Despair and Hope (a Lag B’Omer story)

Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day in the counting of the Omer, started as a celebration in a time of great despair throughout all of Israel. In Rabbi Akiva’s day, a terrible plague swept Israel. Thousands died. The people were desperately afraid. They thought the plague would never end and they despaired. But on Lag B’Omer, the plague halted. No new cases broke out on that day; no one died. Hope had returned and chased the despair away. So, the Jews celebrated. Few Jews today in America count the Omer–the countdown to Shavuot, the day God gave the Israelites the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Probably most have never even heard of Lag B’Omer. But if they knew this holiday, they would skip school or work, go outside, play, have picnics, and sing and dance for joy to celebrate the day God stopped the plague and ended a period of great despair.

Do you even know what despair is? I hope not. I hope you’ve never felt it, and I pray you never will. Despair is feeling very, very sad, and not only that but feeling things will never, ever get better. Nobody wants despair yet it is a part of life sometimes. But do you want to know a secret about despair? It doesn’t last forever, even though it might feel that way at times. I don’t know why God allows despair into the world, but I do know God also gave people hope. And hope always wins out over despair.

Not so very many years ago, a young Jewish boy named Izzy felt despair. Izzy was only 10 years old, and it seemed that he didn’t know anything but despair. He was born in a part of Russia called the Pale. Many Jews lived there, but they were very poor and their lives were very hard. They worked and worked but barely had enough to eat. Their poor homes were terribly cold in the winter. Their winter coats were thin, tattered and worn. But despite all the hardships, they would have been happy just living among other Jews in the Pale, celebrating Jewish holidays, observing Shabbat, studying Torah. Except for one thing—their neighbors. The other people who lived around the Pale hated the Jews for no reason except that they were Jews. And they made life especially miserable for the Jews. Sometimes they seemed to go crazy with rage and suddenly attack Jews.

Izzy’s mother heard the shouting that signaled the start of one of those attacks, called a pogrom. She grabbed Izzy and dashed out of their home, which itself wasn’t much more than a little shack. Izzy’s father, a tailor who worked in a small shed next to their home, heard the attackers too. When they tried to chase Izzy and his mother, Izzy’s father started to fight with them, even though some of the attackers were on horseback and carried big swords. They struck down Izzy’s father. But he had slowed the attackers long enough for Izzy and his mother to get away and hide in the woods. Now you know why Izzy felt great despair.

“We cannot live here anymore,” Izzy’s mother told him a few days later. The attack had ended as suddenly as it began, but it was too late for Izzy’s father. The Jews of their village buried him and others who had been killed that day and sat shiva, the weeklong Jewish period of mourning.

“Where will we go?” Izzy asked.

“To America,” his mother replied. Izzy had heard of America. Everybody had. Some Jews had left the village for America and never came back. But sometimes cards and letters would arrive from them. America seemed so wonderful, so full of hope and promise. Izzy’s mother had never left the village in her entire life, but she sold his father’s sewing machine, the only thing of value they had, and took some small savings she had managed to put away over the years. She and Izzy left, walking away from the village on the single dirt path.

Sometimes farmers gave them rides, but mainly they walked and walked and walked. They scrounged for food to eat wherever they could. When there was no food at all to be found, Izzy’s mother bought a little milk or cheese or bread with some of their money or in exchange for doing chores. They walked for days and days usually passing around towns, sleeping in barns or even outside. Often, especially when they heard or saw horsemen, they jumped off the road and hid in bushes. The horsemen were the same kind of men who attacked them in their village. When they found Jewish villages, people gave them what help they could—a dry place to sleep, some hot food—but these other Jews were almost as bad off as Izzy and his mother.

“When will we get to America?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” his mother said sadly. Thinking about the seemingly endless walking ahead of them, Izzy again felt despair. He was hungry and tired. His feet hurt. He tried not to, but he started to cry. “Trust in God. We will get there,” his mother added, hugging him tightly.

Eventually they arrived at a small town near a forest. This time they cautiously ventured into the town. His mother had a certain address she was looking for. Izzy’s despair lightened. Maybe the journey was finally coming to an end.

When they found the address, Izzy’s mother spent a long time talking to a mean-looking man who lived there. He didn’t look like one of the horsemen, but he wasn’t Jewish either. “This is all I can pay,” Izzy heard his mother say, showing the man the little money they had left. The man stamped his feet and spoke in an angry voice but finally agreed.

Izzy’s mother walked back to him. “Are we almost there?” Izzy asked eagerly.

“Yes, almost, God willing,” she replied. “But the hardest, most dangerous part comes tonight. Tonight we cross the border. It will be very dangerous. The guards will try to stop us,” she warned. Fear rose in Izzy, but he fought off the fear by thinking that America was near.

They spent the rest of the day huddled in the woods outside the town. When the moon rose, Izzy and his mother got up and walked to the place where they would meet the man. Soon he came by in a hay wagon. He was going to take them to a spot where they could sneak across the frontier, the border, Izzy’s mother explained. They had to sneak because many countries didn’t want poor people to come, especially poor Jews, even if they were just passing through to get to America. And, to make matters worse, the country where Izzy lived didn’t want to let Jews leave unless they could pay a lot of money. And we know Izzy and his mother didn’t have very much money.

“Get in the back and hide under the hay,” the man ordered. Izzy’s mother gave him their money.

Izzy doesn’t remember how long they traveled. The wagon was uncomfortable, the hay poked him, but it was better than walking. He lay close to his mother, her arms wrapped around him.

Suddenly they heard shouting. The wagon picked up speed. Then they heard gunshots. Only the government soldiers had guns. The wagon speeded up and began bouncing wildly. Then it tipped over. Izzy and his mother tumbled out. Soldiers were running toward them. The driver lay on the ground moaning. The horse was struggling to get to its feet. Izzy started toward the driver.

“We can’t help him. Run!” Izzy’s mother shouted. She grabbed him and pushed him forward. It was still dark, but they ran and ran toward some woods. “That’s the border,” his mother shouted. The soldiers shot at them. Izzy heard the crack of the gunshots and could feel bullets whizzing through the air. But the soldiers stopped at the tipped over wagon. Izzy and his mother made it into the woods. “Thank you God, thank you, thank you,” his mother whispered as they both tried to catch their breath.

Across the border, Izzy and his mother found other Jews who also hoped to get to America or anyplace else where they could be safe to live as Jews. They all gathered together in a run down part of a big city and waited. Days, weeks, maybe even months went by. Izzy played with the other children. A rabbi organized a cheder, a school, where Izzy and other children could learn, but they had only a few worn and tattered books. Izzy’s mother managed to find them some food and clothes, but things still were very hard for them. He despaired of ever getting to America. At the same time he also was afraid of the trip. It meant they would have to get on a big ship and cross the ocean.

One day his mother rushed into the room where they were staying. “We leave for America tomorrow,” she announced. Izzy was shocked. It didn’t take long to gather their few things. The next day they crowded onto a big, dirty, rusting old boat. They joined hundreds of other refugees, which is what people fleeing a place are called. The refugees huddled in a smelly, crowded space deep inside the ship. There was a small deck where they could go outside. That is where Izzy preferred to spend most of his time.

The voyage was terrible. The ship heaved up and down and rocked side to side. Almost everybody got seasick, including Izzy and his mother. People were throwing up everywhere. The odor was terrible, enough by itself to make somebody sick, Izzy thought. The trip seemed like it would never end. Again, Izzy despaired.

Then one night word swept through the refugees. Tomorrow morning they would reach New York City, America. At dawn they all crowded onto the little deck to see the new country. Izzy could barely see anything. Finally, the boat arrived in the harbor, and Izzy saw giant buildings reaching high into the sky. People pointed out a huge statue of a lady and said it was the Statue of Liberty. Izzy’s mother cried and thanked God over and over again. Other people shouted for joy. But Izzy looked at the giant buildings and felt frightened.

For Izzy, the rest of that day was a blur of seemingly endless lines. He clutched his mother’s coat as they shuffled from line to line, filling out forms, showing papers, getting papers. Finally, Izzy and his mother emerged onto the streets of New York, filled with more vehicles and people than Izzy had ever seen. His worst fears were churning his stomach. He clutched his mother’s hand. “Don’t be afraid. We are going to people we know. We’re safe. Nobody will hurt us here,” she reassured him.

His mother had a piece of paper with an address on it. They walked through a maze of streets. Sometimes his mother stopped people and showed them the paper. They would look at it and point one way or another. His mother did not speak the language. They couldn’t even read the street signs. Slowly the big buildings gave way to smaller buildings. Then, Izzy noticed signs he could read, in Yiddish and Hebrew. For the first time, he felt excited, hopeful. “Momma! Ema!” he cried, pointing to the signs.

Soon they were climbing the stairs to the apartment of people who once lived in their village. Izzy didn’t know them, but his mother did. The father of the family, Moshe, was a large, friendly man with a loud laugh. Izzy and his mother were warmly welcomed and fed. Izzy quickly fell asleep on a mattress on the floor.

The next day Izzy awoke to bright, warm sunshine. It was early in May. His mother and others in the house were already up and about. “Come, we are going out,” she explained. She helped him dress in some clean clothes she had borrowed for him from the other children in the apartment. Izzy didn’t want to go out. He was afraid.

“Come, it will be fun,” boomed Moshe in Yiddish. “We’re going on a picnic,” he said using an English word. Izzy couldn’t understand the English word. “I bet you don’t know what a picnic is,” he said in Yiddish and laughed. “Don’t worry, it will be great fun.”

They all rode together on a train– Izzy’s first ride on a train. The train itself was amazing and frightening. It went so fast and made loud awful noise and it bumped and jerked. He could see other Jews on the train. Moshe and his family talked with them.

When they got off the train, they were at a large park where hundreds, maybe even thousands, of other Jews had gathered. They set out food and blankets and toys that Moshe’s family had brought. Games were organized. He heard people singing familiar Yiddish songs and saw groups of people dancing. Izzy was dazzled. “Is America like this every day?” he asked Moshe.

“No, no,” Moshe chuckled. “Today is Lag B’Omer, when Jews celebrate hope and the end of despair. Tomorrow we go back to work, but for now go, run, play, and do not be afraid. In America you are safe and free to be a Jew.” He gave Izzy a piece of candy and sent him off to join some boys nearby playing with a ball. They immediately invited Izzy into their game.

Things turned out to be very good for Izzy and his mother in America. They worked hard, and prospered. Certainly there were sad times and disappointments and often things seemed very hard, especially early on, but whenever Izzy started to despair, he remembered Lag B’Omer, a holiday of joy and hope, to remind us that God brings an end to even the worst times.

Shabbat Ghosts (a Halloween story)

It was a sad scene at the Kaplan home in the days leading up to Halloween. The gloom, however, had nothing to do with ghouls and goblins. Rather, the problem had to do with Shabbat. Now, you might ask, what does Halloween have to do with Shabbat? Absolutely nothing, of course, at least usually. But this year Halloween, the night of trick-or-treating, fell on a Friday night, Shabbat. That means it has everything to do with Shabbat. And when Shabbat and Halloween meet, well, you never know.
The Kaplan children, like children everywhere, love Halloween, the costumes and especially the trick-or-treating, which brings them mountains of candy. “You will not go out trick-or-treating on Shabbat,” declared Mr. Kaplan. He slammed his fist down on the table just to emphasize the point. Mrs. Kaplan nodded her head in agreement. The Kaplan children were distraught.
“But Dad,” wailed the youngest child, a boy named David.
“You always take us trick-or-treating, please, pretty please,” implored Miriam, the second youngest.
“I already made plans to meet Steve and Craig,” argued Nathan, a 12-year old.
“It’s the Pumpkin Dance at school. I absolutely have to be there. Karen is counting on me,” insisted Ilana, the oldest, a sophomore in high school.
“It is Shabbat. We are having a nice Shabbat dinner as we always do. You are not going out. If trick-or-treaters come to the door, you can open it and give them candy. Do you think I will give up Shabbat for some candy? Absolutely not. I will buy you candy, if that’s what you want,” said her father in a tone that meant there would be no further discussion.
“Can we wear our costumes at least?” asked Miriam, very quietly. David was holding her hand.
“I suppose so, but you might want to save them for Purim. Now that’s a great costume holiday, with sweets and everything,” said her father. The kids loved Purim, but they wanted Halloween too. They wanted to celebrate both. Would you blame them?

