Thursday, January 31, 2008

Painting a Life

Sometime in the middle of eighth grade, I switched allegiance from Bnei Akiva to Ezra. I don't remember why, but I must have had some compelling reason, because Bnei Akiva met right up the block, on Pisgah Street in Bayit V'gan, and Ezra met miles and miles away, somewhere in Rechavia.

So on Shabbat afternoon, I walked up the stone stairway with my friend Esther and waved to Shifra. Shifra lived not in a stone building like ours but in a small wooden house. The house was full of red-headed children, one of them a tall girl who ran breathlessly to meet us.

Now we were walking across a field dotted with wild red poppies. It was hot afternoon, the springtime sun beating down on us. We wore long sleeved cotton blouses and long blue skirts. We also wore pantyhose, covering our legs. But as we climbed up a rocky ledge, Esther suddenly turned around. "Hide me," she said. She ducked down and when she stood back up, the stockings were in her hand instead of on her legs. She unceremoniously dumped them in a trash can by a bus stop.

"That feels much better," she said. Shifra and I stared at her bare legs. My legs were itchy from the hose. I should have just worn knee socks, but on Shabbat I always wore hose. I didn't take them off. We were almost there anyway, I reasoned. Shifra was mad at Esther and scolded her in rapid Hebrew that neither of us understood. Americayit, said Shifra. And not in a good way.

I liked Ezra. I liked the songs. I liked the little building where we met. The girls in one room, the boys in another. Later, we were together for Havdalah and then a campfire. Pulling potatoes from the campfire and drinking black coffee. Strange and wonderful to me. Then walking through the streets of Jerusalem, singing our songs. Sometimes we walked to the Kotel for Ma'ariv. I don't remember everything: it was thirty years ago and sometimes seems like a dream.

Sometimes, when I was young, when I was with someone I cared for, I tried to explain what I wanted life to be. How I thought it should have colors like a painting and different textures. How certain moments glow. But I found myself among rationalists. It was a long time before I met a fellow dreamer who knew the importance of a rich and fully realized, deeply felt life.

When I think about being Jewish, I think about all those things. I think also about the past, not my own but that of my parents and grandparents. I think about how each letter in a Torah scroll must be perfect, the lessons of scribes handed down through generations. I remember a Lower East side store where beautiful cloth in every color and pattern filled shelves and covered tables. These were scarves for covering a woman's hair. In another store, in another country, at the corner of Ben Yehuda street and King George, was a store where we bought our thread to crochet kippot. All the colors were there too. And we used the same thread to decorate the blouses we wore in a parade in Jerusalem.

None of these are reasons to be Jewish, but they are the things that transport me. Like walking to the Kotel at sunset, like the sounds of the songs in the old shul, which were nothing near harmonious, but the voices were both old and young and always real.


Anonymous said...

OK, Chaim... Your turn to post!

Anonymous said...

I was born to a gentile family some 20-odd years ago but there is something familiar in your words that strikes a resounding chord in my soul, my Jewish soul. Who can explain this? I was raised Christian. But my heart yearns for the Torah. I reside in Texas. But my soul longs for Jerusalem. And the setting sun on the Western Wall. And the deep rich melodies before a Sabbath meal and the joyous celebrating of the Torah as I reach out and almost touch it... I am neither Jew. Nor Gentile. But something in your words, in your heart... no, in your soul reminds me of who I really am and who I really serve. You are His vessel. For this, I am grateful.

frum single female said...

beautifully said