This story first appeared in the Summer 2007/5767 issue, issue #12
Written by Shaina Rubin, from IL
Illustrated by Jenna Grady, from MA
I stare at the rope going up and down, up and down. Then I take a deep breath and jump in.
“In came a teacher with a big fat stick!” chants Fayge in her loud, clear voice. I focus on jumping with the rhythm of the rope. “Faster!” a girl shouts, and immediately my feet speed up.
“Now-it’s-time-for-his-tor-y!” My feet get twisted in the rope, and I stop jumping, my heart beating fast.
“Great job Julie!” Fayge calls.
“Yeah, good job!” says Suri.
I smile at them and then walk to the end of the line. I look around the playground, thinking. Since I first moved to New York I’ve done a lot of thinking. Since daddy started staying out later. Since I decided to become observant. Since the accident. I shudder and look at the person jumping. What’s her name again? One of the weird names with a “ch” that’s impossible to pronounce.
Recess is over and we all head back inside the school building. As I walk in, my eyes wander to the golden plaque hanging by the door.
Torah Day School for Girls
The plaque always reminds me of my first time here. I was sitting in Mrs. Blume’s office. Daddy sat next to me, taking in the surroundings. I knew that he thought the school was ‘too Jewish’ for him. Mrs. Blume was trying to convince Daddy to let me come to Torah Day School. She was not succeeding.
“Really Mr. Michaels,’’ she said, glancing nervously at my father’s scowl. “Julie, will love it here, especially with her recent interest in Judaism.’’ I tried to make myself smaller. I knew that daddy didn’t like my idea. “Our school has helped many girls grow Jewishly—’’
“She can come here–I just don’t want her bringing it into my house.” My father said. “Yes well, I don’t think that will be a problem Mr. Michaels.”
“Mrs. Blume?’’ I asked. “Are you going to tell my class about me, and that I know nothing about my religion?’’
She blinked. “Would you like me to?”
“Everything?” Daddy asked, staring at me. His dark eyes looked right through me. “Yes, well no.” I said, “Not about Mom.”
“Yes, well no.” I said “Not about Mom.”
“Hey, Julie! Earth to Julie!” I blink. I’m still in the hallway but now it’s empty.
“Julie, hello?” I turn around. Ruthie is standing behind me looking annoyed.
“Julie come on, were going to be late for Ivrit.”
“For Hebrew, come on,” she gives my arm a tug, and we run to our sixth grade classroom. Morah Henny is already teaching when we enter the room.
“Sit down, girls. Ruthie open your workbook to page 12. Julie, here.” She hands me a worksheet. I groan. At first when Morah Henny told me I would be doing ABC worksheets during class, I laughed. I didn’t know they’d be ABC sheets in Hebrew!
I sit down in my desk and begin to work.
1) Write down all the Hebrew letters in order.
Great. Just great. I pick up my pencil. What comes first? Oh yeah Aleph. I write that down in English then erase it. It’s a struggle to write in Hebrew, but Morah Henny won’t accept anything else. What next? Beis and Gimmel. I stop there. Think Julie, think! But instead of letters flowing into my head, words do. Well I think they’re words. Ever since the accident, I’ve been having weird dreams. In the dreams I’m a baby. I’m lying in my crib crying. Then a face appears. My mother’s face is looking down at me, smiling. She starts stroking my face and singing. In the dream I know what the words are. I understand them; they calm me down. But once I wake up I don’t know what the words are. I can’t remember the tune she sings them in. This has been bothering me for a long time. I try to talk to Daddy about it, but Daddy won’t talk about Mom. I think that’s called survivor’s guilt.
“Julie, can I see your worksheet?”
I jump. Morah Henny is standing next to me. For a second I forgot I was in school. “Julie?” She takes the almost-blank paper off my desk. She frowns.
“I’m not quite finished yet.”
“I can see that.” I watch her nervously. She’s trying to be calm, I can tell. Let’s hope she doesn’t lose her patience again.
“Julie what am I going to do with you?”
Talk about saved by the bell!
I slowly walk up the stairs to the apartment. In my backpack there’s a small scroll of paper encased in silver cylinder. Mrs. Blume called it a mezuzah. I call it trouble. I slowly unlock the door to our apartment. Mrs. Blume called it a mezuzah. I call it trouble.