Shabbat in the Kaplan home is usually a happy affair. Mr. Kaplan comes home from the office early, and he always brings special treats although he says he doesn’t. Then he hides the treats, and when it is time for dessert the children try to find them. Mrs. Kaplan leaves work early too and prepares a wonderful meal. One week it might be chicken, another week brisket. In the summer, they might eat on the large screened porch. And they always light candles. They usually light four candles, some weeks they might light six or eight candles, even more if they have company. And they often do have company, aunts and uncles and cousins or friends. On those weeks, Shabbat turns into a giant party full of fun and singing, Shabbat z’mirot.
But this week Shabbat was definitely not a joyful event. It sure looked festive though; the children had carved pumpkins and put them out on the front steps. Inside, the dinner table was covered with a special, brightly colored Shabbat tablecloth Mrs. Kaplan bought in Israel. A big basket by the door was overflowing with candy for the trick-or-treaters who were sure to come. At sundown, the family lit the Shabbat candles. David and Miriam wore costumes; David dressed up as an Israeli commando and wore an eye patch like Moshe Dayan, the famous Israeli general. Miriam, dressing as Moses, wrapped herself in a sheet. The house smelled of delicious roast turkey, and her father had hidden chocolate chip brownies, a favorite, as the treat. Ilana and Nathan, too old for costumes, dressed in Shabbat dinner clothes. Ilana wore a tight top and short skirt that showed off her developing figure; Nathan wore baggy chinos and an oversized jersey.
Yet despite everything, it didn’t feel festive. Ilana was pouting about missing the dance. Nathan barely said a word. Miriam and David looked like they were about to cry. “C’mon, it’s Shabbat. Let’s put aside our concerns and enjoy the peace and warmth of Shabbat,” said Mr. Kaplan. The children just glared at him and silently took their seats. Mr. Kaplan raised the kiddush cup filled with wine and began the Shabbat blessings: “Yom hashishi…”
They washed their hands, cut the challah, and sat down for the Shabbat meal. Mrs. Kaplan, Ilana, and Nathan brought the food from the kitchen and passed it around. “Well, let’s eat,” said Mr. Kaplan. The children looked glumly at their plates. Then the doorbell rang.
“Trick-or-treaters already?” asked Mr. Kaplan, glancing at this watch. “Somebody answer it. There is plenty of candy by the door.” Miriam jumped up. David scrambled after her.
Miriam opened the door. Outside was a character draped in a dark brown robe with a rope for a belt. He had a long beard. Miriam guessed it was Mark, a kid in the neighborhood who said he was dressing as a shepherd. “Mark, is that you? What a great costume! You look so real,” she exclaimed, and handed him some candy.
“Mark? I’m not Mark,” the trick-or-treater said, slipping past her and stepping right into the house.
David reached up and tugged at his beard. “Is that real?” he asked.
“Oow!” cried the trick-or-treater.
Nathan and Ilana had quickly moved to the door. “You’re not supposed to come in here,” said Nathan. The trick-or-treater pushed past the children and sat on a nearby sofa in the living room.
“Wait a second! What are you doing? Dad!” called Ilana.
“May I rest? I’ve had a long journey,” said the trick-or-treater who really did look like a shepherd.
Mr. and Mrs. Kaplan had joined the children. “Is this some kind of Halloween prank?” demanded Mr. Kaplan.
“Halloween? I am just a simple stranger who has traveled far and has come upon your home. My wife was right behind me. She will be here shortly, God willing,” replied the man.
Mrs. Kaplan stared at the man. He seemed sincere, honest. His eyes were tired but warm and wise. “What’s your name?” she asked gently.
“Abraham, son of Terah, son of Nahor,” the man said.
The Kaplan family stood in stunned silence, not believing what they heard and saw, yet it seemed so real. “Let me bring you some turkey. Do you like turkey?” said Mrs. Kaplan.
“Is this a joke or what?” Mr. Kaplan angrily demanded.
Mrs. Kaplan started into the dining room when the doorbell rang again. The children raced to open the door. “Uh oh,” said Miriam. Standing at the door was a young man wearing a white robe and laced sandals. Next to him stood an even younger woman, very pretty, wrapped in a long, colorful shawl.
“Here’s some candy,” said David, holding out two bags of M&Ms.
“We are very thirsty,” said the young man.
“Mom, can we let them in?” called Miriam. The children backed away. The young man and woman followed them into the house.
The man glanced into the living room and noticed Abraham. “Father? Is that you, Father?”
“Oh God, I don’t believe this,” muttered Mr. Kaplan. Mrs. Kaplan appeared with a platter of turkey and a cup of wine.
Then the doorbell rang. “Don’t answer it,” Mr. Kaplan ordered. “This must be some kind of stunt. We must be on Candid Camera or something.” But Miriam and David already had the door open. Outside huddled a large, motley looking crowd of men and women. They immediately pushed in.
Nathan counted a grown man, four grown women, 12 boys of varying ages, and one girl. “You want some candy?” he offered, holding out the basket of candy. They too wore various types of robes, mostly pretty drab. One of the younger boys, however, had the most beautifully colored cloak you could ever imagine, as beautiful as a rainbow.
“Wow, what a great coat!” admired Ilana, gently touching it. “Where did you get it?”
“It is a gift from my father,” the boy said.
The newcomers pushed into the living room where the other guests were gathered. It suddenly turned into a real family reunion. People greeted each other, hugging and kissing. The food Mrs. Kaplan brought disappeared quickly. “Ilana, Nathan, help me,” she called as she rushed out for more.
“What is going on! I demand to know. Who are you all? I mean who are you really?” Mr. Kaplan shouted. “Someone tell me.”
The doorbell rang again. Miriam and David didn’t even bother with candy. They just opened the door. There stood a large man with a long beard and long hair. He wore a flowing white robe. He bare feet looked rough and callused, as if hardened by years of walking in the desert. In one arm, he carried a long, stout wood staff. “May I come in?” he asked in a voice that was deep and authoritative, even if it did have a little lisp to it.
“Holy Moses!” exclaimed a surprised Nathan, nearly dropping the pitcher of water and a tray of cups he was carrying to the living room.
“Hey, you’re dressed just like me,” Miriam said to the stranger. “But I don’t usually wear clothes like this. Usually I wear jeans,” she continued.
The big man bent down to her and gently touched her cheek. “What is your name?” he asked.
“Miriam. I’m named for my grandmother. She lived in Russia,” Miriam said.
“My sister is called Miriam too. She should be arriving any moment,” the man said.
Sure enough the doorbell rang and a woman wearing a robe decorated with beads and carrying timbrels appeared at the door. No sooner had she pushed into the house and the door was closed than the doorbell rang again. Joshua carrying a trumpet and Deborah, the great judge, holding her shield in one hand arrived. King David, a handsome, muscular young man, also appeared. He wore only a short leather skirt and a sash across one shoulder. A crown sat on his head, and he carried a lyre. “Wow, he must be King David. Is he hot or what! Karen would kill to meet a guy like him,” Ilana whispered to Nathan. She grabbed the pitcher of water. “Can I offer you a drink?”
The house was getting quite crowded, and still people kept arriving. People spilled over from the living room to the dining room. Others were on the porch or in the large family room in the back. The conversation became quite loud. Mrs. Kaplan raced around trying to feed her guests, although most seemed content with just drinks of water. Mr. Kaplan gave up trying to understand what was happening and ran around offering wine to the guests.
The doorbell seemed to ring almost non-stop. The biblical prophets arrived. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezra, and more. Ezekiel showed up with Elijah who seemed a bit tipsy.
“Is he all right?” asked Mr. Kaplan.
“Everyone leaves wine for him, but he has had too much. Where’s the bathroom?” Ezekiel asked.
“Down the hall. First door on the right,” Mr. Kaplan replied and took a gulp of wine himself. What next, he babbled to himself.
He didn’t have to wait long. Moments later the doorbell rang. Ilana opened it. In strolled a handsome couple looking distinctly like they just walked out of ancient Persia. “Let me guess, Esther and Mordechai,” said Mr. Kaplan. “Can I offer you some wine?”
“It’s Queen Esther,” Mordechai pointed out, “and yes, I’d love some wine, thank you.”
Esther noticed Ilana almost immediately. “What a beautiful outfit! The King would love to see me in something like that,” she said admiringly.
“Want to try it on,” offered Ilana.
“You might as well join the others in there,” suggested Mr. Kaplan, handing a glass of wine to Mordechai.
“I’ll bring you in and introduce you. King David is here; he is so hot,” Ilana added.
“I heard every young girl in Jerusalem just dies for King David. You are so lucky to have him right here to yourself,” Esther whispered to Ilana as they headed into the living room.
Suddenly the door swung open without even the bell ringing. In marched two men, one large, one short, dressed in what looked like the long black robes of scholars or judges. They were deeply engaged in an argument and hardly noticed where they were. “You cannot give candy to a child until the child has mastered a very difficult piece. Not just any piece; it must be an extremely difficult one,” the large, scowling man argued.
“No, no, Shammai. You’re using candy as a bribe or as payment. But the child doesn’t earn candy the way a tradesman earns shekels. You give the child candy out of love and for the joy of giving,” insisted the other, a short, heavyset jolly fellow.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” said Mr. Kaplan, trying to break into the argument.
“Is the Sanhedrin here? We were told the Sanhedrin is meeting here,” snapped Shammai.
“Please pardon us. I’m Rav Hillel. This is Rav Shammai. I think we have lost our way,” said the jolly fellow.
“For all I know you’re probably at the right place. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Sanhedrin arrives next. Just go in there,” Mr. Kaplan said, pointing them into the living room.
Mr. Kaplan dropped into a chair in the hallway to watch the scene swirling around him. People flowed from room to room, talking in the most animated fashion. Some drinking, a few eating. The children bounded from one guest to another as Mrs. Kaplan directed the serving. At one point he heard loud laughing. Moments later Mrs. Kaplan passed by. “What’s happening in there?” Mr. Kaplan asked her.
“I’m not sure. Everyone is trying to stand on one foot and explain something,” she said, rushing off to the kitchen. Mr. Kaplan jumped up and looked into the living room. Sure enough, a dozen or more people surrounding Hillel and Shammai were all trying to balance on one foot while talking at the same time. It was crazy.
Then he heard the doorbell ring. He was about go to the door when David shot by and opened it. Standing there was a bearded man in an old fashioned suit and a black top hat. Behind him was a short old man in a modern suit and wild, gray hair. Next to them stood a lumpy, motherly bubbie-type of woman and a thin, strong man with an eye patch wearing Army khakis.
“I know you. I recognize all of you: Theodore Hertzl, David Ben Gurion. You must be Golda Meir. And you are Moshe Dayan,” said Mr. Kaplan.
“The real Moshe Dayan?” mumbled David, in awe.
“And look at you, a boy version of myself. Shalom,” Dayan said, shaking David’s hand.
Mr. Kaplan invited them to join the others. David led the way.

Mr. Kaplan looked at his watch, 8:15 PM. At this time every Halloween he and the other neighbors turned off their outside lights to signal the end of trick-or-treating. Should he turn off the light tonight, he wondered. He didn’t want to discourage any of these special guests. Then again, he couldn’t imagine who else would come. Just about everybody, it seemed, was already here. He opened the door and looked out. The street was quiet. The neighbors already had switched off their lights. He did the same.
Inside the house, the party continued without letup. Nathan was arm wrestling with Joseph and his brothers. David was talking with Judah Maccabee, who had slipped in unnoticed. Miriam was sitting on the floor with the biblical Miriam, who was teaching her how to play the timbrels. Mrs. Kaplan flitted from group to group, chatting and offering food and drink. Mr. Kaplan picked his way through the guests. Where was Ilana, he wondered.
Then he saw her, standing with her back to him, talking with Mordechai and Abraham, who had been joined by Sarah, and Isaac, Rebecca, and another young woman he didn’t recognize. He went up to Ilana, tapping her on the shoulder. The young woman spun around. Mr. Kaplan jumped in surprise. It wasn’t Ilana at all; it was Esther. “Oh I’m sorry, I was looking for my daughter, Ilana,” he sputtered.
“She’s out on the porch with King David. She let me try on her outfit. Isn’t it gorgeous? It fits me perfectly. Dinah loves it too,” she said.
“Yes, it’s lovely,” added Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter.
“It is a beautiful outfit. I’m sure she has another one if you like it,” said Mr. Kaplan as he headed to the porch.
There he found King David sitting on a bench playing his lyre. Ilana, wearing a tank top and tight shorts, was sitting close beside to him. Mr. Kaplan wasn’t thrilled with the outfit, but he didn’t say anything. In fact, they made a beautiful couple, he thought wistfully. After a few moments, she realized he was watching. “Don’t worry, Dad. We’re not doing anything you wouldn’t approve of.”
The music attracted other guests and soon the porch filled with people. Everyone joined in the singing, wonderful Shabbat singing. He couldn’t remember what songs they sang. It all seemed so magical. Time itself melted away.
It was Golda Meir who finally spoke up. “You know, it’s getting late. We should let these children go to bed,” she suggested.
“You’re welcome to stay as long as you like,” Mr. Kaplan offered. But the spell had been broken. The guests agreed with Golda and began to say their good-byes.
Golda left last. In the hallway, she kissed each of the children. “Shabbat shalom. Halloween is all right, but you really should celebrate Purim. It is so much better. And Purim in Israel is the best of all. Come visit us,” she said closing the door behind her. Mr. Kaplan suddenly lunged forward, snapped on the outside light, tore open the door, and ran after her, after all of them. But they were gone. The street was deserted.

