The Lord said to Abram, "Go out, from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great. You shall become a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you."
-- Genesis 12:1, 2
Abraham's service, characterized by "proceeding beyond" his own limitations, set the standard for his descendants, the Jewish people. The secret of Abraham's strength was to go out of himself and to recognize and connect with the Creator. His connection was so strong that his very name was changed, from Abram to Abraham, adding the sacred letter that linked him with God. Standing alone in an era of idolatry, Abraham became known as the Ivri -- the one on the other side.
Susan was recently divorced and acutely new to the "religious" Jewish lifestyle. Was she projecting the eroding boundaries of her personal life onto the universe at large? Her mother, Sylvia Gelfarb, thought so. Sylvia, a sensible native Midwesterner, was wary of a daughter more Jewish than the Reform temple or Conservative synagogue had educated her to be. Sylvia absolutely allowed her children the choice of religious affiliation, but Reform or Conservative should have been choice enough.
So why wasn't it? Sylvia had been apprehensive about her daughter's living arrangements ever since Susan, the birth name that Sylvia had selected for her daughter two and a half decades before, began signing her letters "Shaina." "Shaina," an old-fashioned, grandmotherly name (the name, in fact, of Sylvia's own departed grandmother), was a Hebrew school name definitely not intended for general use.
Those "Shaina" letters came from Israel. After the unfortunate divorce (in retrospect, Sylvia could find no fault with her ex-son-in-law, a fine young mathematician) Susan had flown to Israel, supposedly to prepare to teach a literature course. At first she had great adventures. As soon as she landed, she was invited to Beit Jala, as the guest of a Christian Arab family. Susan wrote home about her hostess's multigenerational household, all living together within the thick stone walls of their ancestral mountaintop villa. She mentioned orchards, gardens, protective little "houses" that the farmers built around each tomato plant, and the many marriage proposals she received from young Arab boys longing for green cards. It seemed that all was well.
But her later letters, the ones she began signing "Shaina," were different. Initially Sylvia conceded to Susan's logic, agreeing that a week among Christian Arabs might be balanced by a weekend among religious Jews. But when that weekend led to a change of convictions, Sylvia suspected brainwashing. Clearly Susan, emotionally vulnerable as she must be at this time, had become victim to a cult. Sylvia and her husband flew to the Holy Land to set things straight.
Susan's cult was located in the Jerusalem suburb of Bayit V'Gan (House and Garden), under the guise of a seminary for young women called Neve Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Oasis). Sylvia combed the dorms but found only healthy and mentally sound young women. Puzzled, she inquired after the director. She was introduced to Rabbi Moshe Chalkovsky, a refined English scholar, so much a gentleman that Sylvia hardly noticed his yarmulke (head covering). Not that she would have objected; the rabbi's yarmulke, like the surgeon's scrubs, is a mark of the profession. Sylvia easily agreed with Rabbi Chalkovsky that girls often go to extremes when they first explore their Jewish heritage in depth. She could even concede that the synagogue's weekly postconfirmation class did not constitute depth. In time, the rabbi assured her, the girls adapt to the middle way. This pleased Sylvia. The Conservative synagogue, midway between Reform and Orthodox, always had made sense to her. So although Susan/Shaina was intent, just then, on brainwashing her mother, Sylvia looked forward to happier times.
They did not materialize. Shaina (Susan appeared lost and gone forever) confirmed Sylvia's worst fears and abandoned the university. She was even comparing a commitment to the study of English literature with a commitment to the study of Donald Duck! After a taste of what she called Torah, Shaina would not return to Shakespeare.
As time passed, Shaina compounded one incomprehensible act with another. Shaina did not settle onto a middle road; she became religious. Yet, as Sylvia explained to her friend Paula, even among the religious there must be some moderation, where, in spite of Torah, you lead a normal life. But not Shaina. She had to join the extremely religious, where Torah is one's life.
Even that situation might not have been hopeless. Sylvia explained to Paula that those who are extremely religious do not consider being extremely religious an extreme. In fact, among the extremely religious there can yet exist considerable normalcy! Among them are men with normal professions. Doctors, lawyers, businessmen, even professors -- Shaina could have married one of these! But no. Shaina had to go to the extreme of the extreme and marry a rabbi. And not a fine, robust, school-directing, gentleman rabbi, like Rabbi Chalkovsky, which could be forgiven. Who Shaina married was a small man who stooped over a little desk writing mezuzahs. No, not the artist who designs the covers! There's supposed to be a little piece of paper inside the cover. How many people have heard of that? And not just any little piece of paper, but a special parchment one that had to be written by hand to be kosher! No, you can't buy them in the butcher store. You buy them from men who spend their days and nights writing them! Shaina kisses mezuzahs when she passes one. She says that nailing a mezuzah to the doorpost is a Divine commandment that identifies Jewish homes and helps protect them. The Jewish home, Shaina says, is a holy place, like a miniature Temple! So it's not enough to have one mezuzah on the front door, but every door that's not a bathroom door needs a mezuzah. And, according to Shaina, these mezuzahs need to be professionally checked at least twice in seven years to make sure their ink hasn't worn out. Well, who ever heard of such a thing? Sylvia had never bought a mezuzah; she had assumed that the one nailed to her front doorpost when she moved in twenty years earlier was sufficient. Paula's mezuzah had a similar history. So how many customers could Shaina's husband have?
But Sylvia had to accept that situation. She rationalized to Paula that Shaina's husband was not the only man in the world who wrote mezuzahs. There must be a number of such men, and among them exists normalcy. They eat and drink and have normal children. On the other hand, he and Shaina were not blessed with children. So what did they do? They fostered children. While this is going to extremes to obtain children, at least a middle road is possible. Take in average, normal, middle-of-the-road children.
