Backstory: I grew up living across the street from our rabbi and his family (he was raised Orthodox and presided over our conservative shul). There’s many lessons to observe in that scenario as my Jewish education went beyond Sunday School: I learned every day what it was like being part of a clergy’s family. Back in the 50s and 60s we didn’t lock our doors during the day and as our families were very close, we walked in and out of each other’s houses without knocking. The surprising discoveries for me were that I learned what it was like to live everyday as a shomer Shabbat, a person who observes the mitzvot. Or was supposed to!
And that means the dos and don’ts of being Jewish. Like watching the rebbetzin kashering her chickens every Friday. Several times she made me do the process. I never really understood how dunking the bird in a little hot and cold salt water made the chicken kosher. But I was a kid, how could I argue with age-old tradition. I watched, listened and did what I was asked of me because I loved and respected the rebbetzin. Most of the time.
I remember the time my Girl Scout troop was going Christmas caroling in a pickup truck loaded with hay, supplied with hot chocolate and Christmas cookies! Something new to me and it sounded fun. All the Jewish girls knew the holiday songs because we had to sing them in our school choir. And during the outing we were asked to sing a Chanukah song or two, which the gentile girls knew for the same reason the Jewish girls knew the Christmas songs! Well, let me tell you the mouthful I got from the rebbetzin for being a nice Jewish girl who would go out and sing songs that would be promoting Christ and Christmas! That act would be a terrible shanda, embarrassment, for the neighborhood! I cried and cried and ran home to my mother’s arms. When she heard what had upset me, she said, “I am your mother and I say it’s ok to go with your Girl Scout troop. They are not trying to convert you, it’s just an outing.”
And I wasn’t too keen on my first and only Pesach seder I attended across the street because it went on and on and we didn’t eat our meal until midnight! In my house, the seder was conducted by my grandfather, my mother and bubbe laid the table with food they had been cooking for a week, we looked for the afikomen and the dishes were done and put away by midnight!
The rabbi’s family was aware that I appreciated them and what they taught me. But they loved the Sunday morning they called and asked me to come over right away. I rushed through the back door into their kitchen while the six of them sat at the table having breakfast. They didn’t ask me to join them, in fact, they continued on like I wasn’t even there. And then suddenly I began to scream, “What are you doing? What are you eating? Oh my G-d! Oh my G-d!”
They all burst into fits of laughter as I watched them gobble down bacon! Or so I thought. When they stopped their hysterics, they pointed at me and were delighted to say, “Gotcha! Gotcha!” I had never seen or heard of turkey bacon back then. They got me alright! I was the perfect stooge for them to show off their fake bacon because they knew I so respected their religious lifestyle and would be horrified by this gross break in kashrut.
In Confirmation class, the rabbi always told us, “To be Jewish is to question.” But I had to ponder at times when it was appropriate to ask certain hard questions that might have hard answers. Like on summer Shabboses when the rabbi would dress in his GQ (Gentleman’s Quarterly) cabana outfit (my father owned a men’s clothing store so this rabbi was always dressed to the nines) and peer up and down the street from his back porch, (which was the highest point on our street and I always thought it was like the location of his pulpit!), looking around the neighborhood to check if anyone was watching him as he raced across the street to do laps in our swimming pool! If anyone was outside, he’d rush back into his house until the coast was clear and then enjoy his Sabbath swim — but according to his teachings, sports/recreation was not allowed on Shabbos. He gave me many snide remarks over the years when my brothers played baseball on Saturdays. I never had the chutzpa to question him about the dichotomy of those two issues. I left that up to G-d.
On Fridays nights, for many years, I would join his family and we’d walk the mile plus to shul for services. Each street we passed, kids would join us and by the time we arrived, there would be 10-12 teens. It was a special time. One such evening as we walked, I noticed the rabbi was very quiet as he usually gave us a preview of the week’s Torah portion. I had heard a running argument for years in his house that his oldest son begged to play football in high school. But games were played on Friday nights and that was Shabbos. Finally in his senior year the rabbi relented and this Shabbos his son marched off, not in his yarmulka and tallis but in his football gear. Because I came from a family who loved theater, as the suited player walked out the door, and I noticed he didn’t kiss the m’zuzah so I yelled, “Break a leg!”
I realized in the moment that may not have been the best choice of words but it was already out of my mouth.