The house was empty now except for the family. They collapsed, exhausted, in the living room. The candy basket sat on the coffee table, almost as full as when the evening started. “Well, there seems to be a lot of candy left. You kids can bring it to school and have a party,” suggested Mr. Kaplan.
“Will we ever see them again?” asked Miriam. “They are so nice.”
“You know, children, none of them are alive anymore,” said Mrs. Kaplan gently.
“Even Moshe Dayan?” asked David.
“Even Moshe Dayan. He died in 1981, before you were born,” she replied.
“But they stood right here. They were so real,” insisted Nathan.
“I don’t know. Maybe they were an illusion or angels or ghosts, Shabbat ghosts for Halloween. I don’t know,” said Mr. Kaplan. “But we can think of them, of this night, as a gift from God.”

“Could we see them again? Could I see King David again?” asked Ilana.
“King David lives forever in the hearts of the Jewish people and in the Tanakh, the Bible. You can visit with him there any time you want just by reading a Psalm. But beyond that, King David has been dead thousands of years,” said Mr. Kaplan, placing an arm around Ilana. “But he was very nice, wasn’t he? I pray you meet a young man like King David.”
“Now you kids need to go to bed, and Dad and I need to clean up. Golda said we should go to Israel for Purim, and we’re going to think about that,” promised Mrs. Kaplan. “You never know who we might see there. But for now, go upstairs and get ready for bed kids. Ilana and Nathan, please help the little ones.”
The kids slowly got up. Miriam kissed her dad first: “This was the most wonderful Halloween we ever had, better than trick or treating.”
Mr. Kaplan threw his arms around her and David. “This was the most wonderful Shabbat I have ever had. Shabbat shalom to all of you.”

Creation Story

Naomi was sad. She missed her mommy. Mommy had been gone for more than a week. She was in the hospital. Naomi’s father took her and her little brother to see their mommy almost every day, but it wasn’t the same as having her home.

Mommy wasn’t really sick at all. The doctors made her stay in the hospital because she was expecting a baby, actually two babies, twins. Naomi, who was nine years old, knew all about being a big sister. She already had a little brother, David, who was three. She didn’t mind that there would be two more babies in the house, but she was sad her mommy wasn’t home. The doctors were afraid the babies would come too soon, her father explained, so Mommy had to stay in the hospital, lying down, not moving much, and resting for three months. Three whole months! Naomi didn’t know how she could stand it.

Yesterday when she visited Mommy, Naomi got an idea from something Mommy had said. “It’s kind of dull in here just staring at these walls. Do you think you and David could make me some pictures to put up on the walls?” Mommy asked Naomi. “You’re such a good artist,” she added. Naomi loved art. She had taken some classes in art at the Jewish Community Center and once had one of her pictures displayed in her school’s lobby. Of course she would make some pictures for her mother. David started the moment they got back home, but his drawings were mainly scribbles.

Naomi started drawing pictures of their home and the everyday things they did–things she missed doing with Mommy, like going to the playground or cooking in the kitchen. She would take these little pictures to Mommy in the hospital. But she then had an even better idea; she would make a really big, special picture. “I want to make a big mural for Mommy, something she can look at even when she comes home and she’s nursing the babies,” she told her father.

Her father approved and suggested a part of the wall in what would become the nursery for the twins. He promised to put up a special board on which she could draw her mural. It would be very big. “You’ll have to plan out your mural carefully and do lots of sketches to make sure you have it right before you start drawing on the board. It won’t be easy to change things or fix mistakes,” her father warned.

He asked her what she intended to draw, but Naomi didn’t know. She just knew she wanted to make a big, beautiful mural for Mommy. “An idea will come to you,” her father assured her.

The next Shabbat, Naomi, David, and her father went to synagogue, which they did almost every week. Naomi complained as usual about going to services on Shabbat. Services were boring, even the kids services. She’d rather just play with her friends at home. Most kids didn’t even go to services. Her father explained Shabbat was a day a rest, a precious gift for people who worked hard all week long. Maybe for him, Naomi thought, but she and David didn’t think it was a gift at all; it was more like punishment, a day when they had to go to synagogue instead of playing with their friends. Of course, she had friends at synagogue too, but that wasn’t the same thing at all.

Naomi’s father took David to the tot service and sent her into the Junior Congregation service. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” said the man who led the Junior Congregation, as he read the first story in the Torah. It was the Shabbat after Simchat Torah, and they were starting the Torah again from the beginning. Naomi usually liked this time of year. She liked the holidays, the feeling of a new year, the start of school and her soccer season. But this year she missed her mommy. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good…” said the man, continuing the story.

Naomi liked the stories in the first books of the Torah, stories about Noah’s ark, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Joseph and the exodus from Egypt, but she particularly liked Bereshit, the story about the creation of the world. Then the idea hit her: she’d make a mural about the seven days of creation–seven pictures all linked together. She was so excited, she couldn’t wait to tell her father. But it had to be a surprise. She didn’t want Mommy to know until she got home. In fact, she decided she wouldn’t tell anyone, not a soul, not even her best friend Linda.

Her father thought it was a good idea but he added, “It won’t be easy.” Naomi wasn’t worried and got right to work. She had lots of questions, like how the planets or the oceans really looked. She didn’t want just any old sun and planets. She wanted her mural to be really special. Her father showed her some books that had pictures of planets and whole solar systems. Another book had pictures of different kinds of landscapes and seascapes. She looked at pictures of trees and plants and animals. She studied them all very carefully.

Then Naomi started making little drawings on scrap paper so she could get her ideas just right. She worked in secret, not even telling Linda, who sometimes came over for play dates. Only her father and David knew what she was doing. She made lots and lots of these sketches before she had a set of pictures that looked just as she wanted them to look in her mural. This took a long time because Naomi also had her schoolwork to do, and music practice–she was taking piano lessons–and soccer. And she had to spend extra time with her little brother because Mommy wasn’t around.

When she went to visit the hospital, it was hard not to tell Mommy about the mural. Once she had to stop David, who almost blurted out what Naomi was doing. David wanted to help, but he was too little. Naomi let him color on the sketches she didn’t like and wouldn’t use. He made a mess of them. But that was okay because she didn’t need those.

The weeks passed. Naomi was so wrapped up in her project she completely forgot about Halloween until Linda invited her to a Halloween party. Naomi didn’t have a new costume ready because her mommy wasn’t there to help her and her father didn’t know much about costumes. “But your Vashti costume from Purim was so neat. Do you still have it? That would be great,” Linda suggested. Naomi agreed and dug out the Queen Vashti costume she had worn the previous Purim and used that. She and Linda went to the party and then went trick-of-treating and had a great time.

By now, Naomi had the sketches she intended to use and was ready to begin work on the mural. She carefully stacked them on her desk. The late autumn days were unusually warm so Naomi kept the window open near her desk.

Boooom! Ccraaack! Naomi was in school when the big rainstorm suddenly hit. There was thunder and lightning and then a drenching, driving rain. Some children were startled and shouted. The teacher raced around the classroom closing windows so the books and papers nearby wouldn’t get soaked and ruined. Then Naomi remembered: she had left her sketches at home near the open window too.

Naomi raced home after school and ran up to her room. The sketches were soaking wet. She could hardly see what was on them. The babysitter didn’t know what to do. Naomi was crying when her father arrived from work. “I think we can dry them out if we handle them carefully,” he reassured her. “You’ll be able to see enough to make your mural.” Naomi wasn’t so sure. They had been so hard to draw.

The next day, Naomi started to work on the actual mural. She drew each scene onto the board and then colored it using markers. “Be careful, because it won’t be easy to fix mistakes,” her father reminded her. Each picture, one for each day of creation, took a lot of work. Naomi had never worked so hard and so carefully and for so long on any project before.

One afternoon, Naomi stopped working to practice the piano. Ever since Mommy had gone into the hospital David hung around when she practiced, playing loudly with toys and making all sorts of noise. She usually ignored him. Sometimes at the end, she would play kid songs like Row Row Row Your Boat or Mary Had a Little Lamb, and David would sing. Everyone remarked that she was such a good big sister. David was okay. She had friends with little brothers who were a lot worse.

But this time David didn’t hang around while Naomi practiced. When Naomi was done she thought things were unusually quite. The babysitter was watching TV. “Where’s David?” Naomi asked.

“Uuh, I’m not sure. I thought he was with you like he usually is,” the babysitter replied.

Naomi suddenly guessed where David would be. Before the babysitter even started to move, Naomi was running up the stairs to the room that would become the nursery. There she found David drawing with markers on her mural. He had ruined an entire panel. She screamed at David, grabbed him, and would have hit him, but the babysitter pulled David out of the room. When the babysitter came back, she hugged and rocked Naomi, but it didn’t help. The mural was ruined. The new babies would be born soon and Mommy would be coming home, but there would be nothing to show her except this mess. Naomi was crying. David was really sorry and started to cry too.

“It’s certainly a mess,” agreed her father after examining the mural when he came home, “but I think we can fix it.” Her father carefully cut out some special white material to cover the exact place that David messed up. “There. If we’re careful, it will look as good as new,” he noted as he worked. Then he smoothed the edges to blend the new section with the old section. Naomi still had to draw the section all over again. It was a lot of work.

The twins were born a short time later. Naomi saw them in the hospital. When she got home, she raced upstairs to put the finishing touches on the mural. Only Naomi and her father could tell where it had been damaged and even they had to look very closely. She looked at the mural. The sun was throwing off what the book called solar flares. It was spectacular. She had red planets and purple planets and planets with dazzling rings surrounding them. She had magnificent oceans and mountains. She had colorful plants and trees of different shapes and sizes. She looked at her mural, and she knew it was good.

Linda came over with her mother to help get their home ready for the arrival of the new babies and Mommy. “Come, I want to show you something really special, something I made for Mommy. It’s a secret surprise,” said Naomi, steering Linda upstairs to the nursery.

Proudly, Naomi showed Linda the mural. Linda seemed surprised. “Did you do this? How come you never told me? I would have helped you,” she said. Then, she added: “The sun doesn’t look like that. The sun is a round yellow ball. And what are those weird trees?”

Naomi was shocked, and then she got angry. Her father never said anything was wrong with her pictures. How could her best friend not see how beautiful it was? “You don’t know anything! Even David can draw a better sun than you,” Naomi screamed.

Linda left quickly with her mother. There was nothing anybody could say that would calm Naomi. If she never saw Linda again that would be all right with her.

Naomi was very anxious and nervous the day Mommy and the babies came home. She didn’t want to show the mural to Mommy. “It is beautiful,” her father reassured her, but Naomi still had doubts. What if Mommy reacted like Linda?

Mommy cried out with surprise and almost dropped one of the twins when she and Naomi’s father carried the babies into the nursery. “It’s the most beautiful mural I have ever seen!” she exclaimed. She put down the baby and hugged Naomi and hugged David. “Oh, Naomi, you must have worked so hard, and I bet David was a big help too,” she added. “I will see this mural every time I take care of the babies. I will think of God and creation and of my children, who are wonderful gifts of God’s creation too,” she continued. Mommy was crying and smiling at the same time.

The doorbell suddenly rang. It was Linda and her mother. They carried a Shabbat meal and presents. Naomi and her father and mother had been so busy getting ready to bring the babies home they forgot it was Friday. Shabbat was coming. “Can I see your mural again?” asked Linda timidly. Naomi hesitated for a moment, and then brought her to the nursery. “It’s really beautiful. How did you do that?” Linda asked. Naomi showed Linda the books in which she had found pictures of planets and suns and trees and plants. “Wow, it really is beautiful,” Linda repeated as she looked at the mural yet again.

That night, Mommy read Bereshit, the creation story, at bedtime to Naomi and David. After David went to sleep, Mommy and Naomi talked about the mural and all the problems she had making it. Tomorrow, they would go to Shabbat services together for the first time in months. Exhausted, Naomi started to drift off to sleep thinking how much work creating the mural had been and how tired she was. In Bereshit, God saw that his creation was good and rested on the seventh day, creating Shabbat as a gift for all of us. Creation really was hard work, she knew. With all the effort she had put into her creation she now began to realize what a day of rest really meant, what a wonderful gift Shabbat was. Of course, she still didn’t like going to synagogue, but that was another matter. Anyway, she wasn’t going to complain tomorrow because she would go to synagogue with Mommy.