But Shaina and her husband went beyond. The extreme of the extreme of the extreme until it's not worth discussing. They bought a house in the Hasidic community of Crown Heights. And they took in children who were "difficult," to say the least. And not one, but two, and not temporarily, but they adopted them. From this there was no solace, and even Paula had to admit that Shaina and her husband went forth beyond extremes, beyond understanding, and probably beyond return.
Going to the "other side" is a process, and Shaina, who had made the transition more than a decade ago, often felt caught in unfinished business. In retrospect, the initial, dramatic part -- changing her diet, wardrobe, neighborhood, and name -- was not so difficult or challenging as it had first appeared. Kosher food was plentiful and tasty; tznius (modest) clothing, covering elbows, knees, and collarbone, with trousers deleted and replaced with skirts, was comfortable and attractive. Her new neighborhood became familiar, her new name, after a pious great-grandmother whom she had never met, was strengthening. These seemingly major changes proved relatively minor. More difficult was reconciling parents, friends, and colleagues, who had cajoled, complained, and even condemned, urging her to return to them. Her insistence that she had not changed, but had only returned to her essence, perhaps even to her very source, convinced no one. "Essence" and "source" were not words that Susan would have used. Her protests only fueled the lamentations of her near and dear ones: Susan was theirs no more. What they didn't realize was that they seemed lost to her as well. The few cousins, the few friends who eventually made the same transition, she embraced as landsmen from a home far away. The others remained as close as a phone call -- and as distant as a foreign world. Their absence left a vacancy, which remained over time, after her remarriage, and in spite of dear new friends. Yet the unbridged (but not unbridgeable, Shaina always hoped) gap between herself and her family was secondary to the chasm that lurked camouflaged between her old and new selves. Integrating self with self, extricating self from self, was an endless and ultimate challenge.
Years later, in October 1998, Shaina was facing a more mundane issue. She faced her closet. She was going out to meet Reva that afternoon. What did she have to go out in?
Shaina couldn't even remember the last time she had gone out. Three years ago, maybe, before she and her husband had adopted Chana and Dovid. Since then she had not had time to think about how she had not taken time to think about the consequences of that act. But suddenly this morning her little ones were gone to a playgroup for the very first time. This morning her vigilance wasn't necessary. The safety, amusement, health, progress, future, and well-being of her children need not be her immediate focus. This required some adjustment. Her mind groped, reaching back to that clouded era before Chana and Dovid entered -- and upstaged -- her life. Those early years of this marriage, years of fertility treatments interspersed with roller-coaster rides of foster parenting. Then came a winter's day when she and her husband were tossed a baby, a perfect newborn, who happened to have an extra twenty-first chromosome. Medically, this condition is called trisomy 21, which generally triggers what is gently called "developmental delays." Commonly, the condition is known as Down syndrome.
Her husband, Shloma, didn't call it anything at all. He was gifted with an innate simplicity that enabled him to see the uncomplicated side of complicated issues. Despite his constant study of Talmudic complexities, his simplicity remained intact. Thus he glanced at the angelic infant, eyed his longing wife, and concluded that the world erred. The child was not only salvageable, but desirable. Often unusually elevated souls choose to be recycled into such a body. Perhaps this soul needed to correct some minor spiritual flaw of its previous lifetime. Or, more likely, it wished to accomplish a mission of ahavas Yisrael, love of one's fellow, and selflessly elevate others. That was the exegesis of the matter. However, the simple interpretation -- and Shloma identified with simple interpretations -- was that this infant, the documented child of a Jewish mother, was a Jewish child. A Jewish soul can only be nourished in a Torah environment, which the adoption agency's alternate parental possibilities could not provide. Here, therefore, was not a social, political, or religious issue, but a situation clarified by Torah's simple truth. Shloma didn't elaborate on this, or on anything. For fifteen seconds he viewed the child, endured his wife's silent but incessant plea, lifted an eyebrow to signal approval, and disappeared into his study.
Shaina caught the sign and flew for the child, who flowed to her embrace like limp spaghetti. "No muscle tone," the caseworker commented. "But don't worry. Therapy will help. I've seen these children walk, talk, do everything." With that hope, Shaina and Shloma named the baby Chana so she would find chein, or favor, in the eyes of others. Shaina devoted herself to teaching Chana to drink from a bottle, hold up her head, tuck in her tongue. Chana responded with sweet charm, dogmatic perseverance, and twinkling eyes, a harbinger of lively times to follow. Greedy for more of a good thing, Shaina procured a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe and brought home Dovid.
Dovid's main talent at four months was that he could hold his own bottle. Nine-month-old Chana looked once at this rival, then refused to acknowledge him for weeks. In time, however, she sensed a potential ally, and the relationship flourished. When the children began to walk, they gleefully scampered in opposite directions, skittering right up to the curb, to the horror of their frantic mother. Shaina continued to devote days and nights to feeding, grooming, and especially educating them that they might one day be included in a "normal" classroom. The children thrived. Shaina, however, was losing weight, color, and, her friend Reva Keter suspected, sanity. Reva's publishing house, Legacy Press, produced children's books, many authored by Shaina, until the adoptions took their toll. Since then there had been no books, and almost, almost, no Shaina. Reva urged Shaina to take a break.
"You need to get out of here," Reva pronounced, handing the youngsters a page of paper reinforcers as a peace offering. "Gu" (thank you), responded the well-mannered twosome, eager to plaster floor, table, windows, and mirror with ring-shaped stickers. Shaina, glassy-eyed, mumbled that manipulating stickers enhances fine motor coordination.
"You must get out," Reva repeated. "I know a great shiur (Torah class). Find a sitter for these two, and leave your house!"
"Uh-huh. Chana, it's dangerous to bang on the windows. Dovid, paper reinforcers are not for eating...."
