Tuesday, September 24, 2013

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

     "Welcome back, Sondra," Mrs. Wiggs gave Sondra's shoulder a gentle squeeze. "I'm glad you're here. We're having tryouts this afternoon."

    Sondra smiled weakly as she sat in her place.

    The next day Mrs. Wiggs stopped Sondra as she was leaving the classroom.

     "Where were you yesterday?"

     Sondra felt her face flushing and, even though she had rehearsed what she was going to say to the drama teacher over and over again, she found herself stammering.

     "I've decided not to be in any more plays. You see, well, I want to observe my Sabbath right, and going to practices or, uh, performances on Friday nights would be, well, kind of problematic."

    "I see," Mrs. Wiggs nodded. "I won't pretend I'm not disappointed. Maybe you can help us out with some of the backstage work on the weekdays."

     Sondra nodded and Mrs. Wiggs did not seem to notice that it was only halfheartedly. If only Uncle Simon could have been as understanding as her teacher. As Sondra walked to her next class she went over in her mind the conversation she had had with her great-uncle. Despite the week of shiva she had gone to the store Thursday evening, the night that all the stores stayed open late. Fifteen minutes before closing she had approached her uncle in his office upstairs.

     Dignified as ever in his three-piece suit, Simon Apfelbaum was busy signing payroll checks. Sondra tried to remember all the Hershey chocolate bars and silver dollars he had given her as a child, but all she could think of now was that he thought he was in charge of all the relatives.

    "Yes, Sondra, how are you feeling?"

    "Okay," Sondra sighed and wound her ring around her finger, "only I wanted to tell you that I'm not going to be able to work Saturday."

    Simon put his pen down and stared at his great-niece.

    "Sondra, we all know how badly you feel about losing Howie, but he was not your brother. I've been understanding all week, but I need you Saturday."

    "I'm sorry, Uncle Simon," Sondra took a deep breath. "I decided today to keep Shabbos. I know I should have given you two weeks’ notice." Seeing her uncle's face turning red Sondra spoke quickly. "I will ask a friend from school to work in my place. I will bring her in tomorrow and show her what to do. You don't have to pay me."

     "I know I don't have to pay you!" Uncle Simon roared. "If it wasn't for me you wouldn't be alive, you ungrateful…" With great effort her uncle closed his mouth and swallowed back his angry words.

    "I know it was because of you that my father was able to get into America," Sondra could not believe how calmly she was talking. "I am very grateful, but I have to do what I think is right. And I think keeping Shabbos is the right thing to do, at least for me."

    Uncle Simon shook his head. His eyes were still angry. "This is 1970 and you want to live like you're in the Middle Ages?"


    "I will be patient with you, Sondra. I know that you have been through quite a trauma. But you are taking this Jewish thing too far. Your cousin Bernice is a fine Jew and she worked for me for years."

     Sondra took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Uncle Simon, but I am not Bernice."

      "Well, you could learn a lot from her. Your job here will always be available for you, as soon as you come to your senses and decide you're willing to work on Saturdays."

     As soon as Julius saw his daughter's face, he knew something was wrong and on the short ride home Sondra repeated the whole, sorry conversation.

     "I see," Julius said as they entered the kitchen. "You made a big decision today."

    "What?" Helga had just returned home from the shiva house minutes before them.

    Quickly, as he poured himself a cup of coffee, Julius explained what had happened.

    "You feel very strongly about this Shabbos thing?" Helga asked. The three of them sat around the kitchen table.

     Sondra just nodded.

     "You don't think you could just work until the holiday season is over and then start keeping Shabbos?"

     Sondra shook her head. "I told Uncle Simon I'd find someone to work in my place, and I will."

     Julius rubbed his eyes and forehead. "I must say, Sondra, you sure sound determined."

     "Do you mind?"

     "Is this what that Mr. Marcus told you to do?" Helga answered Sondra's question with a question of her own.

    "No, he just answered a lot of my questions and the answers made me decide to do this. Do you mind?" Sondra repeated.

     Neither of her parents answered immediately.

    "What are you going to do differently than you did before?" Helga finally asked.

    "I'm not going to drive to the services anymore."

    Sondra's parents nodded their heads. They had expected that.

    "I won't answer the phone, even if I'm the only one in the house. And if there's a call for me, I won't come to the phone."

    Again her parents nodded and looked at her expectantly.

    Sondra took a breath and plunged on. Mr. Marcus had warned her that her parents could be hostile or supportive of her desire to keep Shabbat. A lot would depend on how she presented it.

    "I would like to tape some lights on so no one would turn them off, like in the bathroom and the kitchen. Would that be okay?"

     "I think we can put up with that," Julius answered.

     "I'd also like to unscrew the light in the fridge and freezer so I can open them on Shabbos. Can I?"

     "As long as it doesn't hurt them," Helga said.