Simon’s Bad Day

The ninth day of Av, Tish’ah Be’av, is considered the saddest day of the Jewish year. It is said that on that day the spies returned from Canaan with their discouraging reports about a land of giants that the Jews could not conquer, showing their lack of faith in God. It was also on said that day that both the first and second Temples were destroyed, sending the Jews into exile. On that day in 1290, Jews were ordered to leave England, and on that day in 1492, Jews were thrown out of Spain. In more recent times, World War I broke out on that same day, starting a chain of pogroms and persecutions that would eventually lead to the Holocaust. Long ago the rabbis declared Tish’ah Be’av a fast day to remember the suffering of the Jewish people and the special role God gave to the Jews. But since the establishment of Israel as the Jewish homeland, many Jews have forgotten all about Tish’ah Be’av and don’t bother to commemorate the day with fasting and prayers.

From the moment he got out of bed, what Simon thought should be a great day started to go bad. Instead of leaving on the family camping vacation right away, they weren’t going until tomorrow. Simon was disappointed. It was the ninth day of Av, but in America, where Simon and his family lived, it was just another summer day.

However, Simon’s dad went right off to synagogue, without even eating breakfast. Today was Tish’ah Be’av, his dad said. It was a fast day so his dad wasn’t eating until sundown. His dad, it seemed, was the only person who had even heard of this holiday. Simon and his younger sister, Molly, and his mom would stay home.

After breakfast, Simon was playing with his trucks when Molly ran in and messed everything up. He got so mad he pushed her out of the room and hit her. Molly ran off screaming to her mom. He tried to explain what Molly did, but his mom wouldn’t listen. Instead, she gave him a time out. It was unfair, and he was mad.

When his time out finally ended, he went out to ride his new bike. He had just gotten the bike and it had gears, just like his dad’s bike. But, when Simon started to ride, the gears wouldn’t work. The pedals were jammed or something. “I can’t help you. Your dad will fix it after Tish’ah Be’av,” said his mom. That meant having to wait all day with no riding. This really was a bad day. How much worse can it get, he thought.

The rest of morning went along without any more problems. As they finished lunch, Simon jumped up to get the cookies for dessert. “Not today,” said his mom.

“Why not? You always let us have a cookie after lunch. I ate my whole sandwich,” he pointed out.

“Today is Tish’ah Be’av. It is a fast day to remind us of the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem,” explained his mom. She went on to describe all the other terrible things that happened to the Jews on this day. “As children, I don’t expect you and Molly to fast and we didn’t go to synagogue as a family, but we will give up cookies and dessert to remind us of the terrible things that we as Jews have experienced. It gives us a moment to remember all those who have suffered.”

Simon thought he already suffered a lot today. He wished his dad would get home and this day would be over. “Let’s go to the big playground,” called his mom. Simon and Molly dashed to the car. This was the first good thing that happened all day.

The weather was perfect for the playground. The sky was clear. A gentle breeze kept it from getting too hot. At the playground, kids were crawling all over the swings and bars. Maybe the day wouldn’t turn out so bad after all, Simon thought.

He and Molly joined the kids on the bars. Quickly Simon found some other boys his age and started a game of tag. In a moment, the boys were racing all around the playground. Simon was running fast to avoid getting tagged. He tried a sudden turn, but his feet slipped out from under him and he went crashing down. He instinctively put out his hands and arms to break his fall. The boy chasing him crashed on top of him.

Before he even felt any pain, Simon noticed the blood gushing from his hand. The other boy noticed it to: “Ugh. Look at your hand! It’s all blood!” he shouted. Simon saw the bright red blood and got scared and then he began to feel the pain. “Mommy!” he screamed, and started crying.

Simon’s mom rushed him over to the water fountain to wash off the blood and dirt. The cold water stung. Simon had a gash two inches long across his palm. “There is gravel wedged into this cut. It looks pretty deep. I’m taking you to the hospital,” she said calmly, as she wrapped his hand in her handkerchief. Simon continued to cry as his mom hustled him and Molly into the car.

They drove right up to the hospital’s emergency room. The nurses saw him holding his hand wrapped in the bloody handkerchief and took him and his mom straight into a little room where he lay down on a table. Molly came along too. The nurses went right to work cleaning his cut and talking quietly to him. His mom sat by his head and soothed him. His hand hurt and he was scared but he was also curious. He had never been in a hospital before and all the stuff in the room was interesting. He stopped crying and concentrated on what the nurses were doing. The bleeding had stopped.

Another woman came in who introduced herself as the doctor. She looked at his hand and asked him what happened. She then turned to the nurse: “He’s got a lot of gravel in there. Let’s get an x-ray and see what else is in there.”

After the x-ray, Simon was brought back to another room. He lay down on a table. His mom and sister were by his side. The doctor came in holding the x-rays in her hand. “It’s not as bad as it could have been. Now I’m going to make it so your hand doesn’t feel anything. Then I’m going to clean out the gravel in your cut and sew it up. You’ll be as good as new and you won’t feel a thing,” she said cheerily.

“Can I still go camping tomorrow?” Simon asked the doctor. “We’re going on vacation.”

“I don’t see why not. We’ll bandage this up real well. Of course, you won’t be able to swing a camping ax or even a baseball bat for a few days,” the doctor replied.

They didn’t finish at the hospital and get home until late in the afternoon. Dad was already home. “How was your day?” he greeted them. Then he saw Simon’s bandaged hand. “What happened to you?”

“Daddy, I had such a terrible day,” Simon began, as his father picked him up. He then recounted his whole day. “I’m so sad,” he added.

“I’m sorry to hear that. I can fix your bicycle, and we’ll still go away camping tomorrow. You’ll be lucky if this is the worst day you ever have,” said his father, with a chuckle. Then he sat down and picked up a book from the table. “You may be sad now, but you’ll be happy again soon, I bet. Do you know what day today is?

“Tish something,” Simon guessed.

“Tish’ah Be’av,” his father continued, “the worst day for the Jewish people, much much worse than your day. But I remember reading something last night in synagogue that might have been written just for you.” He thumbed through the book. “Here it is. We read the Book of Lamentations. It said: `The Lord has broken my teeth on gravel, has ground me into the dust… I forgot what happiness was. But this I remember: The kindness of the Lord has not ended. His mercies are not spent. They are renewed every morning.’” [Lamentations 3:16-3:23]

“Hey that sounds sort of like what happened to me,” Simon agreed, recognizing the gravel. In his daddy’s arms, Simon felt like everything was right again.

“I’m just glad it wasn’t your teeth,” added mom. And everybody laughed.

Extra Effort

Robert and his friend Kevin were so busy playing in the basement that they didn’t realize how hungry they were until Kevin’s mother called them upstairs for a snack. Kevin’s mom seemed really nice. “I heated up some pizza for you boys,” she called.

The boys raced up the stairs to the kitchen. The pizza was already on the table. A glass of milk had been placed beside each boy’s plate. Kevin grabbed the first piece of pizza. Robert, who loved pizza, followed right behind. Robert was suddenly so hungry he bit right in, not even noticing the dark topping on the pizza. The first bite tasted sort of salty but okay. He quickly took more bites. The boys gobbled up their first slices and reached for seconds. Only then did Robert ask, “What’s this brown stuff?”

“Pepperoni,” replied Kevin’s mom.

Robert thought she said peppers. He didn’t really like peppers, but on the pizza like this they seemed all right. He ate another slice and gulped down his milk. The pizza made him thirsty.

At home, Robert’s family kept strictly kosher. Keeping kosher means following the complicated rules about which foods Jews may eat and which foods may be eaten with other foods. When Robert’s family ate out, they only ate dairy. That way they were sure they didn’t eat any non-kosher meats and didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk, which was all part of the rules of keeping kosher. Kevin wasn’t Jewish. Robert and Kevin became friends when they played on the same soccer team. They both loved soccer. This was the first time Robert had been to Kevin’s home.

“What did you have for a snack at Kevin’s?” Robert’s mother asked back at home later that afternoon.

“Pizza and milk,” Robert answered. “Kevin’s mom put peppers on the pizza. It was pretty good. Why don’t we have peppers on our pizza?” he asked.

“You’ve never liked peppers,” his mother replied, suddenly curious. “What were they like?” she asked. Robert described it to her. “I think you were eating pepperoni. That’s a pork product,” she explained gently. Pork is a forbidden food for Jews. Robert suddenly felt sick and horrified. “It’s okay. We all make mistakes,” she reassured him. “I should have said something to Kevin’s mother when we arranged this. We’ll all be more careful in the future.”

Alone in bed that night, Robert thought about the pepperoni. There were so many rules and commandments. You had to think of them all the time. Now God was probably mad at him. Being Jewish, he decided, was so hard that nobody could get it right. And, if you did do it right, you missed so much good stuff. The pepperoni, he remembered, tasted a lot better than peppers. He fell asleep that night thinking if he had a choice, he wouldn’t choose to be Jewish. It was too much work. Kevin never worried about this kind of stuff.

Robert and his mom were more careful in the following weeks. He had more play dates with Kevin, but he was never offered anything but dairy snacks. Kevin came to his house and enjoyed the kosher foods Robert’s mom served. The pepperoni incident was forgotten.

When Passover came around, Robert’s mom and the whole family really got into it. His father gave prizes for all the hidden chometz–leavened bread–that Robert and his little sister, Jennifer, found after his mother declared the house ready for Passover. He and his sister took flashlights and explored the darkest corners of the house. They found bits of chometz in places nobody ever went into. It was a lot of fun.

But after the two Seders, Passover began to settle into a routine. Robert and his sister went back to school. They brought matzos and cheese and fruit and Passover cookies for lunch. Robert didn’t particularly like the cookies and usually didn’t eat them. One day another boy offered to trade a candy bar for Robert’s cookies. Robert jumped at the deal.

“You ate all your cookies today,” observed Robert’s mom as she washed out his lunch box that afternoon.

“I traded them for a candy bar,” Robert responded.

“Was it a Passover candy bar?” she asked

“I don’t know. It was just a regular candy bar,” he said, suddenly feeling guilty. The candy bar, his mom determined, clearly was not kosher for Passover. She wasn’t angry, but Robert sensed she was disappointed in him. For the rest of the day, Robert fretted over his mistake. This Jewish stuff is just too hard. He felt he couldn’t get it right. Sometimes he felt it wasn’t even worth trying.

At bedtime, Robert’s dad sat on the bed after the usual bedtime and story routine. “You’ve seemed bothered all day. What’s the problem?” asked his dad.

“It’s nothing,” Robert replied, not knowing what to say.

“Is it about the candy bar?” his dad asked.

“Sort of,” Robert agreed.

“God knows that Jews will make mistakes. It’s important to try to get it right, but God knows that even the most careful Jews will make mistakes. In fact, in the Torah God has Moses set up a whole procedure for when someone makes a mistake about any of God’s commandments,” his dad continued.

“Does God punish them?” asked Robert.

“No, not for innocent mistakes. God forgives them. You just have to do some mitzvot according to the commandments and you’re forgiven. Back then the mitzvot involved making sacrifices. Today, we pray for forgiveness and we try to do better and maybe we do a few extra mitzvot–good deeds,” his dad explained.

“That’s nice,” said Robert. “But what if you don’t really want to be Jewish at all. It’s no fun” he suddenly blurted out.

Robert’s dad didn’t have an answer right away. He sat silently thinking. Finally, he said: “You’re right. There is a lot of stuff we do as Jews that isn’t fun, at least not fun in the way that playing soccer is fun. As Jews we study Torah and pray to God and give to charity and do mitzvot. Sometimes those things are fun and sometimes they aren’t, but even when they aren’t fun, they are still valuable and worthwhile and make our lives better. Mom and I didn’t have fun cleaning the kitchen for Passover, but you and Jennifer had fun finding the hidden chometz, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but we miss doing a lot of things other kids do,” Robert complained.

“That’s true, but you also get to do things that other kids don’t do,” his dad continued. “You know, all that the Jews wanted from God was to be saved from Egypt and given the land God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They didn’t ask for the Torah. But God knew that having freedom and the Promised Land without the Torah would be a waste. In a short period of time, the Jews would be conquered or absorbed into other cultures and forgotten. Instead, by following the commandments of the Torah, we as Jews have continued as a people for thousands of years. I think of being Jewish as requiring a little extra effort. Following the Torah feels like a burden sometimes, but it makes our lives special, different from everyone else. We eat different foods and celebrate different holidays. Following the Torah can be hard, but it makes us strong in lots of ways.”

“Like what?” asked Robert, not really convinced.

“It teaches us discipline, for one thing, and how to be part of a community, a team. Isn’t that something your soccer coach always talks about?” his dad replied.