Reva nudged, until Shaina found Morah Mashie, a playgroup leader ready to take on the cause. Apprehensively, Shaina introduced Chana and Dovid to the wild-mannered denizens of Morah Mashie's Play Group. In Mashie's well-lit world of high-barred windows, padded floors, and sturdy toys, lively two-year-olds played and prayed to the music of cheerful audio tapes, such as "Uncle Moishy and the Mitzvah Men." Mashie, whose mother had pioneered the first playgroup in the neighborhood, was a teacher born and bred, her curly sheitel (wig) pinned firmly to her head, her markers, tape, and Elmer's glue peeking comfortably out of her duster pockets. Dovid grabbed a tom-tom, Chana began fingering the Lego. "They'll be fine," said Mashie, in the professional tone morahs use to escort mothers out the door.
Shaina stood blankly, her legs weak, her arms empty, and unbearably light. No Chana to retain. No Dovid to restrain. Was she floating? Where was gravity? She yearned to absorb the full impact of this shock. However, the Crown Heights-Borough Park shuttle bus would leave in twenty minutes, and Reva was expecting her to catch it. Shaina recovered sufficiently to dash home, face her closet, and extract a presentable skirt and blouse. She found keys, located a purse that was not a diaper bag, and took off down Crown Street for Kingston Avenue.
Sunlight, bright and glorious. She hadn't seen such a sparkling morning since her prebaby days. The energy was visible, and therefore a suitable backdrop for Crown Heights. Just as Jerusalem is the heart of the world, Crown Heights, thought Shaina, is its nerve center. Crown Heights! She remembered the elation she had felt when she first came here, in the 1980s, after she "graduated" from Neve. "Crown Heights," she realized, was actually the English translation of "Keter Elyon," a lofty spiritual world discussed in Kabbalah. It seemed to her then that Keter Elyon had grown from its supernal roots to form the streets, sidewalks, and houses of Crown Heights. After all, the streets carried prophetic names, and the addresses of the buildings tallied up to enlightening gematrias (number value combinations of Hebrew letters).
For example, the house of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the worldwide Lubavitch Hasidic movement, is, appropriately, on President Street. Another example, the mikvah, where women immerse themselves at the end of their menstrual cycle, before resuming marital relations with their husbands, is located on the corner of Union and Albany, al beni being Hebrew for "concerning my children." Another address of interest was that of the Lubavitch central house of worship. Here traditions of the Holy Land in the East are "parked" until the exile ends and all will relocate to Jerusalem -- and this building was on a boulevard called Eastern Parkway. The address of the building, 770, also had mystical references.
Yes, it did seem to Shaina that Keter Elyon had found its physical counterpart here, and that chunks of spiritual enlightenment had in some way found housing on these few blocks of Brooklyn. After all, thought Shaina, the Hasid's constant goal is to elevate the physical and actualize the spiritual by making this physical world a Godly place. The Divine, mystical plan is that higher and lower realms are created to mingle. Mundane occupations, such as eating, drinking, sleeping, and housecleaning, encompass Godly potential, capable of bringing earth up to heaven, and heaven down to earth.
Shaina hurried down Crown Street, past bright-colored satin banners that hung from many of the houses. WELCOME MOSHIACH, the banners proclaimed. True, waiting for Moshiach's arrival has been a Jewish occupation for thousands of years. However, many Hasidim in Crown Heights felt that Moshiach was already backstage and we are all responsible to do every good deed possible to pull up the curtain. The energy of Crown Heights was charged with urgency.
Shaina reached the corner and was about to miss the bus.
"Stop! Stop!" shouted Shaina.
"Stop, stop!" the women in the bus called to Simon, the driver.
"I'm blind?" murmured Simon, pulling the bus back to the curb, swinging open the door. Did any other driver have this double onus, to be dependably prompt but always available? Long ago he had complained to the boss.
"I have a schedule!" protested Simon. "Every lady and her baby carriage, running from three blocks away. I should wait?"
The boss looked squarely at the driver. "There are two," the boss replied. "Only two, who must be on time, yet leave no one behind: Moshiach and you."
Simon got the message. The schedule, that was up to God. That everyone got their ride, this was up to Simon. Thereafter, Simon steadfastly maneuvered the Crown Heights shuttle, contending with forces without and within. The careering cars on Empire Avenue. The multitude of baby carriages, all to be accommodated on the bus without fare. And disheveled passengers, like this one, who wave down the bus from blocks away, then hold things up even more, rummaging through bottomless shoulder bags for a dollar and change. It took all kinds, and all kinds rode the bus. When the lady finally sat down, Simon checked his rearview mirror, pulled away from the curb, and advanced up Kingston Avenue, until he'd have to stop again.
Shaina settled into her seat. Across the aisle black-hatted, bearded men stared into paperback versions of Talmudic tractates or pamphlets of Hasidic discourses. A few conversed in Hebrew or English on their cell phones. On the women's side, women and girls also learned Hasidic thought, or chatted easily, catching up on the latest news of family and friends. Some read from purse-sized psalm or prayer books.
In half an hour she'd be in Borough Park. Borough Park, the largest Orthodox community outside the Land of Israel, has a population of three hundred thousand. Covering an area of about one and a half square miles, Borough Park was certainly a metropolis next to the seven scant square blocks of Crown Heights. Despite its name, Borough Park was not a park, and had hardly a place to park. Its cars, houses, and residents all rubbed elbows. Five thousand children were born every year in Borough Park's Maimonides Hospital, and almost every block was home to at least one shul and yeshiva. While most of the Hasidim in Crown Heights were Lubavitch, Borough Park was home to Hasidim of many kinds, as well as "black hatters" -- strictly observant Jews whose customs were not Hasidic at all. Shaina's mother had once summed up and cut down both communities with a single term: Ultraorthodox.
Not Ultraorthodox to the people who live there, Shaina had replied. Just a way of life.
At the time her mother had suspected, but had not yet verified, that this way of life was becoming Shaina's.
The transition altered some of Shaina's lifelong assumptions. For example, before she came over to the other side, Shaina had assumed that women were supposed to listen and men were supposed to talk. So she had sought out young men who had interesting, even brilliant, insights on elevated topics like music, art, and science. Her listening was appreciated, but these listening relationships lacked something. Looking back, she wondered if she had listened herself into having no voice at all.
