorts sunning themselves. I’ve wasted the whole summer, he thought.

Arnie turned away from the river and started walking through quiet residential neighborhoods of brownstones and Victorian homes. He gave no thought to work; he no longer cared about that. Instead, he was soaking up the life around him, unsure even of where he was or the time of day.

Eventually, he noticed he had entered a Jewish neighborhood. People were darting in and out of Jewish bakeries and Jewish butcher shops. His nose caught the smell of freshly baked challah, and he followed the aroma into a bakery. Without thinking, he bought a braided challah. “Shabbat shalom,” said the clerk cheerfully.

Arnie had forgotten all about Shabbat. He hadn’t observed Shabbat in years. Now, the images and smells of Shabbat filled his head. He could picture his family around the Shabbat dinner table overflowing with food–soup, roast chicken, potatoes, challah. He could see his mother lighting the Shabbat candles and reciting the blessing. His father would rattle off the Shabbat kiddush while he and his brothers said the motzi over the challah. Now he moved with purpose, pulling together the ingredients he would need for a Shabbat dinner of his own tonight. Before long, he had two shopping bags stuffed with items and looked for a taxi to get him home.

Shabbat dinner alone didn’t sound too appealing, Arnie realized once he arrived at his empty apartment, but he was at a loss of whom to invite. He actually didn’t have many friends in the area, except a few people at work and a few more he met through Steve and Amy. There was Karen, the woman he had met at the Seder, but he hadn’t spoken to her since then. He didn’t feel he could invite her to Shabbat dinner on a few hours notice.

Arnie also assumed his previous plans for the weekend–the party at the beach house–would be cancelled. He didn’t know what he would do. He had challah, wine, candles, and a roasted chicken and vegetables. Not much to build a weekend around, he thought. He picked up the phone and called Steve at work. Yes, their weekend plans were cancelled, Steve confirmed. Although he was as angry about it as Arnie, Steve felt he had to work all weekend. But he insisted on taking time to go home for dinner, a few hours anyway. Arnie immediately invited him and Amy to Shabbat dinner. “But no talk about work. It is Shabbat,” he added.

It was not shaping up as the most joyous Shabbat Arnie ever experienced. Despite his best efforts, his bare table and plain plates hardly looked festive. Steve and Amy arrived with dessert, but Amy could barely conceal her disappointment about the ruined weekend plans. Arnie was feeling guilty about walking out of work, leaving the rest of the team in the lurch. He had hoped everyone would leave too. A few did, Steve reported, but most stayed.

“When did you discover Shabbat?” asked Steve, barely concealing his anger.

Arnie glanced at a clock. “A couple of hours ago, a fast conversion. I’ve had lots of practice doing that,” he joked. “Actually, it was more like rediscovering something I once had,” he added seriously.

They stood in the kitchen awkwardly making chitchat until Arnie opened the oven, where the chicken was warming. Delicious smells filled the room. They lit candles, drank the wine, and ate the challah. Arnie recited blessings he recalled from years before.

“I’m sorry. I guess I’m not a team player,” Arnie said, as they dug into the dinner.

“We’re not talking about work, remember,” Steve replied.

The conversation turned instead to the way they remembered Shabbat as children. Each had stories to tell. They talked of favorite foods, of incidents and people from long before. As the conversation, food, and wine flowed, they settled comfortably into Shabbat. The tension slipped away leaving a quiet peacefulness in its place. Most pleasantly, without any of them noticing, hours ticked by.

The ring of the phone caused everyone to jump. Arnie started for the phone and then stopped suddenly. “Aren’t you going to answer it?” asked Steve.

“Why bother? We can guess who it is and what they want,” said Arnie.

“Don’t answer it,” insisted Amy. Steve shot her an angry look.

“They can leave a message. We can listen to it later,” said Arnie, moving back to his seat. The phone stopped ringing. “More wine?” he asked, picking up the bottle.

But the peace of Shabbat had been disturbed, the spell broken. Steve looked at his watch. “I better get back.”

Arnie woke up Saturday morning to another glorious summer day. With his beach plans canceled, Arnie wondered how to fill the weekend. His thoughts returned to the pleasure of Shabbat the night before. So he decided to go to a synagogue in the hope of extending Shabbat a little longer. The only synagogue he was aware of was the geek synagogue that Karen had mentioned at Passover. Arnie put on his best khaki slacks and sport shirt and started walking to the synagogue.

From the way Karen had raved about the place, Arnie expected to find it packed. Instead, he found a sparse crowd, a mixture of old men in rumpled suits, a few high tech people like himself dressed casually, and some young families with children darting around. Arnie peered into the sanctuary to see if Karen was there but saw no one he recognized. “Where is everybody?” he asked the usher, as he slipped on a kippah and tallit.

“It’s a holiday weekend; everyone goes away,” the usher replied apologetically, handing Arnie a siddur and a chumash. Arnie slipped into the sanctuary and sat halfway toward the front, along the side. He had a good view of the bimah, where the rabbi stood to lead the services.

