Monday, February 4, 2013

Chapter Ten of Sondra's Search: Finding a lost Torah scroll can be as difficult as finding yourself

     Three weeks later, when Sondra boarded the Greyhound bus for Kansas City, she left Lincoln full of self-confidence and pride at a job well done. Aunt Lotte would again be at the bus station to meet her, but this time Sondra was going to stay at Debbie’s house. In the beginning Helga had not liked the idea of Sondra staying with strangers. Lotte had called her childhood friend, though, and convinced her that the Greenbaum family was a good family and that it would be a lot more fun for Sondra to stay there.

     “Not that we don’t love having Sondra stay with us,” Lotte had explained. “She is welcome whenever she wants, but Debbie is a lovely girl and a good friend for Sondra. She needs a Jewish friend.”

    Sondra spent the afternoon with her cousins and then, an hour before Shabbat Aunt Lotte drove her the half a mile to Debbie’s home. The house was a simple three- bedroom, white frame house, painfully neat with rows and rows of bookcases filled with books in five different languages.  Debbie introduced Sondra to her parents and Sondra was surprised to hear their strong East European accents. She even had a little trouble understanding what Debbie’s mother said and gave Debbie a questioning look.

     “My mother wants you to take out your non-Shabboshghg items before she lights candles.”

     “Oh?” Sondra still did not understand.

     “You know, like money or pencils or a nail kit. Things that you’re not allowed to use on Shabbos. Put them in a special place so you won’t touch them.”

     “Okay,” Sondra nodded, suddenly feeling shy and uncomfortable.

    “Come on,” Debbie took Sondra’s bag. “I’ll show you to my room.”

     Debbie’s room was a contrast to the neatness of the rest of the house. Her lilac wallpaper was plastered with photographs and souvenirs. The desk was stacked high with books and papers. And the guest bed was covered with stuffed animals.

     “This is your bed,” Debbie pushed the animals underneath. “You can put your muktza things in this drawer.”

     “My what?”

     “Muktza,” Debbie repeated. “You know, the things you’re not supposed to touch on Shabbos.”

     “I’ve never kept Shabbos,” Sondra hesitated, wondering if maybe she should call Aunt Lotte to come pick her up. “What if I make a mistake?”

    “Don’t worry,” Debbie understood her friend’s discomfort. “It’s not that difficult. There will be tape on the light switches to remind you not to turn them on and off. We’ll take the phone off the hook and, of course, you know not to turn on the TV or radio, right?”

     Sondra nodded.

     “In the bathroom there’s torn toilet paper and my mother and I will take care of things in the kitchen and you know we’re going to walk to shul tomorrow, okay?”

     “Okay,” Sondra took a deep breath.

     “And if you make a mistake,” Debbie laughed, “no one is going to stone you.”   

     That reminded Sondra of the Puritans of Salem and as she unpacked she explained The Crucible to Debbie. She told her about the lunchroom discussion with her friends and how she found it so hard to understand how the Puritans thought.

     “The whole witch hunt trials were based on lies. Those people knew they weren’t witches. What did it matter if they said they were and then ran away to start a new life?”

      “It’s hard to understand them,” Debbie said thoughtfully, “because their religion is so different than ours.”

     “I always thought they were so similar,” Sondra objected. “We’re always hearing about Judeo-Christian ethics.”

     “I know and I guess we have some things the same, like the Ten Commandments, but our approaches are so different. A Jew is only allowed to give up his life for three things, idolatry, adultery, and murder.”

     Sondra thought this over as she hung her dress in the closet. “But wouldn’t worshipping the devil be idolatry?”

     “But they didn’t worship the devil.”

     “That’s true.”

     “Debbie,” Mrs. Greenbaum knocked at the door and said something in Yiddish.

     “Fine,” Debbie replied in English. “Just a minute.”

     Debbie turned to Sondra. “She wants us to start our showers. Do you want to go first?”

     “I’ll take my shower in the morning.”

     Debbie shook her head. “We don’t shower on Shabbos.”  

    “Okay,” Sondra nervously twisted the turquoise ring that Aunt Irene had brought back from the Grand Canyon for her. “I guess I’ll take the first shower.”

    Later, at the dining room table things did not seem so strange. Mr. Greenbaum sang a few songs and made Kiddush just like her father did at home. After Kiddush, though, everyone was expected to get up and wash their hands.

     “Take your ring off your finger and don’t say anything after the bracha until you swallow the bread.” Debbie instructed.

     “What bracha?” Sondra asked nervously.

     “Don’t worry, I’ll help you say the blessing.” Debbie handed her the washing cup.

     Debbie's father gave Sondra a reassuring smile and Sondra would have begun to relax if she hadn’t noticed the number on Mrs. Greenbaum’s arm. For some reason, they hadn’t tattooed the workers in Helga’s camp, but Debbie’s mother apparently had not been so lucky. Sondra willed herself not to look at the brand, but her voice shook as she repeated the blessing after Debbie. Silently she returned to the dining room.           

     The twisted loafs that Mr. Greenbaum uncovered were different than Helga’s homemade bread but just as delicious. Debbie helped her mother serve the soup and later the main course: chicken, tzimmis, salad, and finally sponge cake. Nothing about the meal was that different from the Friday night meals at home. Once the cake was eaten though, Mrs. Greenbaum apologized for making the meal so rushed.

     “Debbie’s father has to get back to shul for the services. Now that the days are longer there isn’t much time between the real minyan and the eight o’clock one.”

     “The real minyan?” Sondra questioned.