By great coincidence, our high school team was playing the Catholic high school team that was directly across the street from our shul, in fact, it was quite normal for us congregants to not only hear prayers and a sermon but to also be in tuned to the cheering from the crowd when a touchdown was made.
Several times that Shabbos service, I noticed the rabbi and rebbetzins’ expressions of dismay as their eyes glanced towards the direction of the roaring crowd from across the street. As we all made our way to the oneg, I noticed someone come rushing to the couple. They said something to their other children and ran off. Their son’s first game was an impactful experience as he broke his collar bone and was benched for the rest of the season. I could only ponder if that was a message from G-d. And I was happy not to be in their house later that night after they brought their son home from the hospital! I’m sure another sermon was heard by all.
My big lesson from the rabbi and his family was: They were just human. And like all families, they had their share of tsrus, troubles.
I loved Friday night services. The liturgy and the singing from the choir always touched me, especially the melodies, that today, seem to have gone by the way-side for more modern tunes. But most affecting to me was The Sh’ma. And to this day, hearing the Sh’ma gives me a sense of peace and belonging while it takes me home to a time of loving memories.
When I was sixteen, my parents were killed in a car accident by a drunk driver. I was also in the car and while the ambulance took me to the hospital, I kept crying for the police not to go to my house where my younger brothers were home alone but to go across the street to the rabbi’s home. The police did go to my house and my thirteen-year-old brother answered the door to policemen saying there had been an accident. My brother went screaming across the street and banged on the door until the rabbi answered. The rebbetzin immediately went to stay with my brothers.
As I lay in the emergency room in a daze, the first face I clearly saw was the rabbi’s. He took my hand and said the Sh’ma.
To this day, I never leave or enter my home without touching the m’zuzah. Am I superstitious? Like many Jews, most likely. How many of us say, “Pooh! Pooh! Pooh! And spit 3 times when something good or bad as been said in order to ward off the evil eye? Do you knock on wood as another way to protect from evil? Are you happy when a family member or friend complains that it’s raining on moving day and you rejoice with, “In Jewish tradition, that’s good luck!”
Touching a m’zuzah and saying the Sh’ma numerous times a day, for me, keeps me in touch with G-d, and I hope in my Jewish superstitious way, keeps my loved ones safe and healthy.
I share all this with you because of a book I recently read, The Lost Shtetl by Max Gross. It’s a whimsical/sad story (perfect combination for a Jewish novel) about a little shtetl in the far deep forests of Poland that was missed by the Nazis. The religious residents of this town lived in happy isolation away from the outside world for over one hundred years with no clue about WWl, WWll, the Holocaust, airplanes, TVs, let alone cell phones. The 20th century is lost to these people until an incident brings the modern world crashing into their naïve lives.
Yankel is the character that takes his fellow Jews on a roller-coaster ride into reality. He is a nebbish but not stupid. He goes from a lonely and sheltered life to a man dropped into Polish modernity who must adjust to the real world. When he literally comes to a crossroads in the woods of both lives, he must decide which life to embrace. In his confusion, with nothing on his person but the clothes on his back and his grandfather’s phylacteries, a set of small black leather boxes containing a tallis and yarmulke, he sees he has nothing in his life but these artifacts that he hadn’t used for many years.
Alone in the wilderness, Yankel puts on the tallis and yarmulke, thought about the good and evil that had confronted him and realized that for generations his family embraced these symbols of their heritage. At the moment, it was all Yankel had.
They were his inheritance. This brought Yankel to his knees in agony. He bowed his head and his voice rang out:
“Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adoni Echad. Hear O Israel, The Lord Our G-d, The Lord is One.”
Whatever comes to us in life, good, evil, happy or sad, we can always depend on The Sh’ma for solace that we have a tradition and heritage that can sustain us. Yankel brought me to tears with understanding how much The Sh’ma gives me comfort and peace and the knowledge that times, in the best of times and in the worst of times, it’s all/everything we have. Amen.
As a Baby Boomer Bubbe who still feels 18 but has four grand kids to prove this is the 21 Century, Sandra writes to leave a legacy for the next generations. Her belief that these precious kids need to know their cultural and family’s past in order for them to live their future is all the muse she needs!
She has a Master’s Degree in Psychology and Cross Cultural studies, has written a family history, personal memoir and is completing her first novel.
Her grandmother’s journey to America and life is her source for her deep belief and love for Judaism.