Ironically Shloma, who belonged to the supposedly ultrapatriarchy, fixed that. He, who was born into an Ultraorthodox home, and educated as a rabbi, not only listened to her, but also respected her viewpoint. Their backgrounds were vastly different. He was the first person she had ever met who did not know who "Mary had a little lamb" was. He did not watch television, listen to radio, or even buy newspapers, and in his library were thousands of books on ancient topics, mostly in Hebrew, Yiddish, or Talmudic Aramaic. Grounded as he was in the ancient code, he was prepared to accept literally the Torah dictum that "a man must love his wife as himself, and honor her more than himself" to the best of his ability.
After she and Shloma married, Shaina began to sense that although he listened, accepted, agreed, and when necessary, guided, their conversations did not have the charge of give and take. Their different backgrounds did make a temporary but substantial difference. In a marriage, Shaina realized, common ground is necessary. While she had unquestionably abandoned that side where she had been, she wasn't exactly native to the side that was his. It left a gap between them.
To close it, Shaina resorted to a favorite diversion of her former life. She wrote a children's story. But instead of whipping together a flashy, bubbling-over-the-edge-of-its-mug kind of tale, as she had once done, she now patiently listened for old, abandoned stories, to take them in, nurture them, and retell them from the depth of her being. The stories emerged alive, breathing. They were evidence of the Hasidic adage "The pen is a quill for the soul." Shaina sent them to Legacy Press, a small religious publishing house that specialized in children's books. She discovered that Legacy Press was Reva Keter.
As the shuttle reached the outskirts of Borough Park and turned onto Sixteenth Avenue, Shaina mused that Reva, like many of the small shops on this street, had not changed over time, but only became more firmly established. Reva had made her passage to the other side at the age of seven -- under the inspiration and guidance of her best friend, whose father, Rabbi Maurice I. Hecht, was an emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. An energetic and precocious child, Reva was soon rounding up the neighborhood youngsters for a Shabbos (sabbath) afternoon of songs, stories, and goodies. The Lubavitcher Rebbe himself sent Reva a weekly allowance to purchase these treats. Reva, in turn, supplied a weekly report of attendees, activities, and per item cost of refreshments.
"He wanted every detail," Reva commented, when she related the story to Shaina.
"Of course," Shaina responded. "It was his money."
"No!" Reva protested. "They were his souls! Everything is important to the rebbe. He always gave me such good advice."
"You were lucky to have good advice," said Shaina.
Shaina's good advice had come later in her life, in a very different form. She had by then discarded the religion of her temple. Even as a young child she wondered why her teachers never discussed God. The professional choir that sang for the children at assemblies always climaxed with the eerie proclamation, "The Lord is our God, the Lord is won!" Susan and her friends longed for the details of this thrilling battle, this war that won God. Good guys, bad guys, heroes, enemies, something worth fighting for would have given purpose to their colorless Sunday mornings. This battle tale, however, was not to be revealed, for the children's hopes were based on a misunderstanding of the text. What the choir was announcing was the universal Torah principle of God's unity: The Lord is One. One unique God, who has no divine family, relatives, assistants, or counterparts, as polytheistic doctrines throughout the ages have devised. One God who created all existence and who, as the Ba' al Shem Tov explains, constantly and caringly maintains His creation with creative energy so that it does not revert to its original nothingness. One God. To live by this principle, Jews have had to fight battles, physically and philosophically, resulting in a vivid and staggering history. Unfortunately, these action-packed details were also not related to Susan and her classmates. Instead the children listened to tales about "wise" men from Chelm who thought the moon could fall into a well. After this narrative, the young students were herded through spotless, spacious halls to their classrooms. Here they read of happy youngsters frolicking with small dogs and enjoying holidays that Susan and her classmates had never seen practiced in their homes. Young Susan concluded that the entire Sunday school experience was evolved from second-rate fiction.
Seeing that the Sunday school was not to Susan's taste, Sylvia enrolled her daughter in the Conservative synagogue. Perhaps that program would be more challenging and relevant to Susan. Indeed, Susan was one of only three students who continued to attend classes throughout high school. These serious youths were offered explanations, evaluations, and alterations, but something seemed missing. What held this all together? Susan wondered. Where did it begin, and where did it end? What could they learn today that wouldn't be changed tomorrow?
Inexplicably, Susan felt there must be more substance to Judaism. This compelled her, just before her high school graduation, to look into the quaint laws of Orthodoxy, which apparently never change. She visited a modest shul (synagogue) that featured a strange separation of men and women during prayer and a humble rabbi who wore no clerical dress. The rabbi did not announce page numbers. Everyone seemed enveloped in a private world, intoning Hebrew prayers without inhibition, and also without English translation. After praying, the aging congregants gathered in the back of the shul to converse in Yiddish or, at best, in thickly accented English. Shaina remembered her great-grandfather speaking similar warm garbled words, flavored with pickled herring and Manischevitz wine. Nothing to fault here. Shaina imagined that if she were fifty years older, she would like it.
She left for college, and subsequently met, married, and left a young mathematician who had taken enough graduate physics courses to expound upon how the universe was self-created from a big bang, and how it was also most likely self-destructive, although salvation may be at hand through zero population growth. As much as she admired him, she began feeling increasingly claustrophobic. How could she leave such an intelligent and talented person for no reason? Yet the walls of their spacious apartment seemed to be closing in on her. She finally moved out into a tiny rented room. It felt like a mansion, and she soared with contagious energy.
From here Susan found a world where all moral codes are created equal -- where everything is right, where nothing is wrong, so long as you "don't hurt anyone" -- and here no one admitted pain. Smiling faces masked tortured hearts, while dark nights of deep beating music catered to an embryonic consciousness.