     “The real time to pray Friday night is with sundown,” Debbie’s father explained.

     “Most of the people are not shomer Shabbos,” Debbie added. “They want an eight o’clock service after they finish work and have had a nice meal. My father and a few other families daven when they’re supposed to.”

    “Oh, I see,” Sondra said, but she really did not.

    Debbie passed out little prayer booklets and Sondra saw that everyone was supposed to say the blessing after the meal. At home, her father sang it for everyone.    

    Later, in Debbie’s room, as the two girls sat crossed-legged on their beds, Debbie explained some more about her community. There were about a dozen families who were shomer Shabbos and tomorrow morning all of them, except for the Greenbaums, the Marcuses, and the rabbi’s family would daven in a little chapel in the basement of the shul.        


     It wasn’t till the following afternoon that Sondra began to see some beauty in being shomer Shabbos. In the morning she woke up with Debbie and dressed quickly. She was surprised to learn that they were not going to eat any breakfast before they left for shul

     “I don’t eat ’till after Kiddush,” Debbie explained. “You can, though. Do you want some fruit or cake?”

     “No,” Sondra hesitated. It was clear that Debbie wanted to leave already. Sondra grabbed her purse and threw the strap over her shoulder.

     “Don’t take your purse,” Debbie said.

     “Why not? I took all my money out yesterday. It just has tissues in it.”

     “We don’t carry outside the eruv, the Shabbos boundary.”

    Sondra left her purse on the bed and followed her friend. Debbie had the five-block walk to the synagogue well planned out and they crossed from one side of the suburban streets to the other in order to walk under shade trees. Few cars were on the roads and there were even fewer pedestrians until they reached the shul. They met Amy and Anna Goldstein as they pulled open the double doors. Both of the twins had shoulder bags, but then, Sondra assumed, they had probably driven to shul.

      Sondra found that she did not have to struggle so hard to follow the services. Afterwards, at the kiddush, she hungrily filled her plate, but before she sat down with Debbie and her friends, she greeted both her aunt and uncle with a kiss and spoke with each of her cousins. When Mr. Greenbaum was ready to leave, she saw that he had a young couple with him. Debbie introduced her and told her that the husband was learning at the Kansas University Medical School.

     “They daven downstairs and they come to us a lot for Shabbos meals.”

     Lunch was not the quick meal like the night before. They sat around the table for a good two hours eating, singing, and discussing the Torah portion as well as politics and community news. Even the food was new to Sondra. There was a stew full of meat, beans, and potatoes that had cooked all night long, which Debbie explained was called cholent. The others took heaping portions of it, but Sondra passed it by, feeling safer eating some of the cold chicken left over from dinner.

     It was almost three o’clock when they rose from the meal. Debbie’s parents walked the guests out and then came back home for their Shabbos naps. Sondra knew there were several more hours left of Shabbos and wondered what they were going to do with all the time.

     “Do you want to play backgammon?” Debbie asked.

    “I don’t know how.”

    “I can teach you. My brother and I always play when he’s home from yeshiva.”

    “What’s that?’

     “A school where they learn mainly religious studies.”

    “Oh, where’s his yeshiva?”

    “Chicago,” Debbie put the game on the dining room table. “This is his last year. Next year he’s going to Israel.”

     “Really?” Sondra was intrigued. Although they had not spoken about it for some time, she still dreamed of travelling to Germany and Israel with Howie.

     As Debbie set up the game Sondra found herself telling her the story of the missing Sefer Torah and how her father had gone back to Mafdner and found her mother.

     “That’s such a cool story,” Debbie exclaimed. “Do you know what happened to my father when he went back to his hometown?”


     “His old neighbors beat him up and told him to get out of town. And that was after the war was over,” Debbie added angrily. 

     “That’s terrible.”

     Debbie nodded and then began explaining the game. They played twice and the second time Sondra won.

     “I guess you’re a good teacher,” Sondra laughed.

     Debbie smiled and glanced at the clock. “We’re supposed to be at Mr. Marcus’s at five. Do you want to play some more or take a nap, or what?”

     Sondra had not thought she was tired, but once Debbie mentioned the idea of sleeping it really sounded good.

     “Do you usually sleep in the afternoon?”

     Debbie laughed. “I just started this past year. My parents always do. There’s something in the Shabbos air or maybe in cholent, that makes everyone want to sleep.”

     It was at the Marcuses that Sondra began to understand Debbie’s cheerful commitment to all the rules of being shomer Shabbos. Almost all the kids from the ice skating party were there and most of them had walked, but just Debbie, Miriam

Schechter, the rabbi’s daughter, and David Pines, the son of the family who owned the bakery, were truly shomer Shabbos. The other kids looked up to them and they were natural leaders, telling stories and leading the songs. They spent a pleasant two hours around the Marcuses’ table and Sondra had the same feeling she had had at the ice skating party of really belonging.

     Later, after havdalah, the blessing concluding Shabbos, Mr. Marcus asked Sondra how she had enjoyed the day. 

     “It was nice,” Sondra’s eyes sparkled, recalling the singing around the tables both at lunch and at supper. “But I don’t understand why there are so many rules. Like does it really make a difference if I tear toilet paper?”

     “Oy,” Mr. Marcus groaned. “It’s a package deal, all the rules. Who knows, if we started tearing the toilet paper we might ruin the whole thing.”

     “You really think so?” Sondra questioned.

     “Yes,” Mr. Marcus answered seriously. “I really do.”

     “I’ll have to think about that,” Sondra said thoughtfully.


No comments: