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Rabbi, we have to stop meeting like this

We, the parents of the Hebrew class of Gimel, which means third graders to non-Hebrew readers, were called to temple recently for a teaching moment with the Rabbi.

In theory, this is a very nice thing. We have a friendly, young rabbi and bunch of parents who I have known for years. In reality, putting me anywhere near the Rabbi has in the past proven somewhat problematic. Apparently, Rabbis make me nervous or stupid, possibly both.

That’s why, I have resolved for the past year or so now, to watch my mouth and what comes out of it. I will not tell the rabbi, that my hotness is the reason that the room is warm. I will not swear ‘Jesus Christmas’ when I accidentally spill my coffee that I probably should not have brought into temple in the first place. I will not comment on any part of his appearance, like I did when he grew a beard after the passing of his mother, which, who knew – was connected. Um, every Jewish person but me.

This morning, the Rabbi tells us we were brought together to discuss the Shema. I’ve always been a good girl, but never a good Jewish girl, so I couldn’t really tell you what it means beyond that is a prayer that sounds lovely to ear and speaks to the heart of the covenant between you and God. I think.

It’s probably because when the rabbi started speaking I was too involved with searching for a butterscotch candy deep in my bag. Don’t worry, he waited for me to find it.

And when one of the women asked a question that made me roll my eyes a little, I couldn’t help nudging the friend next to me and giggling like an elementary school idiot.

It’s an informal gathering and thankfully the rabbi is kind and tolerant. I add my two cents here and there, and am my general babbling self, causing one woman to remark that I should possibly just lead the discussion.

Okay, then. I’ll shut up now.

And I did, silently chastising myself until the children all filed in. They were part of this ‘special activity’ with the parents and rabbi. They took their seats around the table and my eyes followed my little third grade boy, so freaking adorable with his new haircut that accentuates his huge, green eyes that are always glittering with mischief.

They all settled in and we turned our attention back to the rabbi. “So we are all here for this….”

The sound of a chair rustling interrupted.

The rabbi starts again.

More rustling.

It is, of course, my son.

We all turned to watch my impish boy as he worked to move his chair in between the two next to him.

When he was finally done, he looked up at me and smiled radiantly. I couldn’t help but smile back, but we’re going to have to have a talk when we get home. He just can’t go around being so distracting.

I have no idea where he gets it.

owen and me

Damn. I know where he gets it.

He has a story… everyone should hear.

He has a story… everyone should hear.

His eyes never left mine. Rimmed with tears that had already been shed a thousand times, they yearned to share his story, for me to listen, to hear, to feel. “Pay close attention” they pleaded as deeply as his accented words. “You will not be sorry you did.” I could feel the current of emotion in him, rising like a tide. “It started in Poland. I was born in 1937. My brother in 1933. I was two years old when they took my father away.”

We had just been introduced, barely having said hello. I was a first time guest at his son’s home with my family for a holiday dinner for Sukkot.  Seven children and eight adults warmed the house like a nice glass of Merlot . The children were jumping and screaming. One was playing the drums. A massive pillow fight was in the works as  the adults chatted merrily without care. Over the noise, our friend Tim introduced us. “This is my father Ben. He has an amazing story to share.” “Dad, this is my friend. She is a writer.”

His focus changed from light to locked. “You are writer?”

I demurred. “Not really. I have always written stories, essays and such, but no, not really.”

But both Tim and my husband would not allow my honest assessment of inexperience and pumped up my resume and his confidence in my story telling abilities.

“Come.” His intensity guided me from the others as if his hand were on my shoulder leading the way. I could only follow. He was a small man but he carried a heavy story. It walked with us like a third person.

He motioned toward the dining room table and we sat down. I was happy for my glass of wine. It gave me a moment or two of distraction away from his intense need. There was no small talk or preamble.

“Do you know much of Poland in the late 1930’s?”

I really did not. My knowledge of my own history is embarrassingly inadequate. He explained how Poland was divided by Hitler and Stalin and split between Russia and Germany. His family lived on the Russian side. They had some means, he explained, his father was an educated man, an ecologist of some sort. As communist Russia overtook Poland, they “nationalized” the middle and upper class families living there, taking their homes, lands and wealth and sending them off to Siberia.

“They sent your family to Siberia?” I asked stunned and amazed. Siberia was, well, Siberia.

“Yes, my father first and then they came for my mother, my brother and me.”

“So at least you were together.” I felt some small comfort that at least there was that.

“No. My mother, brother and I were sent away to another part where we lived in spaces dug in the ground with around 2,000 others. My mother was put to work as a lumberjack while my brother and I were left there alone with nothing.”

“But you were only seven and two?”


I took a big gulp of wine. How do you even look at someone who has been through so much pain? By asking a safe, clinical question. “They did this to all the Jewish people of Poland?”

“No, they did it to every one of means.”