The soccer season was starting up again after the winter. Robert and Kevin were together on the same team. Robert was a solid player, not a star, but he could make a contribution to the team and had fun playing. His parents liked this team because most of the games were on Sunday, which didn’t conflict with Shabbat. Robert had to miss games on Shabbat.

Everyone was excited when a World Cup soccer star was scheduled to come one weekend. He would give a clinic for all the kids in the league on Saturday and then watch some games on Sunday. Robert pleaded with his parents to go to the soccer clinic on Saturday, but he knew it was impossible. Saturday is Shabbat.

The morning of the special soccer clinic, Robert sat at the back of the children’s service. Usually he liked participating. He clowned around with some of the other boys. They got to carry a real Torah. They led some prayers. They played games and contests. Sometimes they were even invited by the rabbi to lead easy prayers in the grownup service.

The service leader tried to coax Robert into joining in the service, but he refused. He just sat there, angry at his parents, angry at being Jewish, and even angry at God. During the prayers, instead of joining in, Robert mumbled his own prayer. He complained to God about making it so hard to be Jewish. He complained about missing fun things on Shabbat.

The soccer star was watching as Robert’s team played the next day. When Robert got into the game, he played his hardest. He made some of his best passes ever, feeding the ball to teammates with better scoring chances. It was a close game. At one point the other team charged his goal. Robert was the only player between the opponents and the goalie. He was tempted to immediately rush ahead to try to steal the ball, but instead he moved into position and played the perfect defense. He broke up the play.

In the end, his team lost the game. Robert felt sad until the soccer star pointed him out after the game. The World Cup champion shook Robert’s hand and announced to everybody that Robert’s play was a perfect example of the kind of discipline and teamwork and extra effort that he had emphasized in the clinic the day before.

Discipline, community, team play, extra effort–the words echoed in Robert’s head. He thought about what his dad had said. He didn’t believe his father then, but he did now. Everyone was patting him on the back. His mom and dad were hugging him. In his excitement, a little prayer flashed through his mind: thank you God for making me Jewish.

Talking With God

“Are you all right, Zadie?” Dinah asked her grandfather. Zadie seemed to be staring off into space. Dinah was worried. Zadie had been sick, and now he couldn’t be left alone. That’s why she was there. Bubbie, her grandmother, had to go out of the house for a few hours, so Dinah came over to keep Zadie company and help him if he needed anything. Dinah was 12 years old and already had been left to babysit for her younger sister, Ilana.

“I’m all right. I’m just listening to God,” answered her Zadie. “This book I’m reading is a Chumash, the Torah.”

“How can you hear God in a book? Dinah asked.

“This isn’t just any book. It is the Torah. God speaks to people through the Torah. God was talking with me,” Zadie explained.

“God was talking to you? Really? What did he say?” marveled Dinah.

“God was telling me about how to raise children, and about things I might have done differently if I had listened better when your dad was a boy,” Zadie replied, slowly.

“You mean God was talking to you about my dad? Cool!” Dinah exclaimed.

“Not about your dad exactly. Here the Torah tells the story of Jacob and his sons. It made me think of your dad. God speaks to us through the Torah if we listen carefully.”

Dinah lived nearby with her parents and Ilana, her younger sister, but until Zadie got sick she didn’t see her grandparents very often. They would visit Zadie for Rosh Hashanah or Passover, but Zadie and Dinah’s father didn’t get along.

“Does God speak to my dad too? Would God speak to me?” Dinah asked.

“God will talk to anybody who will learn to read the Torah and listen. Your dad isn’t very interested in talking with God, but if you want to learn to read the Torah and listen, God would love to talk to you,” Zadie assured her. “Come, I will show you.”

Dinah sat next to her Zadie, who started reading the Torah. He opened to the story Leah and Rachel, who were both married to Jacob. “Have you and Ilana ever quarreled?” Zadie asked her. Dinah nodded yes, thinking of all the times she and Ilana fought. “Well, if we listen carefully as we read about Leah and Rachel, who were sisters and were very jealous of each other, God talks to us about how sisters can learn to get along.”

Back at home that evening, Dinah told her parents all about her afternoon with Zadie. “He’s showing me how to read the Torah and talk with God,” she said proudly.

“Is he still using that talking with God line? He used to do the same thing to me when I was little. If you don’t want him to bother you with all that, you don’t have to go over there. We can hire somebody to stay with him whenever Bubbie needs to get out,” snapped Dinah’s father.

“But I want to go. I really liked it. I promised him I’d come back on Saturday afternoon. He said I could come every Saturday afternoon,” Dinah insisted.

On Saturday, Dinah visited Zadie, but things were different. Not only was Bubbie there, but the dining room table was set with a fancy tablecloth. Bubbie didn’t do any cooking, although she did have a tray of sweets. When the phone rang nobody got up to answer it.

“Do you want me to get it? asked Dinah, jumping up.

“No need. It’s probably just a salesman selling something. People who know us wouldn’t call on Shabbat,” said Bubbie.

Dinah looked puzzled. Zadie explained: “Saturday is Shabbat, a gift from God. We don’t do any work on Shabbat. It’s a day of complete rest. Bubbie doesn’t cook or clean–not even heat up water for tea. We don’t use the phone. We don’t ride. When I feel up to it, I walk to the synagogue. Maybe in the spring you will walk with me to synagogue on Shabbat. Would you like that?”

“Sure, when I don’t have soccer,” said Dinah. Sometimes she had soccer games on Saturday morning.

Dinah could imagine walking slowly with her Zadie and talking about interesting stuff. She didn’t talk much with her parents. They were always so busy, running around for their jobs. Her parents would never not answer a phone. They each had a cellular phone. They were always on the phone.

“Can we read the Torah and talk to God on Shabbat?” Dinah asked.

“Of course, that’s what Shabbat is all about, resting and talking with God,” said Zadie, taking out the Chumash. “What should we talk to God about today?” he asked.

Dinah told Zadie about a new girl in her class. “Her family just came from Russia. She’s kind of weird. She dresses in really ugly clothes, and she does her hair funny,” said Dinah, recalling how the kids teased her and how sorry she felt for the girl.

“So, what did you do?” asked Zadie.

“I didn’t tease her. I didn’t do anything. Why, what should I do?” Dinah asked defensively.

“Let’s ask God,” suggested Zadie, flipping through the pages of the Chumash. Zadie told about the time Moses called a big meeting of all the Israelites and laid down God’s rules so they would know how to behave. He began to read straight from the Torah: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” [Lev. 19:34]

“What is God saying to you?” asked Zadie.

“I didn’t tease her,” Dinah insisted, but she didn’t sound so sure of herself. She read the words over again out loud. “I guess I should be nice to her and try to be her friend.”

Zadie gave her a big hug. “See, God will talk to you too, when you are willing to listen.”

Dinah kept returning to Zadie’s house almost every Shabbat. They talked and no matter what happened, Zadie could find a place in the Torah where God spoke about it. Well, not exactly about what was going on today but, if she listened closely with the help of Zadie, she could see how the things God said in the Torah were about her life too.

One Saturday Dinah came straight from soccer practice. She was still angry. A girl on her team had cheated and beaten her out for a starting position. “I’m going to get back at her,” Dinah vowed to her Zadie.

Zadie looked sad. “What do you think God would tell you to do? he asked.

“This is soccer. God doesn’t talk about soccer in the Torah,” insisted Dinah.

“This is not about soccer. This is about people, and God tells us everything we need to know about living with people,” Zadie said quietly. He opened the Chumash and began reading from the story of Jacob. “Here is the story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah. You even have her name,” Zadie noted.

Dinah had been kidnapped and abused by the people of a nearby village. Jacob’s sons rescued their sister and pretended to make peace with the villagers, who were very sorry. But a few days later, Jacob’s sons attacked the village when the men couldn’t defend themselves.

“That’s a terrible thing to do!” exclaimed Dinah.

“Why is it terrible? Jacob’s sons were just getting back at the villagers who did something bad to their sister, something worse than cheating at soccer,” argued Zadie.

“But the villagers showed how sorry they were and really wanted to get along with Jacob’s family. Instead the sons attacked the villagers. It was terrible,” Dinah insisted.

“Jacob thought it was terrible too. Right here, he scolds his sons,” Zadie pointed out. “God thinks it is terrible too, which is why God put the story in the Torah.”

Dinah understood what God was saying about not getting back at the girl in soccer, but Zadie saw she didn’t like it. “Sometimes God doesn’t give us the answer we’d like, but God always gives us the right answer. Play your very best. That’s how you get back at her,” Zadie said as he hugged her.

A few weeks later Dinah and her family arrived on Friday night, the beginning of Shabbat. Her parents and sister left soon after dinner, but Dinah was staying overnight because Bubbie was out of town. Dinah and Zadie would spend all of Shabbat together.

On Saturday morning, Zadie and Dinah planned to walk to the synagogue, but Zadie complained about feeling too tired. They didn’t go. Instead, Zadie began his morning prayers but soon stopped and went to his room to take a nap. Dinah was a little worried.

By lunchtime, Zadie still hadn’t gotten up from his nap. Dinah peeked into his room. He seemed half awake. “Are you all right Zadie? Can I get you something?”

“A little water maybe. I’m not feeling so good today. I’m sorry,” Zadie replied weakly.

Dinah handed Zadie a cup of water. “Here. Maybe I should call somebody, Daddy or a doctor,” she suggested.

“No, don’t call, not on Shabbat. And anyway, it’s nothing serious. I just need to rest.”

“Call me if you need anything. I’ll be right outside the door,” said Dinah. As she sat in the hallway, she thought Zadie was more than just a little sick, but she didn’t know what to do. Zadie forbid her to use the phone on Shabbat, and she didn’t want to leave him to go find a neighbor.

Suddenly she heard Zadie struggling to breathe. Dinah jumped up and rushed into his room. “What can I do Zadie? I’m going to call the police,” Dinah cried.

“No. Not on Shabbat. Get my pills from the counter. I’ll be okay.” Zadie gasped. Dinah rushed out to get the pills. After Zadie took the pills, he seemed a little better, but she didn’t believe he was okay. If only it wasn’t Shabbat, she would have called for help hours ago. Now, she sat down at the kitchen table and wondered what to do.

God knows what to do, Dinah thought. She thought about the Torah and all the parts about honoring and observing Shabbat, but God couldn’t really mean that she shouldn’t use a phone to call for help for Zadie. Then she remembered a part she and Zadie read together. Dinah opened Zadie’s chumash and searched for the section she wanted [Lev 19:16]. Finally, she found it: “Do not stand by the blood of your fellow. I am the Lord,” it read. Zadie had told her it meant you could violate the rules of Shabbat to save a life. She read the words again and again, listening to what God was saying. It wasn’t what Zadie wanted, but she knew what she had to do.

Dinah picked up the phone and called her dad. “It’s all right. You did the right thing,” he reassured her. He immediately called the doctor.

At the hospital later that day, Dinah was sitting with her family when the doctor came into the waiting room. “He’ll be all right now,” the doctor announced. Turning to Dinah, he said: “If he had waited much longer, he would have died. You saved his life.”

When Dinah visited her Zadie in the hospital, he was much improved. “When you talk with God, you always end up doing the right thing,” he said smiling. Zadie went home from the hospital soon after. A few months later, Dinah walked with him to synagogue. Even her father joined them one Shabbat.

In the years that followed, Dinah grew up and had problems just like everybody else. But whenever she wasn’t sure what to do, she would open the Torah and talk with God. Sometimes the Torah didn’t tell her what she wanted to hear, but it always gave her the right answer if she listened carefully.

The Chelmite Rebellion

The village of Chelm is well known for the unusual ways its people think and the sometimes silly things that result. We’ve all probably heard stories of Chelm and its people, called Chelmites.

Chelm is a Jewish village, a shtetl, located in the countryside of Poland, or maybe it’s Lithuania or Latvia or even Russia. Whatever, Chelm is a small village, and the things that happen there usually aren’t terribly important in the affairs of the world, but they are always interesting. This story is about a rebellion of a group of Chelmites. You won’t find it in history books. It’s not like the American Revolution, but it is important to us.

The trouble started when the Prince of that part of the country invited everyone in the area to come to a festival to celebrate his wife’s fiftieth birthday. The Prince had never thrown any kind of party for his people before. In fact, he had never really done anything for his people. He collected taxes and pretty much ignored them.

The Prince scheduled the party for a Saturday morning and afternoon. Of course, Saturday is the Jewish Shabbat, but the Prince and his advisors never thought of that. They didn’t think much of Jews at all, except how much taxes they could pay, and the Jews in the Prince’s area were poor. The Prince and his advisors didn’t expect any Jews to come. In fact, they really didn’t want any Jews there, and if they thought the Jews would actually come, they would have told them not to bother showing up.