Here in this tiny room, as she was contemplating life one day, Susan first heard the voice that gave advice. It came disguised as a thought of her own: She had been entertaining the possibility of staying in Ann Arbor to finish (i.e., start) her dissertation or, alternatively, to spend the summer preparing her course work in Israel. And the voice, which seemed to be herself thinking, but was clearly from elsewhere, answered her calmly, matter-of-factly, and totally without threat: If you stay here, you will die. Calmly, matter-of-factly, and totally unthreatened, she listened and agreed. She was even pleased to have an excuse to go somewhere. Of course the possibility of going over to the other side never occurred to her -- she had never heard of, and would not have believed in, the other side.
Shaina glanced up. The shuttle had already reached the center of Borough Park -- the "hub," as Reva gloried in calling it, the corner of Forty-ninth Street and Sixteenth Avenue. Many of the passengers got out here, and Shaina did too, opting to walk and enjoy a few extra blocks of autumn. Borough Park was as crowded as ever, but the air was crisp, fresh, and plentiful. Shaina breathed deeply.
A different lifetime ago she had boarded a plane to Israel, breathing deeply, feeling weightless, free of all the past, and with a future as bright as the rising sun. What a thrill, to visit a foreign country where she knew no one! On the plane she met Maryn, a Christian Arab graduate student traveling with her two-year-old son. When Maryn invited Susan to her family's picturesque home in Beit Jala, Susan accepted, and enjoyed a week as an honored guest.
Beit Jala impressed her. She saw apricot, lemon, pomegranate, apple, and olive trees growing side by side on the hilltop; she saw an ancient stream drip from a hidden rock. She drank thick, sweet coffee out of thimble cups and began a collection of Arab nursery rhymes. The powerful sun could not penetrate the thick stone walls of the Beit Jala houses. Inside, on the cool stone floors, she watched the four generations of her hostess's family share a festive meal. The toothless grandmother was preparing portions of a traditional dish -- her bony fingers deftly enclosing fistfuls of something in grape leaves. Susan watched, feeling that she had, with sound mind, stepped into one of those freshman anthropology texts that eavesdrop on unsuspecting natives.
She did not remember actually eating this offering. But just being there changed her, opened her mind. She could consider anything. Three weeks later, as she stood for the first time at the Kotel, the ancient Western Wall, a rabbi named Meir Shuster suggested that she spend Shabbos with a religious Jewish family in Kiryat Itri, a suburb of Jerusalem. She accepted.
There she met the red-bearded Hasid from Arkansas, five foot three, with penetrating eyes. His three tiny sons, freshly bathed and diapered, danced behind him on the stone floor, while his wife, with an eye on the clock, pulled a sheet of chocolate cake from the oven. His wife lit candles. Shaina sat by the windowsill watching the trafficless street below fill with men, women, and children, all calm, all elegant as a picture she had once seen but had not believed in that childhood Sunday school textbook. The picture had been labeled "Shabbos."
Shabbos did exist. Shabbos existed here.
Shaina didn't need the voice to tell her. She felt Shabbos, its warmth, its radiance. In that moment, but with a lifetime behind her, she had come over to the other side.
And now she also stood on the other side -- on the other side of the street from the stately mansion that corresponded to the address Reva had given her. Shaina followed the gracious walkway to a door that was slightly ajar. Inside she heard the low bustling of women, the clatter of china, the hush of heavy wooden chairs being pushed across varnished parquet floors. The lunch and learn group was here, but where was Reva? Shaina stood for a moment, her arms hanging awkwardly as she looked inside.
On this particular Tuesday afternoon, Tamar Edelman noticed an unfamiliar face at Sarah's door: pale, even gaunt, wearing no makeup, a touch of anxiety on her rounded shoulders. Hesitantly, the newcomer eyed the only vacant seat, next to Mrs. Blisme. Tamar rose to stop her, but too late.
"Oh, no!" Mabel Blisme guarded the empty chair vigilantly. "This place is for Ethel! She's coming soon!"
"What a welcome!" thought Tamar, as she rushed in to make amends. "Come over here," she said gently, as she opened a folding chair, pushed aside a salad bowl, and arranged another setting next to her own. "Come, have some carrot salad, it's good for the eyes." Cheerfully, Tamar piled grated carrots onto a plate. Something in Tamar's genes dictated that well-filled plates give strength. She had been raised like that.
The newcomer smiled but didn't make eye contact. Perhaps being served made her feel uncomfortable, thought Tamar. Some newcomers might feel that way, but Sarah's house was a place of give and take -- one needed to cultivate the pleasures of both. "My name's Tamar," Tamar offered, attempting to put the new guest at ease.
"Shaina," the new guest volunteered, fidgeting with her shoulder bag,
"Your first time here, right?" Tamar continued to make conversation.
Shaina nodded. "But you've been here before."
"From the beginning," Tamar smiled. "I've been here since the days when Sarah had only one table, in the kitchen, with only her and me sitting there. Where are you coming from?"
"Coming from? Oh, Crown Heights."
"Interesting!" Tamar was amused. Sarah's material came from Crown Heights, where classes in Hasidic philosophy blossomed on every block. What had brought Shaina here?
"Uh-huh." Shaina missed Tamar's unasked question. She eyed the book half tucked under Tamar's plate. "What are you reading?"
"Oh, I just picked this up at a bookstore on Thirteenth Avenue," said Tamar, pleased at the prospect of a literary discussion. "It's Paysach Krohn's latest. Do you read him?"
"Oh." Tamar had hoped for a more enthusiastic response to one of her favorite authors. "Well, his parables and stories here really reach you...."
"Mmmm," said Shaina. "I guess it's been a long time since I've read anything."
"Oh." Tamar did not want to sound judgmental. However, she had raised nine children, some of them close in age, and had always found time to read. Finding time, Tamar always told her children, was simply a matter of organization and priority. She considered changing the subject, to suggest that Shaina wash her hands and enjoy the excellent home-baked challah rolls, when the newcomer's eyes lit up.