I nodded. I had a hundred questions. I could never imagine living in my bubbled suburban world that my family could be ripped from their home and then ripped from their loved ones. I felt a tear in my heart. I wanted him to go on. I needed to know about how they survived each day, but I also wanted to know about the home they left. What it looked like, and tasted like. The smells and sights, what their lives were really like in Poland in 1939 before the world turned on its head and then closed its eyes.

We were interrupted by Tamara, my friend, Tim’s wife, who walked in I’m sure to save me. We had, after-all, just arrived for a holiday dinner. She gently put her arm around her father-law. “Come. You can’t tell her the whole story tonight.” She kindly teased him. You could see the love and high regard she held him in.  Ben smiled and politely acquiesced to social graces. “Of course.”

We both stood to join the party, but Ben still looked to hold my eye and my attention. “I hope for us to meet again so I can tell you more. That is barely a beginning.”

“Me too.”  I meant it. I was sucked in to his story – to him, to his history and his almost desperate, palpable need to divulge and honor that history. But I knew, ultimately, that he wanted someone to put his past on paper, to make it live and breathe again. Just because I was intrigued by him – by his eyes and his hands, by his words and intensity, that didn’t mean I could write it for him. That didn’t mean that I could make the bored and desensitized world of today stop for a moment and remember.

Could I?

Hineni – “Here I am”

I rummage through my closet looking for an appropriate outfit, not an easy thing for a girl who spends her life in gym clothes and sneakers. I try on at least three different ensembles, but ultimately settle on a 15 year-old black dress that I have worn for pretty much everything from bridal showers to funerals. Today, it’s my fall-back temple dress. Thank goodness for Express in the 90’s.

Shalom! School has begun. Fall is almost here. I am Jewish.

Of course I’m Jewish all year round, but in September we celebrate the high holidays – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On Rosh Hashanah, we reflect on the past year, and on Yom Kippur our fate is sealed. Simply put, it’s finals week and report cards are coming.

Today, I’m supposed to be at the temple by 10am because I’ve been given an honor to open the ark encasing the Torah. It’s nice to be acknowledged, but I’m really no good at the religion stuff.  I mean, I send my boys to Hebrew School, attend temple on the holidays and of course, wear my “I heart Jews” tee shirt (kidding); but I can’t read Hebrew, never was a Bat Mitzvah, and feel generally uncomfortable with all things religious. I once said “Jesus Christ” as I tripped into temple and practically fell into the Rabbi. Apparently, I am capable of offending multiple religions simultaneously. I also have said “Amen” to the Rabbi after he sneezed, and once in my flirty, uncomfortable-with-authority awkwardness, suggested to him that the reason it was hot in the temple was because of me. Oh yes I did.

I can’t imagine why they would put me up there on display, and I’m conflicted about why I even accepted. I don’t really want to go, but all I can do now is accept my honor, hopefully not fall off the stage, and then slip quietly into background, which is where I really wanted to be in the first place.

I glance at the clock. 9:45am. Crap. Howard and the boys will just have to meet me. It’s a seven minute walk, but I’m in heels so it’s more like 10 minutes. I start with a brisk pace, but slow down when I trip over the sidewalk and slightly twist my ankle. At 9:58am, I limp into the temple sanctuary and check in. “I made it!” I announce and the administrator hands me a card that says my time is 11:15am. What?? My paper said 10am. I show it to the administrator and he shrugs. What kind of racket is this?

I grab a prayer book and sit down in a semi-breathless huff. I notice the book is new and remember that the temple purchased new books a month or so ago, and that in a moment of sentimentality I had even donated $54 for one of the books to be dedicated to my grandmother who had recently passed.

I flip it open absently and there it is; my grandmother’s inscription. Out of 300 random books, I find my grandmother. Or more accurately, my grandmother finds me. I smile and look around like she’s just placed the book on my chair, but of course, it’s our secret.

The temple president is speaking, and I’m instructed to wait for her to finish before ascending the Bimah (platform). Her running theme is “Hineni” which translates to “Here I am.” She’s trying to inspire people get involved, while thanking the people who do. Hineni. I like it.

She finishes and up I go with a handful of other honorees. I open the ark, the Torah is brought forth, and we are instructed to follow the procession around the congregation. What? Me? No. I didn’t sign up for that. Open. Close. Done. But I’m ushered forward and immediately overwhelmed with people shaking my hand and offering Shana Tova.

Like writing LOL, I have never been comfortable saying Shana Tova. It always felt like I was pretending to be something I’m not. Happy New Year I can say, but here I am clasping hands with dozens of people and Shana Tova’ing like a game show host.

We finally end the procession back on the Bimah. The Torah is put away and the arc closed. I look out from the stage and see my boys, front and center watching me. Julius is dancing a little dance, Michael is bright-eyed and Tyler is smiling wide. I smile back and realize his fly is open. Oops, I think. Hineni.

I return to my seat, flushed and happy to be done. Howard and the boys are there and together we finish out the service. I look around at the congregation and see so many friends and familiar faces. My prayer book with my grandmother’s inscription rests on my lap. I feel warm and connected. Hineni. Here I am.