But some Jews in Chelm really wanted to attend the party. They had worked hard and paid taxes all these years. Now they wanted to enjoy something for all the money they had paid the Prince. They talked about it among themselves at shul the next Shabbat.

“But the party is on Shabbat. We can’t go,” declared the rabbi.

“What’s the big deal about one Shabbat? We’re just talking about one Shabbat. This only happens once in a lifetime,” insisted Fieval, the loudmouthed baker who thought he was so smart, especially when it came to business.

“No. The Torah is very clear. Adonai gave Shabbat to the Jews as a special trust. It is more special than any party that the Prince gives. What has the Prince ever done for us? But think of everything Adonai has done for us and does for us every day. No. Jews from Chelm can’t go to a party on Shabbat,” the rabbi said adamantly. He thought that was the end of it.

Fieval and a few others wandered away grumbling among themselves. “Why does he always have to make the rules? Who made him the boss, anyway?” griped Fieval.

“Yeah,” added Shmul, a poor farmer. “Remember when we wanted to hold off my son’s bris for a week until my uncle could get here? He was rich and would have brought wonderful gifts. But no, the rabbi insisted that the rules said the bris must be held in eight days. No waiting.”

“And what about the time I discovered the kosher pig?” chimed in Morris, the butcher. “We could have all gotten rich raising kosher pigs. As usual, the rabbi stopped us because it didn’t meet all the complicated rules in the Torah.”

Before long, a lot of Chelmites were thinking about all the things the rabbi had stopped them from doing. Fieval was happy to stir up their anger because he still wanted to go to the Prince’s party. “If I were in charge, things would be different around here,” he declared. They decided to call a meeting and confront the rabbi.

The rabbi came to a special meeting at the shul, called by Fieval, Shmul, Morris, and some others. He was surprised to see, maybe, a third of the town there. “Who are you to make all these rules and tell us what we can and can’t do?” shouted Fieval.

The others chimed in: “Who made you the boss?” “Why should we listen to you?” “What makes you think you’re so smart?”

“Listen, I don’t make any rules. Adonai made the rules and wrote them down in the Torah. We all read the Torah every week. You know as well as I do what God’s rules are. The Torah teaches us how to behave as Jews. I have never told you to do anything that wasn’t in the Torah,” protested the rabbi.

The rebellious Chelmites wouldn’t listen to reason. They shouted down the rabbi. Fieval jumped up on a table. “That’s right. I can read the Torah as well as you. From now on I’m going to make the rules. And the first one is that we can take one day off from Shabbat and go to the Prince’s party,” he shouted. The people stormed out of the shul.

“You’re making a terrible mistake,” the rabbi cried out after them, but they didn’t hear or wouldn’t listen or didn’t care. He trudged home, afraid of what God might do.

“What should I do?” the rabbi asked his wife when he got home and told her what had happened.

“Ask Adonai, just like Moses did when Korach and Dathan and other Israelites rose up against Moses in the desert,” she suggested.

“Adonai talks to Moses. Adonai doesn’t talk to me except through the Torah,” said the rabbi, worried and afraid.

“Pray to God. You’ll get an answer,” insisted the rabbi’s wife. So, that night the rabbi prayed harder than ever before.

In the morning, he confessed to his wife: “I prayed to Adonai for advice, but I didn’t get any. Not a word. Not even a dream like Joseph. Adonai didn’t tell me what to do.”

“Sure Adonai did. You prayed to Adonai and heard nothing. That means God wants you to do nothing. So, do nothing. Things will work out, baruch Hashem. You’ll see,” she said, triumphantly.

“You really think so? Maybe you’re right. What other choice do I have?” the rabbi replied. He decided to let things take their course. It didn’t take long.

First, Fieval appointed Morris the butcher to be his assistant. Morris declared that instead of going to Shabbat services, all the Jews had to do was bring animals to the shul for sacrifices every now and then just like Jews did in the Temple in the old days. “This is what it says in the Torah,” Morris insisted. The other Chelmites weren’t so sure, but if it meant that they could skip services some days, they might give it a try.

The butcher brought his knives into the little shul, but thing went wrong from the start. Someone brought an old bull who didn’t like being disturbed. The bull kicked and charged and it took 10 Chelmites to drag the animal out before it destroyed the place. They tried a sheep next, but thing quickly got out of hand. They lit a fire as part of the preparations for the sacrifice, however, the little shul quickly filled up with smoke. Everyone ran out coughing and choking. Luckily, they didn’t burn the place down.

Then some of the people decided that they didn’t have to bother with Shabbat at all. Fieval, the baker who thought he was so smart at business, planned to open his shop and work on Shabbat, thinking he’d make more money. Of course, the people of Chelm—who were his only customers¾ didn’t buy any more bread just because the baker was open an extra day. “Fieval, this is dumb,” said his wife. “Now you work seven days a week and you don’t have any more money to show for it. In fact, we have less money because it costs us money to open for an extra day and we don’t sell anymore bread.”

Shmul wanted to try some non-kosher foods. “None of these rules about kashrut are in the Torah,” he pointed out. “It is all something the rabbis made up later on.” So Shmul and some other families decided to try some non-kosher foods. Of course, they didn’t know how to prepare some of those foods. Pretty soon, they all got stomach aches. Shmul could only lie on his bed with a bucket next to it. “I’m going to throw up,” he moaned.

Things weren’t going well at all and people were grumbling about their new leaders; Fieval, Morris, and Shmul. But there was still the Prince’s party, and a group of the most rebellious Chelmites decided to go. They got into their very best clothes—the clothes they saved only for weddings—and headed out.

When they arrived where the party was being held, everyone was shocked into silence by the appearance of a wagon full of Jews. The Prince was particularly dismayed to have these unwelcome guests at his wife’s party, but he was very clever, which is how he managed to last so long as prince. An idea popped into this head. “Welcome, Jews,” he greeted them. “We never realized that you were doing so well that you could afford to take a day off from work and come to our party.”

Morris suddenly realized that they had made a big mistake by coming. “I wish I was home at Shabbat services,” he whispered to Fieval and Shmul.

“Since you are here, and dressed so beautifully too,” the Prince continued, “then it must mean that you can pay more in taxes.” He called to his tax collector. “Take down the names of these people and increase their taxes 20 percent.” Fieval, Morris, Shmul, and the others felt sick. How could they ever afford the extra taxes?

The rebellious Chelmites returned to Chelm much sooner than anyone had expected. When the other Chelmites heard the news, they abandoned their new leaders completely and marched over to the rabbi. “We’re sorry,” they said. “You were right. You know what is best.”

“Everything I know comes from Adonai and is in the Torah and Talmud. Come, it is still Shabbat. Let’s go back to the shul and study Torah some more and finish up with Mincha and Maariv, the afternoon and evening services,” suggested the rabbi. And that is exactly what the people of Chelm did. The Chelmite rebellion was over and no one talked about it again.


The stranger immediately stood out among the regulars at morning minyan, a daily Jewish prayer service. He was tall, young, and athletic. He carried a guitar and a backpack. He stashed his guitar in the corner, pulled tefillin out of his backpack, and joined right in. Since this was a Thursday, the minyan service included a Torah reading. As was the custom in this congregation, the stranger was offered an aliyah, the honor of being called up to the Torah. He chanted the blessings and then asked to chant (leyn) the Torah portion as well. He did a beautiful job.

Today was Thanksgiving, and Joe Goldstein was at minyan this morning. He came a few times a month, usually when someone he knew was observing yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death of a loved one. Today he was observing the yahrzeit of his mother. His son, Sam, a high school student, had no interest in joining him. A younger daughter, Rina, was home too. At 11, she was too young to be counted in the minyan. His older daughter, Miriam, was flying home from college today. He was to meet her flight at noon. The family would go to a high school football game and then have Thanksgiving dinner.

After minyan, people stayed for coffee and donuts since nobody was rushing off to work on Thanksgiving. They gathered around the stranger, this young man who could leyn Torah so beautifully. His name was Ronnie. “I’m a composer and musician. I write and perform Jewish songs,” he explained. He was on his way to a concert he was to give this coming weekend, but his car broke down. It wouldn’t be fixed until tomorrow, so here he was, at the nearest minyan he could find.

They talked for quite a while. Joe liked this young man, who was strong, smart, warm hearted, and enthusiastic about being Jewish. Ronnie offered to play some of his songs. They were very moving. Ronnie sang about Jewish values and Torah, and made them exciting through his songs. Joe invited Ronnie to join his family for Thanksgiving. “It would be a mitzvah if you would be our guest,” Joe added.

Joe’s wife, Carol, was delighted to have a guest for Thanksgiving dinner. Joe wasn’t sure how Sam would react. Sam didn’t like a lot of things his father liked, especially Jewish things. Ronnie, on the other hand, had great ruach, Jewish spirit. Luckily, the two seemed to hit it off right away. Maybe it had something to do with the guitar; Sam liked music. “Ronnie is cool,” Sam whispered to his father at one point. Rina fell in love with Ronnie immediately. She thought he was a rock star.

“I’m off to get Miriam at the airport,” Joe announced as he left the house later that morning. Sam, Ronnie, and Rina were busy entertaining themselves. Carol seemed to have everything in the kitchen under control. This was shaping up to be a better Thanksgiving than he had expected, Joe thought as he got into the car. And, if Miriam and Ronnie hit it off together, well, that might be nice, too.

At the airport, a crowd milled around the gate where the passengers were supposed to arrive. The sign said Miriam’s flight, number 772, was delayed. The minutes ticked by. Everyone was getting impatient. “What’s the word on flight 772?” Joe asked an airline representative.

“There’s been a problem. There will be an announcement soon,” she said, rushing away.

“What do you mean?” Joe called to her, but she had ducked through a door. Joe started worrying, fearing the worst.

A few minutes later an announcement came over the airport loudspeakers. It said Flight 772 had experienced problems, a fire on board, and made an emergency landing at another airport.

Joe felt sick as he waited for more details, but none came. He tried to talk with airline people. They didn’t have any more information. “We’ll let you know as soon as we hear more,” one told him.

Everyone was trying to call home. Joe waited with the crowd by a bank of telephones. Finally his turn came. Carol answered the phone. “There is a problem,” Joe said immediately.

“I know,” said Carol. “Miriam just called. She got off the plane safely. She’s getting on a bus. She won’t arrive until eight tonight, but she’s safe.”

“Thank God,” said Joe. He left the airport and headed home. It could have been a disaster, but Miriam was safe. He thanked God over and over again as he drove home.

When Joe arrived at home, he found a mixture of joy and relief and also a lingering fear. Ronnie had taken out his guitar and was playing T’filat Haderech, a prayer for travelers, a haunting Debbie Friedman song. Rina and Ronnie sang the chorus. The refrain grew in intensity with each repetition. Even Sam joined in.

“I guess dinner will be late,” Carol announced. “I hope you don’t mind,” she added, turning to Ronnie.

“Not at all. In fact, I was thinking that today would be an especially good time to do some extra tzedakah, charitable deeds,” Ronnie replied. “Holidays are always a good time to do tzedakah.”

“I thought we were going to the football game,” said Sam.

“You can go to the game. That’s cool. Just drop me off at this family shelter I know. I once did a benefit concert there. It’s not far, and I know they need extra help in the kitchen today,” Ronnie suggested. “I can fill up the hours until Miriam arrives by helping others who are less fortunate. It’s actually kinda fun. You can pick me up after the game,” he added.

The family was surprised. They never really thought about doing tzedakah just like that. They contributed money to charity, of course, but they would never think of going off to do that kind of mitzvah, a good deed, on the spur of the moment. “Doing mitzvot are one of the neat things about being Jewish. And doing a sudden mitzvah gives you a real high,” Ronnie continued. The family decided to skip the football game and go with Ronnie, except Carol who stayed home in case Miriam called again.

The people at the family shelter were delighted to see Ronnie and the Goldsteins, who went right to work helping the kitchen crew. They washed dishes, served up the food, carried trays, and lugged out the garbage. The regular kitchen crew really appreciated the extra help. Later everybody–staff, volunteers, and shelter residents–mingled together. Rina and Sam read stories to some of the little children. Ronnie sang a few songs. After they cleaned up, Joe delivered Ronnie, Sam, and Rina at home and left to pick up Miriam at the bus station. On the ride home, Sam declared: “That was all right.” To Sam, ‘all right’ was a big compliment. Rina agreed.

It was a joyful reunion when Miriam walked into the house. Carol cried as she ushered everybody into the dining room. “I guess we should sit down. This was meant to be eaten hours ago,” she apologized.