Reva Keter, a short, blonde-sheiteled woman outfitted in a wake-you-up red plaid suit, was standing in the doorway, looking for Shaina. When their eyes met, Reva broke into her warm, gracious, all but gushing smile.
"I see you're in good hands!" Reva enthused to Shaina while nodding to Tamar. Reva had known that Tamar would find Shaina and welcome her, but get to know her? Probably not. Getting to know people was Reva's forte.
"Tamar," Reva began, "I want you to meet my friend Shaina Ore." Only Reva could turn an introduction into a proclamation. Her voice trumpeted that Shaina Ore was the best, most unique, dearest friend the world could offer. Publisher's hype, but also subliminal conditioning. Under Reva's tutelage, Shaina had become a better friend as well as a better writer. Reva could take the credit.
"Shaina Ore? Really!" Tamar would not have suspected that the author of those sweet children's books was a woman of pale face, unversed in Paysach Krohn. "We enjoy your books, Shaina. I read them to my kids, my grandkids...."
"Grandchildren? You?" Shaina gawked.
Tamar smiled. "What's the title of your latest book, Shaina?"
Shaina's mind went blank. Reva hinted, "The Cow..."
"Uh-uh. 'Not Now, Said the Cow,' about the cow that didn't work on Shabbos," Shaina remembered.
"No work-y gobbled the turkey!" Tamar grinned at her favorite line. "My daughter teaches at a preschool -- they made a play of it -- all the parents came! We really enjoyed that barnyard scene!"
Shaina smiled, pleased that the little story had landed in someone's heart. But at the same time, being scrutinized as an author made her fumble for her shoulder strap.
"Let's wash for the meal," Reva suggested. "I want to have one of Tova Hersh's challah rolls before they disappear."
"Tova's rolls look professional, but they taste homemade," added Tamar. "Tova's over there, sitting at the front table."
Shaina looked and noted that Tova's soft, sincere smile revealed no hint of her talent. Reva guided Shaina into the kitchen. There Mira, Sarah's kitchen helper, was squeezing fresh lemon over a bowl of sliced beets. What is the secret of uncluttered counters? wondered Shaina. Her own kitchen seemed to house a live-in cyclone.
Reva was already at the sink, reaching for the double-handled washing cup that hung from a ceramic hook on the wall. She filled the cup with water, then poured three times on her right hand and three times on her left. She set the cup down, lifted her hands, and said the blessing, al n'tilas yadayim, "who commanded the uplifting of the hands," then headed back to the dining room to make the blessing over the bread. The action was washing, but the text of the blessing said "uplifting." The blessing was a reminder that hands can be used for lofty purposes, which could include eating, drinking, washing, and diaper changing, depending on the intent with which it is done. This complex concept flew through Shaina's mind as she, too, washed her hands and said the blessing. Here, on this other side, nothing was mundane. Even a seemingly banal act could further one's relationship with the Creator.
To understand the details of this process one had to learn the infinite sciences of Kabbalah and Hasidus, the mystical teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov and his successors. No doubt something on this topic would follow this afternoon, during the "learn" portion of the session. Shaina replaced the cup on its hook and returned to the dining room to secure the last of the challah rolls.
"Aren't they special?" munched Reva. "You've got to meet Tova."
"Mmhmm," Shaina replied, still sitting at the edge of her seat, as if still on the alert for Chana and Dovid. Reva reached into her handbag for her book of Tehillim (book of psalms), and Shaina, noting her friend's poised tranquillity, did the same. No one would guess that only two weeks ago Reva's husband had undergone emergency quadruple-bypass surgery and was now convalescing at home. Shaina noticed that Reva now carried a cell phone. Having his wife available to him at all times was probably important to Moshe's healing, thought Shaina. Anyway, other than the phone, and perhaps her overly bright suit, Reva's life seemed to be flourishing.
"Ah, here's Sarah," said Reva.
Sarah was helping a latecomer find a seat as the Tehillim were being passed out. She appeared tasteful, efficient, focused. "Sarah's a connector, a facilitator par excellence," commented Reva.
Shaina had met other connectors, but Sarah seemed unusually intense. Merging the upper and lower worlds by infusing everything with Godliness, a uniquely human task, seemed Sarah's mission. "Every detail in Sarah's house," said Reva, "the hand-painted murals on the walls, these real linen tablecloths, these floral china place settings and glass stemware, that gorgeous chandelier -- this is all Sarah's equipment for her personal service to the Creator. Watch."
"Time for psalms, ladies!" Sarah's voice, a little raspy, signaled above the crowd. "Does anyone have any names?"
The women began calling out names, firmly, affirmatively, as though that act in itself gave strength. Leah Esther bas Malka, Nechama bas Frumma, Aliza bas Zahava, Yitzchak ben Batya, on and on goes the list: first name in Hebrew or Yiddish, ben (son) or bas (daughter) of mother's first name. These names are highlighted for prayers for a refuah shelaimah, a complete recovery. When women gather to learn Torah, they often begin the session with Tehillim, along with adding a few coins to the pushke, the charity box. In this way they establish the three pillars the sages say hold up the world: Torah study, prayer, and kind deeds. In this way, too, the names of the needy quickly spread from gathering to gathering, often with an accompanying story. The little boy who fell into a coma after his house caught fire, the young girl with the unpronounceable illness, the mother of eight still in critical condition, the father of ten recovering from a car crash, and more -- their names are called up and Tehillim recited en masse to give them healing and strength.
Some of the names Shaina recognized from before her involvement with Chana and Dovid. "After all our Tehillim, why are these names still on the list?" she wondered out loud to Reva.
"Because Tehillim gives them the strength to stay on the list," Reva responded. Then she added her husband's name, Moshe ben Chana.
Sarah asked Ora Bloom to lead the Tehillim.
"Tehilla L'Dovid...," Ora's voice was so resonant that her spoken word had perfect pitch.
"Incredible," whispered Shaina.