“Daddy?” I call. No answer. Good. I need to be alone. I walk into the kitchen and put my bag down. I unzip it and pull out the mezuzah. Here in my hands is a dilemma. A big dilemma. My father had made it quite clear to Mrs. Blume that I wasn’t allowed to bring anything Jewish into the house. Mrs. Blume made a mistake and ignored this. Most of the things she has given to me to bring home I have been able to hide. My prayer book is shelved alongside my many books. The book of Psalms just fits into in my coat pocket. The candlesticks are hidden in my old toy box. But this? What had Mrs. Blume told me? To hang it on the front door post? In plain view? No way! First thing tomorrow I’ll give it back.
I hear a familiar banging on the front door. No doubt daddy has forgotten his apartment key. Again. He’s kind of forgetful these days. I leave the mezuzah on the kitchen table and go to open the door.
Daddy stands there, the evening shadows accentuating the bags under his eyes. He walks into the kitchen grumbling about the traffic and weather. I follow, but I’m not thinking about weather and traffic. Daddy walks into the kitchen but I don’t. I just stand there, my mind racing.
“Julie.” he says breathing heavily. “Julie, what is this?”
“Nothing,” I say looking at the floor, “it’s nothing.”
“That woman gave it to you, didn’t she?” My father calls Mrs. Blume ‘that woman’.
“No, I–I don’t know what that is.” Okay I’m lying. Sue me.
“She didn’t care what I said! She didn’t listen! Well I won’t have this in my house! I won’t have this!” Then before my eyes, Daddy throws the mezuzah down and steps on it. I hear a crack. And paper ripping.
“Julie, calm down. You don’t have to cry.”
I’m sitting on Chava’s bed. I’m crying hard. After Daddy broke the Mezuzah I ran away. If you can call it that. I ran to my classmate, Chava Cohen’s house. She lives just down the block.
“And then he says that he won’t let me come back to school, and as soon as the semester’s over he’s going to put me back in public school!” Chava just sits and listens and before I know it, I’m telling her everything. “We used to live in California. Me, Daddy and Mom. Mom drove a delivery truck. She liked her job. She liked driving around seeing new places. Daddy didn’t like it though. He kept saying that she should find a new job. Daddy doesn’t like going new places; he didn’t think mom should either. And then one day in April everything changed. The day started out normally. I was at school. I remember it was storming outside, and I was worried about our cat, Topsy. She doesn’t like storms. The in the middle of math class, the principal walked into the room. He started talking quietly and quickly to the teach- For some reason, I felt they were talking about me. At first I thought I had failed a test or something, and then I remembered Mom. Mom was out there, in the storm. Then the principal told me to go into his office. I went there and sat down in one of the sticky red chairs in front of his desk. Then he told me. He said my mother had crashed into a bus. There were no survivors.”
I stop talking and blow my nose.
“I’m so sorry Julie…” Chava is staring at me. Her face is full of concern.
“Mrs. Blume told you what happened after that. I decided to become more observant. I think that’s what mom would have wanted, I’m not sure why. We never really did anything religious in our house. I got my chance when Daddy told me we were moving here because of his job, and I found out there was a Jewish school nearby.”
Chava is silent for a minute, and then she goes to her closet and takes out a dress. A very fancy dress. She lays it on the back of her chair.
“Um, Chava?” I say. “What’s that for?” Then I remember it’s Friday afternoon. Almost time for Shabbos. I’ve never kept Shabbos before. But I figure the Cohen’s do. And every week too.
“Julie,” she says “I want you to stay at my house for Shabbos. Will you? I know you’ve never kept Shabbos before but, you know, if you don’t want to…” Her voice fades.
I smile. “I’d love to.”
Chava beams. “Good!” She says, “I’m going to tell my mother you’re going to be here. No don’t worry,” she adds. “She won’t mind.”
After a soothing shower, I pull the dress on. A perfect fit. As I look at myself in the full-length mirror, I think about how proud mom would be if she could see me now. I leave the bathroom and nearly bump into Chava as she rushes past. She looks beautiful. Her long hair has been straightened and partially pulled back.
“Come on Julie, it’s time to light candles!” She grabs my hand and pulls me into the dining room. I stop in the doorway. The room looks like something out of a dream. The table is set with china, and vases hold bouquets of roses. In the middle of the table stand two majestic candlesticks. A woman, who I assume is Chava’s mother, stands next to them. Girls stand around the table; one looks around ten years old, and the other around sixteen, who is quickly putting spoons by every place. Standing next to Chava’s mother is a young woman, probably 21 or 22. She’s holding a squirming baby.
“Come in, girls,” says Mrs. Cohen. “It’s getting late. Just leave the spoons Elishevah, there’s no time, you’ll do them later.” We crowd around her. I watch carefully as Mrs. Cohen lights the candles. Slowly she waves her hands over face. After the third time she covers her face. After a while she looks up and smiles.