Sam and Rina were ready to jump right into the meal. “Can we say a few prayers first?” asked Ronnie. “I have a lot to thank God for this Thanksgiving. I guess we all do.”

The family seemed confused. Ronnie led Sam, Rina, Miriam, Carol, and Joe into the kitchen, took a cup from the cabinet and led them in the ritual washing of their hands and the recitation of the blessing, al ntilat yadayim. Sam and Rina seemed to think it was silly but went along.

Joe brought out a bottle of wine. “Since this is a holiday, let’s have some wine,” he said. Suddenly he added: ‘I guess we should do the blessing for wine.”

“Hey, I remember that blessing,” Sam offered. Miriam and Rina then added the blessing, the motzi, over the bread.

“Should we light candles too?” asked Carol.

“You can light candles if you light, but you don’t need to make a blessing. This isn’t Shabbat. But, you know, we can say the Shehechiyanu. It is always appropriate when we gather for a special occasion, and given everything that has happened today, this is a pretty special occasion,” replied Ronnie, glancing a Miriam. He recited the blessing in Hebrew and then in English: Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who rules the universe, granting us life, sustaining us, and helping us to reach this day.

Everyone sat down to Thanksgiving dinner. “You treat Thanksgiving almost as if it were the Sabbath,” observed Joe.

“It is a lot like Shabbat, a day of thanks, when we can rest,” Ronnie said. “But Shabbat is much more wonderful.”

“What’s so great about the Sabbath? I always thought it was a drag.” Sam said.

“Shabbat is phat, the ultimate cool trip. You rest. You hang with friends. Nobody is under pressure to do anything or be anywhere. For one day each week, you just blow everything off,” Ronnie explained. “You know,” he continued, “God gave us Shabbat as the most wonderful gift, a gift we get week after week, but only if we’re smart enough to take it.”

“I dunno,” said Sam. “Seems weird.”

“Try it sometime,” Ronnie replied.

They went on and on talking around the Thanksgiving dinner table. They talked about holidays and Shabbat, about the Torah, about mitzvot and tzedakah — things the family rarely talked about. Thinking back, Joe couldn’t remember a better Thanksgiving, ever. He was sad when it ended and Ronnie left. Joe wished Thanksgivings like this came more than once a year.

The next day, Friday, was just another day. Carol and the kids went shopping. Joe missed the spirit — the ruach — Ronnie had brought. He wished some of it would have stuck with his family. Maybe he had hoped for too much from Ronnie’s brief visit.

Joe was feeling glum when a package arrived. He opened the package and found fresh flowers, a bottle of wine, two challahs, and Shabbat candles. At the bottom of the package was an audio cassette with a note attached. It read: Thanks for inviting a stranger to share your Thanksgiving. Take the gift of Shabbat for yourself and have Thanksgiving and more every week. The note was signed by Ronnie.

When Carol and the kids returned, they popped the cassette into the player. They heard Ronnie strum a few chords on the guitar and start singing. The room filled with his voice. The song captured the peace and joy and wonder of Shabbat. Ronnie then slid into the chorus — familiar words from the Kabbalat Shabbat service: L’cha dodi likrat kalah. P’nei Shabbat n’kablah….

Enveloped by the moving song and its ancient words, the family welcomed this Shabbat and, in the months and years to come, many more Shabbats into their hearts, enriching each of their lives every week. After that, whenever Joe thought about Thanksgiving, he remembered Ronnie, who showed them how to experience Shabbat. And, he was forever thankful.

The Hardest Commandment

“C’mon! Let’s go. We’re late,” shouted Natalie. It was 9:15 on Saturday morning and things were already crazy, as usual. David, her nine-year old, was supposed to be at baseball practice 15 minutes ago but couldn’t find one of his sneakers. Sarah, the toddler, was making a mess of her breakfast all over the kitchen. Emily, the twelve-year old, needed to be driven to a friend’s house for 9:30. And Aaron, her husband, had raced off early to the lumberyard to get supplies needed for fixing a problem with the roof.

“Mom, I’m gonna be late, and the girls will leave without me!” screamed Emily. Natalie grabbed Sarah, and pushed David out the door. Emily was waiting impatiently by the car.

Somehow everyone got where there supposed to go, a little late but there safely, thank God, thought Natalie. Aaron still wasn’t home when Natalie returned with Sarah to face what had to be the messiest kitchen she had ever seen. She plunked Sarah down in front of a video and started to clean up.

This would never have happened in her grandfather’s house. Today was Saturday, and Zadie and Bubbie always observed Shabbat, the day of rest. They had more kids than she and Aaron had and things were surely hectic in their house, too sometimes–but never on Shabbat. “Shabbat is the hardest commandment to follow,” Zadie once said. As a little girl back then Natalie didn’t see why Shabbat was so hard–she thought not telling lies was the hardest commandment–but now she understood what Zadie meant. Still, Bubbie and Zadie somehow made Shabbat a true day of rest.

In her house, Saturday was no different than any other day of the week except maybe crazier. Sure, the kids didn’t go to school and she and Aaron didn’t go to work, but as a family they had a million other activities and projects: baseball practice, music lessons, gymnastics meets, play rehearsals, shopping, chores, home fix-up projects, everything, anything. It seemed to Natalie that she and Aaron and the kids never had a real day off. They never had a day of rest, certainly not once a week, not even once a month. This is a rat race of the worst sort, she thought.

“What a hassle!” exclaimed Aaron, as he burst in the door. He had to wait in line for one thing and wait again for something else and the guy who was supposed to give him advice was tied up with another customer, so he just left. He’d figure out the directions for himself, Aaron decided. Meanwhile, he had a list a mile long of other things he had to do.

“Welcome to club,” replied Natalie, who started to tick off her own list of things that needed to be done for the kids. She wanted to say something about Shabbat at Bubbie and Zadie’s house, but she didn’t know what to say and, anyway, Sarah started to cry.

All day long as Natalie ran her errands, picked up kids here, dropped them off there, she thought about Shabbat, about what her Bubbie and Zadie would think of the life her family lived. Somewhere along the way, her parents had forgotten about Shabbat. By the time she was a teenager, they even stopped lighting candles on Friday night. Aaron’s family never celebrated Shabbat at all. So Aaron never learned how. Natalie only knew one person her age who observed Shabbat, a woman at work. Everybody else she knew had lives that were just as crazy as theirs.

But Natalie did remember spending Saturdays as a child at her Bubbie and Zadie’s house. Sometimes they took her to the synagogue. She remembered how quiet and peaceful Shabbat at Zadie’s home was, yet she was never bored. Bubbie and Zadie would each talk with her, read to her, go for walks, and play board games for hours on end. Who had that kind of time anymore, she wondered. Shabbat was time, time for yourself and for each other, she realized now. She was envious. She wanted Shabbat too, for herself and for her family. We need it, she thought. We deserve it.

Natalie also remembered a big argument her father had with Zadie. Her father owned a store and decided to open it on Saturday, Shabbat. He even worked in it on Shabbat. Zadie was furious. Her father shouted at Zadie: “Get with it! This is America, not some shtetl in Poland. People expect you to be open on Saturday. The store makes more money on Saturday than any other day of the week.”

Zadie looked away for a moment. Then turned back and spoke very quietly: “Civilized people don’t work on Shabbat.” Her father stomped out of the house.

Natalie thought about Shabbat over the next few days, in between her job and running around with the kids. Were they civilized people? Aaron probably thought so, but she had her doubts. Emily thought the height of civilization was the shopping mall. David and Sarah would camp out in front of TV all day if she didn’t rush them off to activities. If this was civilization, she didn’t want it.

Natalie rummaged in the closet and found Shabbat candlesticks and a Kiddush cup she had once been given. She even turned up a Havdallah set, the beautiful twisted blue and white candle and a silver spice box. She put fresh cloves in the spice box. One whiff and she was transported again to Bubbie and Zadie’s home. She could close her eyes and recall the flickering Havdallah candle that they lit at the end of Shabbat. She could almost feel the warmth of Zadie’s hug as they swayed, hugged, and sang Eliahu Hanavi.

“What’s this stuff?” asked Aaron, one evening after he finished putting the kids to bed.

“Shabbat things. A Kiddush cup, candlesticks, and a Havdallah set. I found them in the closet,” Natalie said, off-handedly. She had begun to play with an idea about observing Shabbat, but she wasn’t even sure how to bring it up.

“Boy, I haven’t seen stuff like this since my Bar Mitzvah,” said Aaron, picking up the Havdallah candle. Aaron’s family wasn’t observant at all. His bar mitzvah was a minimal affair from a religious standpoint. His parents, Natalie thought, viewed his bar mitzvah as some sort of inoculation–a ritual shot that would make you Jewish. It might hurt a bit, but when it was over you never had to think about being Jewish again. Natalie never had a bat mitzvah. Emily attended Sunday school at a nearby synagogue, but they hadn’t decided if she would become a bat mitzvah. Natalie had recently begun to favor the idea of a bat mitzvah for Emily, but she wasn’t sure Emily would go for it. It would require some serious Jewish study.

“At summer camp we used to do Shabbat,” Aaron continued as he picked up the Havdallah candle. “My favorite part was lighting these things at the end. We stood around in a circle outside. It was like a campfire. We had songs and everything, except marshmallows that is.”

Natalie left work early on Friday and pushed off her carpooling chores on Aaron by telling him she was planning something special. She then raced around to pull together a Friday night Shabbat dinner like she remembered.

Friday night for her family was the worst night of the week. Usually, they were so tired by Friday night, they ordered pizza takeout and then watched TV until bedtime. That is unless they had to run off to something at David’s school or take Emily to some social activity. They even stopped inviting friends over. They were too tired, and the house was a mess. What a life, she thought.

Natalie wanted to have Shabbat, a real Shabbat, but she wasn’t sure how her family would react. The early signs weren’t good. Friday morning, Emily had announced that she and some friends planned to go to a movie that evening and needed a ride. Natalie informed her that they were having a special dinner as a family and Emily was required to be there.

“What’s the special occasion?” Emily demanded.

“It is Friday night. The end of the work week. For one evening I’m not going to be a chauffeur. Instead, we’re going to eat a leisurely dinner together, like civilized people, you included. That’s what is special,” Natalie insisted. Emily shot her an angry look but didn’t say any more.

When Aaron had collected the last of the kids and brought them home, the house was as ready for Shabbat as Natalie could make it. A cloth was spread over the table. Challah was on the table, wine and candles were ready, and chicken was warming in the oven.

“This really is special,” marveled Aaron. He kissed Natalie and picked up a Shabbat candlestick. “Do you still know the blessings?”

“Hey, we expecting fancy company?” asked David.

“Yes, a queen,” said Natalie, remembering how Bubbie would talk about preparing for the Shabbat Queen.

“Cool,” David replied.

“A real queen?” cooed Sarah, who thought queens and fairy princesses were wonderful.

“Sure, a queen. Tell me about it,” said Emily, who was very suspicious.

“The Shabbat Queen. We’re going to celebrate Shabbat as a family,” said Natalie. The family went along in shocked silence.

The Shabbat ritual that followed was awkward. Natalie lit the candles and stumbled through the blessing. Aaron remembered the blessing for the wine. Neither David nor Emily would say the motzi, the blessing over the challah, although both had learned it in a Jewish Sunday school they attended.

Still, the evening went pretty well, Natalie thought. After dinner, they all played a trivia game. Even Sarah knew the right answer to a question about a children’s TV show she loved. They laughed and joked with each other. Nobody rushed out. All in all, they had pretty good time together. Natalie liked it and, it seemed to her, so did everybody else. Emily jumped up to answer phone calls from her friends a couple of times but shortly came back to the game each time. She didn’t exactly say she liked it, but she played until the end of the game.

Aaron was doing the dishes when Natalie came down from putting the children to bed. “This was very nice, but what are you planning? Are you going to do this every Friday night?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I haven’t really thought it through. It really was nice, wasn’t it? I’d like to do it every week or even once a month to start. Didn’t you feel it? Didn’t you like it?” Natalie replied.

“Yes, it was nice. I really did like it, but I don’t see how we can keep it up,” said Aaron. “The schools are always planning things for Friday night, and Emily has more and more activities on Friday night. I think we got lucky tonight.”

“If we make it special and we make it fun, the kids will like it. Maybe Emily can invite a friend to join us sometimes. There has to be a way. Other people do it,” Natalie pleaded.

“What other people? Who do we know who does it?” asked Aaron.

Natalie only knew one person, the woman at work. She planned to talk with her about how she managed to keep Shabbat.

The woman at work was happy to talk about keeping Shabbat. Slowly a plan evolved in Natalie’s mind. She would gradually introduce more of Shabbat; a Friday night now and then, then every Friday night, and then start including Saturday morning.