     "It shouldn't. Debbie's mother does it every week."

     "What else?" Julius asked.

     Sondra shrugged her shoulder helplessly. "That's all I can think of now."

     "Are you going to eat with us?" Helga asked.

     "Oh, well," Sondra thought for a minute. "In the winter, Friday night won't be a problem. In the summer, it may be too early for me to eat. And during the day, at noon time, I can sit with you, but I'll only eat cold food."      

     Helga nodded her head, feeling that she could handle what Sondra had explained.

     "That sounds okay," Julius said. "But I don't want you trying to change your mother or me. Is that understood?"

     Sondra nodded glad to have her parent's approval.

     By Friday morning all the family knew about Sondra's decision. Berta thought the girl had gone mad because of Howie's death. Oscar, as always, thought whatever Sondra did was fine, even if her absence would make more work for him. Frayda just nodded her head. She had not said much ever since Julius had told her about her grandson's death. Uncle Herbert did not say anything either, but he thought to himself how different Howie's life would have been if it had been he who had decided to keep Shabbat. Despite her grief, Aunt Irene told Sondra that she was proud of her for standing up for what she believed.


      The hardest part for Sondra the first week back at school was deciding where to eat her lunch. There would be no Joy and no Howie to sit with. She supposed she should sit with some of the drama crowd, but after she had not shown up at the tryouts she was not sure that she was welcome. She did not realize it, but Lisa was struggling with the same problem.

      "Do you want to eat lunch with me?" Lisa asked when they happened to meet at the cafeteria door.

     "Sure." Sondra knew she should be embarrassed to be seen sitting with a freshman, but under the circumstances she wasn't.

     "No one knows what to say to me," Lisa said ruefully as she pushed her tray through the line. "So no one is saying anything."

     "I know," Sondra was sympathetic. She paid for her iced tea and followed her cousin to a table in the corner.

     Lisa waited for Sondra to finish saying the blessing on her sandwich. "Don't you think it's going to be hard to pack a lunch for school every day?"

     "Maybe, but I'm determined to do this right."

    "Do what?"

    "Keep kosher and Shabbos."

    "That's what that man from Kansas City told you to do?"

    "No," Sondra shook her head and repeated what she had told her parents. "He didn't tell me to do anything. He just answered a lot of questions and I decided now was the time to try and do what I've been wanting to do for almost a year now."

     Even after Lisa's friends relaxed and began to talk to her like a normal person, she still liked sitting with Sondra in the lunchroom. She used the time to ask questions about Judaism or talk about Howie. Sondra worked hard in school, but spent little time socializing. Mrs. Wiggs gave up asking her to stop by rehearsals to help out. And most of her classmates stopped offering her rides home. That was fine with Sondra. She did not mind the walk home and usually stopped in for a short visit with her grandmother on the way.

     In the beginning it was hard to get a conversation started with Frayda. She seemed preoccupied and didn't really concentrate on anything Sondra said. She had stopped baking and her handiwork lay untouched. Still, Sondra did not give up and finally got Frayda to agree to teach her how to crochet a yarmulke. With the crochet hook in hand Frayda relaxed, and once again she began to tell Sondra stories of the family.

     Reading and homework took up most of Sondra's evenings and afternoons. Every so often a couple of the Jewish freshman from the university would call her and invite her to join them in activities at Lincoln State. Even though their interest in anything Jewish was minimal, Sondra felt more comfortable with them than she did with her old high school friends. And, of course, she lived for her monthly Shabbats in Kansas City. It was after Passover that she made her decision.

     "Mother, Daddy," she announced at the dinner table. "I've decided not to go to the University of Colorado. I'm going to stay here and study at Lincoln State."

     Both Julius and his wife put down their soupspoons and stared at their daughter.

     "Do you think you can get accepted?" Helga finally asked.

     "I already was."

     Julius and Helga exchanged long looks. It was Julius who spoke.

     "Punishing yourself is not going to do anything to help Howie. He's gone and we all have to go on with our lives."

     "You don't understand," Sondra shook her head. "It has nothing to do with punishing myself or helping Howie. It's Oma and Lisa I'm thinking about."

     The ticking of the German grandfather clock seemed unusually loud as Sondra's parents studied her face.

     "You need to think about yourself," Helga said. "What kind of life are you going to have here? What are you going to do when you want to have fun? Go to the lake with your Oma? What about Shabbos? You're going celebrate it like a hermit and ruin your eyes with all your reading."

     "I've done some nice things with the girls from college," Sondra spoke softly, but she was determined. "Lisa is just three years younger than I am and she can be company for me, too. And as for Shabbos," Sondra gave a nervous little laugh. "with the money that we're saving on in-state tuition I thought I could buy a used car and drive to Kansas City for the weekends."

     Again her parents exchanged long looks.

     "We'll have to discuss that," Julius said.

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