"Her son's a singer," Reva whispered back
Shaina nodded and began the Tehillim, which included verses written by Adam, Moses, King David, and other giants of Divine understanding. All prayer is effective, but here were unparalleled powerhouses. The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman Schneerson, wrote that if we knew the true effect of reciting Tehillim, we would never stop saying them.
Shaina had been saying Tehillim daily, after her morning prayers, for many years. She recited them in the original loshon hakodesh (holy language) of ancient Hebrew. But she was still no speed reader, and the women here were zooming. Shaina lost the place, fell behind. How long would she have to live in this community to be good at it?
As the Tehillim continued, Shaina imagined herself born and bred in Crown Heights. As a young girl she would have been a serious student, excelling in the Beth Rivka girls' school system. She would have gone on to seminary, become knowledgeable in Torah, with the deep and wonderful elucidations of the classic scholars such as Rashi, Rambam, and Ramban (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, Maimonides, and Nachmonides), plus the Hasidic discourses laden with Torah secrets. At nineteen or twenty she would have married a brilliant boy who by now would be a rabbinic judge or perhaps the head of a yeshiva, who would secretly study the mystical teachings of Hasidus and Kabbalah deep into the night. She would teach their many children to be wise in the wisdom of Torah, to be kind, and to excel in Torah's commandments. And yes, she could even have become a seminary teacher! Now she knew what knowledge it was she had always craved! That temple library showcase -- that window display that had perplexed her childhood soul, the one that pictured delighted young children, dancing around a towering volume, with the caption: We are the People of the Book. So she began to read, always reading, seeking that book of which we are the people. Had she only known from the beginning! She could now be teaching Torah, impressing her students with the magnificence of learning, the power of prayer, and the fundamental axiom that in prayer it's not how much you say, but rather your concentration and intention that counts.
The voice of perfect pitch stopped. The women closed their Tehillim and Shaina surfaced from her thoughts, realizing that she had not concentrated on one single word. Too late. Sarah was about to begin. "Listen for the quip and the controversy," Reva whispered to Shaina.
"Charity that begins at home ends at home," stated Sarah. Her words sounded large, coming from a deep place. "Don't wait to do good deeds in your spare time, because no woman has spare time. The question is, how much can you shave off?"
"I never have spare time, that's for sure," stated Mabel Blisme, from her station at the center table, near the food. Ethel had not shown up, and the seat next to Mabel was the only vacant one in the house.
"What about our children? Don't they come first?" asked Iyelet, a young woman holding an infant on her knee.
"The biggest kindness you can do for your children is to train them to help others," responded Sarah. "And preaching isn't teaching. A child may hear what we say, but they listen to what we do."
"Sarah herself is the best example of that!" interjected Esther Springer, a real estate agent. "The Inner Circle, the prestigious association of high school good-deed doers, is headed by -- do you know who? Sarah's daughter, Chana Leah!"
Sarah had to raise her voice above the clamor of applause to change the subject. "Does everyone have a copy of today's study sheet? Okay, let's begin."
"This week's parsha, the Torah portion of the week, is 'Lech-Lecha.' Here we see firsthand what it means to have self-sacrifice for God's commandments. What's our life? Life is made up of time. Days, hours, minutes, seconds, all finite, all limited. Our life is time, and when we use our precious time to help others, especially when it seems that we don't have that time to spare, this is self-sacrifice for God's commandments. But that self-sacrifice doesn't deplete us. It strengthens us. And this is what happens in Lech-Lecha. Abraham turns over his life for mitzvos, and these mitzvos become his, and ultimately our, identity, energy, and actual life force. Esther, will you read for us?"
As Esther read about how young Abraham rejected the idolatry of the world to embrace the mitzvos, the commandments of the Creator, Shaina remembered how strange the word "mitzvah" first seemed without a "bar" or "bas" attached to it. A bar or basmitzvah, when Shaina was growing up, entailed a two-part type of birthday party. The first part was on Friday night, when there would be a kiddush (refreshments) after services. The second, more major portion, was on Sunday afternoon, when her Hebrew class would go bowling. Her Hebrew teacher mentioned holidays and history, but the curriculum somehow overlooked this concept that God designed, gave, and desires that Jews keep mitzvos, usually translated as commandments, which were given in the Torah.
While studying in Israel, Shaina had come to understand that there is no word in English to translate "mitzvah" accurately. However, Rabbi Chalkovsky had explained the purpose of a mitzvah with a parable. When you purchase a car, or any valuable, complex piece of equipment, you read, and follow, the instruction manual. Why? Not to limit your use of the car, but to expand it. The instructions are included to help the purchaser enjoy the best performance possible. Using the recommended gasoline and oil and arranging for tune-ups at regular intervals all extend the life of the car and facilitate happy riding. Similarly, when God put a Jewish soul in the driver's seat of a body, He gave an instruction manual, the Torah, prescribing how best to use that vehicle. Torah also provides a map, pointing out the roads that extend through life's varied terrain. So mitzvah is a command, yes, but one given by a caring Manufacturer.
Hasidus explains mitzvah even more deeply, pointing out that its root word means "connection." Through each mitzvah we connect to God and His infinity. Each time we do a positive mitzvah, or refrain from doing one of the mitzvahs that are prohibitions, our connection to God becomes stronger.
Esther continued reading: "'We are all familiar with the events in the early life of our forefather Abraham. He discovered God as a young boy and broke his father's idols. For this the despot King Nimrod sentenced him to death and threw him into a blazing furnace. Miraculously, God saved him.
"'These stories, which are handed down to us through the Midrashic, biblical literature, are not found in the Written Torah itself. The Torah tells us almost nothing about Abraham until the portion of "Lech-Lecha," which begins with God commanding Abraham: 'Go out from your land, from your birthplace, from your father's house, to a land that I will show you.'" (Genesis 12:5). Esther looked up. "It's a good question. In the midst of a society of idol worshipers, Abraham was the only one who worshiped the Creator of the universe. He stood alone against the whole world and was ready to give up his life for God. That's heroic. Why doesn't Torah mention it?"