“You can’t do it alone,” the woman warned, and told Natalie about a small synagogue that attracted young families who wanted to reclaim Shabbat. The families would gather at synagogue on Saturday. After services, she explained, it would turn into a big play date for the children while the parents socialized. Natalie liked the idea.

Natalie had no chance to do Shabbat the next Friday night. David had a game and Emily had something at school. A couple of weeks went by before she could try Shabbat again. But at one point, they managed two Friday night Shabbat dinners in a row. By then Sarah and David started to look forward to it. Natalie always made sure she had a special dessert treat ready for each Shabbat.

Emily, however, insisted on making plans for Friday nights. Once a friend picked her up after Shabbat dinner to go to a football rally at school. But Emily did lead the motzi over the challah that night, which Natalie considered a small triumph. “Friday is the biggest night of the week. All the cool things happen on Friday night. When am I going to do when I start dating?” Emily protested.

“Maybe you’ll date boys who will like celebrating Shabbat with you,” Natalie suggested.

“Fat chance. They like going to dances and parties on Friday night, and so do I,” Emily retorted derisively.

Natalie hadn’t thought out all the implications and really wanted to avoid the dating discussion for now: “You’re not even thirteen yet. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” Emily was looking forward to turning thirteen only because she wanted to go to middle school dances. Actual dating could be held off another couple of years.

Emily continued to be resist her mother’s sudden interest in Shabbat. She worried about being popular with the other kids. “Invite a friend to join us for dinner,” her mother suggested. Emily would have invited a friend for Shabbat but she was afraid her friends, even her Jewish friends, would think it was stupid or worse. And, she didn’t want to subject them to games with her parents or younger brother and sister. They weren’t too bad as family, but it would be totally uncool with her friends. Anyway, she didn’t even know any kids who had any kind of Shabbat at all.

“We need to meet some families who observe Shabbat,” Natalie told Aaron one Friday night after the children were in bed. “The kids especially,” she added.

“What do you want to do, place an ad?” replied Aaron facetiously. He enjoyed their Friday night Shabbat observances and even began to recite the full Friday night Kiddush, something he remembered from camp. In fact, their Shabbat observance seemed a lot like camp, with a certain amount of fooling around but that was okay with Natalie. At least everybody was participating, even Emily sometimes.

“I want to go to a synagogue tomorrow. I was told they have a lot of young families that observe Shabbat, not like the one we joined,” said Natalie. The synagogue where Emily and David went to Sunday school didn’t even hold services on Saturday unless a bar or bat mitzvah was scheduled. Nobody there observed Shabbat the way Natalie remembered her Bubbie and Zadie observing it. Other than taking the kids to and from Sunday school, the family only went to that synagogue once a year on the High Holidays.

“You can go, but I have things I have to do tomorrow. Somebody has to get the kids where they have to be,” Aaron said.

Natalie could hear something unpleasant and disapproving in Aaron’s response. “If we observe Shabbat as a family, neither of us would have to chauffeur the kids around every Saturday. And we wouldn’t mow the lawn or run errands for one lousy day each week. We might actually have a day of rest. Remember what rest is? That’s what this is all about,” she fired back, her frustration breaking through.

The next morning, Natalie put on a dress as she prepared to go to synagogue. “You look nice. Where are you going?” asked Emily.

“To a synagogue. Want to come, just you and me? You can wear that new dress you bought for Chris’ party,” Natalie responded, hopefully.

Emily thought for a moment. The new dress was tempting. “No, I have a lot of stuff to do today. Who’s going to take me to practice later?” Emily finally decided.

Natalie sat alone toward the back of the synagogue. She had been welcomed warmly and had politely declined an offer for an honor. She hardly remembered the service from her childhood days when she went with her Zadie. But like then, the service was almost all in Hebrew. Many of the tunes seemed familiar, and, best of all, the place was filled with young families.

She sat back and let the Hebrew words and melodies wash over her. She sometimes followed along in English, but mainly she tried to recapture the feeling of Shabbat with Bubbie and Zadie. The congregation began chanting V’shamru, a beautiful melody Zadie had taught her. The Hebrew words rushed back to her. She quietly sang them as she searched out the English translation. The children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath and observe it throughout their generations, the words said, because on the seventh day God ceased work and rested. Yes, she thought, I want Shabbat too. Unaware, she had quietly begun to sob as memories of Shabbats with Bubbie and Zadie rushed back.

“Are you all right?” asked a woman sitting a few seats away. She offered Natalie a tissue. “Are you observing yahrzeit?” she asked, referring to the observance of the death of a loved one.

“Yahrzeit? Not really, but I guess it seems like it,” said Natalie, taking the tissue and dabbing her eyes.

The service flowed along. Natalie rose when the Torah was removed from the Ark and paraded around. Only then did she notice that a small group of children had gathered in the back. She saw toddlers with their parents, elementary school children fooling around, and a small group of teenagers, both girls and boys. Natalie didn’t recognize any of the children or their parents, but she thought her children could fit right in. At the end of the service the littlest children raced onto the bimah, the raised area in front of the congregation, to sing Adon Olam, the final prayer. They looked so cute and happy, waving to their parents. Natalie could picture Sarah and David up there with them.

In the weeks that followed, Natalie felt she alone was working to get her family out of the rat race in which they found themselves trapped. One night after a particularly hectic rush of carpooling and takeout food, she exploded at Aaron. “Do you like the way we live? Just because everybody else’s lives are crazy doesn’t mean we have to be crazy too. I’ll put up with this six days a week, but I want a day off. Don’t you?” she screamed.

“What about the kids? What about their lives?” Aaron shot back.

“We can find activities for them that don’t require their participation every Saturday. We can find friends who will observe Shabbat with them. They are out there someplace. That synagogue had a bunch of kids. It will take creativity on our part and compromise on everybody’s part. But the alternative is…,” she stopped abruptly. “There is no alternative, not one I want to think about anyway.”

Natalie went to the synagogue the next Shabbat morning. Aaron took over with the kids. The week after that they all went. Emily had a fit. “I’m not going to some stupid old synagogue. I promised Lauren I’d go to the mall with her,” she insisted.

“You can go to the mall with Lauren in the afternoon. But first we’re all going to a new synagogue,” Natalie insisted. Aaron backed her up.

Natalie had to drag the kids to the synagogue. But Sarah and David quickly got involved in the children’s services and met a bunch of kids their age. Emily sulked beside her parents in the main service. The small group of girls and boys her age that hung around the back row slipped out sometime before the end of the service. Emily noticed them go and wished she could get out too. At Kiddush, the period of refreshments and socializing following the service, a couple of the girls came up and introduced themselves to Emily. For the first time all morning she cracked a small smile.

The next couple of Saturdays were busy, but the family returned to the synagogue a number of times over the next few months. Gradually they started going more and more frequently. The younger children made new friends fast. They were invited to share Shabbat at the homes of their newfound friends, and they, in turn, invited their new friends to their home. For Emily, the adjustment was harder. But she did meet a couple of kids she liked, and a few new dresses of her own choosing became the bribe that got her to go along.

All in all, Natalie was pleased with her family’s observance of Shabbat. They even participated in the Purim celebration at the new synagogue. At first, it didn’t look promising. While the two youngest children were thrilled with the idea of Purim costumes and treats–”It’s a lot like Halloween but not scary,” Natalie promised–Emily balked. Too babyish, she argued. But the synagogue held a Purim teen costume dance. Emily jumped at Natalie’s suggestion that they find a fancy old gown at a rummage sale for her to wear. Emily happily went off to the dance as Queen Vashti, wearing a gown, long white gloves, and a seductive veil. She fit right in with her new friends.

By the time Passover rolled around, late in March, Natalie felt she had won the Shabbat battle. Very slowly, Shabbat was becoming a part of their lives. For one day, they stepped out of the rat race. Emily’s new friends began their bar and bat mitzvah lessons. Emily even began to talk about having a bat mitzvah, mainly, Natalie suspected, because she wanted to have a big, fancy party with her friends. Natalie wasn’t going to argue; she signed Emily up for bat mitzvah lessons and some extra tutoring.

Things were going so well, in fact, Natalie decided at the last minute to add more Passover observance. The family always brought matzah into the house on Passover. Matzah is the special unleavened bread like the bread the Israelites baked as they rushed out of Egypt. Her effort with the matzah was a token gesture, Natalie realized, and after the first two nights of Passover, when they were usually invited out to a Seder, the family immediately lost interest in matzah and Passover.

Natalie mentioned her Passover plans to Aaron and the family one evening, but either nobody fully understood or they didn’t believe she was serious. Whatever the reason, Natalie’s plans never really registered with the others. “If you want to do it, okay with me, but I’m too busy at work right now,” Aaron had replied distractedly. Natalie was disappointed, but she went ahead anyway.

She cleared all the shelves of food their usual foods and substituted special Passover foods. Not just matzah but snack foods and desserts. Even the tuna fish was kosher for Passover. When Natalie was finished, David and Sarah joined her in a hunt for the last crumbs of leavened bread, a game she remembered playing at Bubbie and Zadie’s house as a child. The kids loved the chumatz hunt, in which they could crawl through closets and cabinets with a flashlight looking for pieces of bread Natalie had hidden a little earlier.

Aaron discovered the change first. “Where the heck are the pretzels!” he shouted, rummaging through the kitchen.

“It’s Passover. Pretzels are chumatz. They aren’t kosher for Passover. Try these,” Natalie offered as she rushed into the kitchen.

Aaron eyed the Passover snacks warily. Then he nibbled one. “These are like cardboard,” he judged. He dropped the package on the kitchen table, and stomped out of the room. “Forget it. I wasn’t really hungry,” he muttered.

At least, the Passover cookies and cakes received a better reception, although all agreed that they weren’t as good as the regular dessert treats. The real fight, however, came when the kids discovered they had to take Passover food to school to lunch. David demanded his usual peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“I won’t be caught dead with this stuff in school,” Emily shouted. “Nobody I know brings matzah to school. It’s gross.” Aaron gave her money to buy lunches at school. Without Aaron’s support and some flexibility and cooperation from the children, Natalie quickly gave up the Passover effort. She donated her unopened Passover foods to a shelter and returned the kitchen to normal. She feared that the Passover debacle as she thought of it would jeopardize all the progress the family had made with Shabbat.

Talking her fears over with the woman at work who first steered her to the synagogue, Natalie realized that she hadn’t really prepared her family or herself for Passover. “Passover is a big change. Take it slowly,” the woman advised. “Next year, you’ll start way in advance by reading the children Passover stories and getting involved in pre-Passover programs. I even have some great recipes for you.” Natalie prayed that they’d still be involved enough to try it the next year.

The family hadn’t been back to the synagogue since before Passover, and Natalie continued to worry that the Passover experience would wreck the family’s growing Shabbat observance. A few days later Emily came home from the mall with a new sweater. It was the latest style, not something Natalie approved of at all. “I thought we decided you weren’t going to buy that. Where do think you’re going to wear it?” snapped Natalie, discouraged by the prospects of yet another battle.

“To synagogue on Shabbat for starters. The kids’ll love it,” said Emily, with a subversive smile. So, the idea of Shabbat had stuck after all, despite the Passover fiasco. Natalie lost the sweater argument, but she had won something much greater.

There were still frequent conflicts with Shabbat. They made compromises and exceptions, but Natalie drew Aaron into her plans and they got better and better at finding creative solutions to Shabbat conflicts. Slowly Shabbat became more and more the rule in their home. As it did, they regained control of their lives, at least for one day every week.

As the family slowly embraced Shabbat, Natalie thought about Bubbie and Zadie, particularly on the day of Emily’s becoming bat mitzah, a daughter of the commandments. They would have beamed with pride over Emily. She was rough in spots and she didn’t do quite as much as the children who had more training, but the congregation showered her with enthusiastic praise. Even Natalie’s father was there, the first time he had set foot in a synagogue in years. The modest bat mitzvah party that followed that night, carefully planned by Emily and Natalie, was a success. A popular DJ provided the entertainment for a mix of Emily’s new synagogue friends and her old school friends. Emily’s school friends thought she had been awesome. Emily was thrilled.

Natalie’s thoughts kept coming back to the question Zadie once posed: Which of the Ten Commandments was the hardest to follow? Many scholars believed the hardest was to honor your parents, her Zadie said. Her own father, who argued so much with Zadie, might still agree with the scholars, but Zadie didn’t. Natalie, who as a child thought the Commandment prohibiting lying was the hardest, now believed that the hardest commandment was to honor Shabbat. But she had managed to capture Shabbat, a precious gift, for herself and her family. It was so very hard, Natalie knew from experience, but not impossible. And worth every bit of the effort.

A Jealous God

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

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

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

“It was nothing,” Rifkah said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does it matter?” replied Chaya.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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