They had already finished the preliminary service by the time Arnie arrived and were progressing through the Shacharit portion. The rabbi stepped forward to lead the Shema, the essential Jewish prayer that every Jewish child learns–Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One. Arnie expected him to rattle it off fast, as the congregation he grew up in had always done it. But this rabbi drew out every Hebrew syllable of the prayer in a long, slow meditative chant that clearly had been derived from the same Eastern meditations Arnie had studied. His father and uncles would have hated it, but Arnie found it intriguing. Although it slowed down the service, it did open some real spiritual possibilities, he thought. He liked this approach to prayer.

Arnie watched the rabbi. He definitely looked familiar, but Arnie couldn’t think where he might have encountered him. Probably during his spiritual sojourn through India and Nepal, he concluded. That would be where the rabbi might have picked up the meditative kind of chanting. There were all kinds of religious types kicking around those places, he recalled. He replayed his travels in his mind, trying to figure out where they would have crossed paths. He drew a blank and gave up, turning his attention back to the service.

The High Holidays would arrive early this year. Rosh Hashana was only a week away. The weekly Torah portion, Nitzavim, was part of Moses’ long final speech to the Israelites before they were to enter the Promised Land. Arnie had read the Torah numerous times and had studied it regularly growing up in an orthodox home. He should have been familiar with this famous speech, but as he followed along in the chumash it suddenly seemed new to him.

“The secret things are hidden and belong to the Lord our God; but the revealed things are for us and our children…” The words of the Torah startled Arnie. Hadn’t he been searching for those secret things, the hidden things? He hadn’t found them, and maybe this was why. Arnie eagerly read on.

“For the commandment that I command you this day: it is not too extraordinary for you. It is not too far away. It is not in the heavens so you should say: Who will go to the heavens and get it and have us hear it, that we may observe it? And it is not across the sea, for you to say: Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us so we may hear it and do it? Rather, near to you is the word, in your mouth and in your heart.”

Arnie sat stunned. Oh God, what have I been doing all these years, he thought. It was as if Moses was speaking directly to him, as if he had read Arnie’s mind. He clutched the chumash to his chest and started to sob quietly. He had traipsed all over the world looking for the answers, for meaning, for something, and all along what he sought lay right within his grasp, here in the Torah, if he had only looked.

“Are you all right? Can I help you?” asked the usher, tapping him on the shoulder and holding a small box of tissues in his hand.

“I’m OK. Thanks.” Arnie took a tissue and glanced up again at the rabbi on the bimah. He was big heavyset man with a bushy dark beard. Suddenly Arnie recognized him–the man with the kosher meal who sat next to him on the flight to Boston.

At the kiddush, the light snacks and socializing that follows the service, the rabbi made the motzi, the blessing, over the food. He did it in the same meditative way Arnie had heard him use on the plane. This time, however, he chanted it loud and clear. Arnie joined in with the rest of the congregation. He liked this approach; it focused his attention on the words and meaning of the prayer.

“Shabbat shalom. Welcome,” said the rabbi heartily as he walked up to Arnie. “My neighbor on the airplane, the Jew who has been a bit of everything, if I recall.”

Arnie was surprised that the rabbi remembered their brief encounter. The rabbi seemed in no hurry to move on so they stood and talked. The rabbi, Arnie learned, had adopted his meditative style of chanting prayers from one the same teachers in India that Arnie had visited. The rabbi also had gone in search of some greater spirituality and he, too, had ultimately been disappointed. “But I learned many things of value that we can use to get even more out of Judaism. That is the wonderful thing about Judaism. No matter how deep and rich you think it is, it continually refreshes itself so it always remains alive,” he concluded.

Long after most people had left, the rabbi lingered with Arnie. They talked about living as a Jew in the high stakes world of fast-track companies. “You did the right thing. There is more to life than money and work. Shabbat is far more important,” he reassured Arnie. And they talked about his family, his parents’ divorce, and his own reaction to it. “The High Holidays are coming. They give us the perfect opportunity to make amends, to forgive, to be forgiven. Do it. You will feel better,” he advised. Arnie was skeptical, but he promised to try.

That evening after Shabbat ended, Arnie’s phone rang. He picked it up expecting the caller to be someone from work trying to bully him into returning. It was the rabbi. He invited Arnie to join him and some other members of the congregation who didn’t have plans for the weekend on a picnic the next day. Arnie gratefully accepted the invitation. Later that night, he called his mother and then his father. Each was out, probably away for the holiday weekend, Arnie decided. He left a message that he would visit during the High Holidays.

In the week before Rosh Hashana, Arnie thought about his family and things the rabbi had said to him. With great effort Arnie began to let go of his anger. When he finally saw his father and, later, his mother, he embraced each of them. He apologized and asked forgiveness for whatever hurts he had caused, and he gladly forgave them. Afterward, he did feel better, much better than he had felt in a long, long time.

It would be nice to say that Arnie found the meaning of life in the Torah, but that wouldn’t be accurate. The secret things, Arnie now understood, belonged to God. In the Torah Arnie found the things God gave to us to help us lead satisfying, meaningful lives. Through the years, as the peace of Shabbat would settle each week over Arnie and his own family, he thanked God for Shabbat and the Torah. As for the secret things, well, they are secret, forever hidden. Arnie could live with that as long as he had the Torah.