Sarah smiled. "Read on."
Esther continued. "'While these early events in Abraham's life are inspiring and instructive, they focus only on his own personal striving to get closer to Godliness. A different and deeper relationship began when God commanded Abraham: "Go out from your land." As our sages tell us, a person who does a mitzvah because he was commanded to is greater than a person who does a mitzvah without having been commanded.'"
This led to some discussion. Wasn't it better to do an act out of your free will rather than because you were commanded to do it?
"We do have free will," said Sarah. "We can choose what we want to do, and we are responsible for our actions. But we have to remember that mitzvahs are not only commandments, but they are actually Godly acts. For example, it's nice to have dinner by candlelight. Your family and friends might appreciate it. But it's not a mitzvah. On Shabbos, however, God commanded us that eighteen minutes before sunset, Jewish women should light candles to bring in Shabbos. Here lighting candles becomes a mitzvah that connects us with God. If you do it on Wednesday night, it's the the same candles, the same table. But it's not a Godly act. Not a mitzvah. It may look the same, but it doesn't have the same effect. No Divinity, no infinity."
Esther continued. "'With the commandment to leave his home, Abraham was empowered to step beyond personal circumstances to establish an unlimited connection with God. The connection was fully actualized when God gave us the mitzvos of the Torah.'"
"Each mitzvah is a way to have an unlimited connection with God," Sarah added.
"I've been doing mitzvos for more than a year now," said Debra, a young woman who sat at Sarah's right. "I don't feel unlimited."
"It's a process," replied Sarah. "Lech means to proceed. Lech-Lecha means 'you go out,' but it also means, as Rashi, the great twelfth-century commentator explains, 'go out for your own benefit.' Go out of your present self and become something more. God is saying to Abraham: 'Go out. Leave everything behind. Do My mitzvos -- and go to that land that areka (I will show you). But areka can also mean 'I will reveal you.' Mitzvos lead to self-revelation. By following God's mitzvos, we 'Lech-Lecha.' We gain self-knowledge. We come to our essence."
Abram fell on his face; and God spoke with him further, "As for Me, this is My covenant with you: you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have appointed you as the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and make nations of you; and kings shall descend from you. I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and between your offspring after you, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. I assign all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding, to you and to your descendants after you, and I will be a God to them." God said to Abraham: "As for you, you must preserve My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations." (Genesis 17:3-9)
Esther continued: "'When Abraham did not follow his own will, but instead followed God's command, he connected directly to God. And he released an infinite potential. Every one of us is heir to this. For the essence of all of our spiritual journeys is to go beyond our usual way of thinking until we tap our Godly core.'"
As Esther sat down, Levana, who was sitting across the table from Sarah, had a comment. "We go on this spiritual journey, but sometimes the difficulties are more than we bargain for. Why?"
Sarah responded in a neutral voice, but Reva couldn't resist shooting Levana a knowing look of empathy, which Shaina didn't miss. Levana's translucent complexion, her ethereal highlights, must have come through tough processing. "All our lives," Sarah replied, "in all our spiritual travels, we struggle. Like an athlete. We have to put force against resistance to get stronger. We don't ask for tests, but if God sends them anyway, it's to bring out our hidden strengths."
"And what if instead of resisting the force, it crushes us?" someone asked.
Sarah nodded. "Our sages tell us that before we leap over something really big, we may have to take a few steps back, a descent for the purpose of ascent. Of course, we don't always understand. But we know that God runs the world, so the purpose of every experience is positive."
As Sarah concluded, steaming casseroles of eggplant Parmesan began arriving at the table. With no Chana or Dovid here to interrupt, Shaina settled back and relaxed into a dreamy, nicely humored smile.
"Ha!" Reva triumphed. "Okay, what do you think?"
"So, you were right," Shaina conceded. "I did need to get out. Do need to get out. Need to keep getting out. Maybe Morah Mashie will take them officially into the class."
"Mmhmm," Reva nodded, sipping tea, as though she knew nothing but leisure. No one would guess that she was gathering her strength for another round with Moshe. "The beauty of the King's daughter is within," and not everything is to share. Another sip of tea. Squeezed olives, Reva reminded herself, give sweet oil. But it's a private process. She knew, had always known, that part of going out was coming in.
"See you here next week?" she asked Shaina.
Shaina nodded. "Okay, next week."
Copyright © 2001 by Rivka Zakutinsky and Yaffa Leba Gottlieb
Ten Hasidic Women Share Their Stories of Life, Fai
Around Sarah's Table
Ten Hasidic Women Share Their Stories of Life, Fai
Brooklyn, 1991: A few Hasidic women begin meeting once a week for lunch and intimate learning with friends. The few soon grow to many, from backgrounds as diverse as those of any other segment of the Jewish population. Gathered together by Sarah -- mother of thirteen, girls' high school principal, facilitator, connector, and hostess -- they called themselves the "Women's Tuesday Torah Luncheon and Study Group." From Reva the publisher to Rachel the mikvah maven, Klara the lawyer, Levana the rebbitzin, and others, the daily joys and sorrows of each allow us to see through the stereotypes to truly connect with the real women who lie behind those images.
With the eyes, ears, and hearts of storytellers, Zakutinsky and Gottlieb generously introduce us to their very personal spiritual realm. Amidst a world filled with spiritual unrest and anxiety, Around Sarah's Table offers inspirational Hasidic and biblical interpretation gathered by women, for both women and men to follow. Less concerned with an academic approach to Bible study than with the traditional methods of "learning," the authors never seem to lose sight of how the ancient texts apply to their contemporary lives.
Fast paced but reverent, Around Sarah's Table introduces us to the unique experience of living life as a Hasidic woman, and reminds us that beyond all the labels that tend to keep us apart, we are all very much alike.