“Good Shabbos, girls.”
“Good Shabbos,” Chava and her sisters answer.
“Chava, why don’t you introduce your friend?” says the 21 year old. She pries a shredded napkin out of the baby’s hand.
“Right,” says Chava. She points at the ten year old. “That’s Rifky,” Rifky smiles at me.
“That’s Elishevah.” She nods at the 16 year old who has already begun putting the spoons out. “And that’s my sister–in–law, Nechama, who’s holding the cutest kid in the world Avi, my nephew. And this is Julie, everyone.”
“Good Shabbos, Julie” says Elishevah.
“You’ll get to know all the names later, when the others come home.” Nechama says. “You mean there’s more?!” It comes out of my mouth before I can think.
“Yes, the boys and my father,” laughs Chava. “There are three boys home. Not counting one, who’s just visiting.” She nods at Nechama. So I figure she’s visiting with Chava’s brother. “And I have one other sister in seminary and two brothers in yeshiva.”
“So that’s 10 kids.” I say adding it all up.
“Yes, thank G-d, ten kids!” Mrs. Cohen smiles, taking Avi from Nechama.
“Come on Julie, let’s go back up to my room.” Chava takes my hand and pulls me back into the hallway. I give the Cohens a small wave and let myself be yanked into Chava’s bedroom.
“Ten kids!” I whisper, plopping onto her bed.
“It’s not so great,” says Chava, “it equals nine siblings. That is not good.”
“I’d love it.”
“Spoken like a true only child.”
I kick Chava off the bed.
I cry loudly waiting for Ma to come.
“Shh, Shh Neshama, Shh.”
A soft hand reaches into my crib and strokes my cheek.
Waa! I scream.
I’m lifted up into the air with careful hands.
“Shema Yisrael …” sings a voice.
I stop crying and soon I fall asleep. But the voice continues to sing.
Soon the singing stops. “Neshama.” The voice whispers “Oh, Neshama. What am I going to do?”
I groan and roll over.
“Julie, get up! JULIE!”
I open my eyes. Chava’s face wavers above me.
“What, what’s going on?” I struggle to sit up. I’m lying on Chava’s floor. Her extra blanket is twisted around my legs. Suddenly everything comes back to me. The Shabbos meal, the songs, the candles.
“Julie what’s wrong?” Chava looks really scared.
“I don’t know, why did you wake me up?”
“You really woke me up.” Chava moves over to her bed and sits down. “You were rolling around and moaning. What happened? Did you have a bad dream or something?”
“I…well, yes,” I’m wide awake now. “I had a dream and–” I gasp. “I understood it!” I squeal. “I know exactly what it was about! I knew what she said and, OH!” I clap my hands together. “No wonder he doesn’t want me to be religious!”
“Um, Julie?” Chava gives me a very confused look. “I’m lost here.”
“Listen.” I get up and start pacing “It’s going to take me a while to explain this.”
“It’s kind of late,” Chava glances at the clock.
“Who cares?” I sit back down on the floor and explain to her about the weird dreams I’ve been having. “So I’m asleep, and then I have the dream again! But this time instead of forgetting it when I wake up, I remember it perfectly!”
“But what did you dream?” Chava urges me. I close my eyes concentrating.
“I’m a baby.” I say, “And something’s wrong. I don’t know what but whatever it is, it’s making me cry really hard. And then my mother’s face appears, I guess she’s checking up on me, and she starts to sing.”
“Sing?” asks Chava, “Sing what?”
“I think… well… I think she’s singing something in Hebrew.” I open my eyes. “What’s that prayer you said with me before we went to sleep?”
“What? The Shema?”
“Yeah. That sounds right. Sing it to me.”
Chava sings it to me.
“Yeah, that’s it!” I say nodding my head. “And then Mom starts talking to me like … like there’s something wrong going on. I don’t know maybe she had an argument with someone or something. And then–” I stop talking. Something just occurred to me.
“Chava.” I breathe. “Chava do you think that maybe I … I might have a Jewish name?”
“It’s a possibility.” She says. “Why?”
“I think mom called me something else in my dream, something that sounded Jewish.”
“What was it?”
As soon as that word leaves my mouth there’s an explosion of memories inside my head. Mom lighting candles then quickly blowing them out. Dad yelling at mom. Dad breaking mom’s Star of David necklace. The principal telling me about mom’s death. Mom’s funeral. A Mezuzah lying on the floor in pieces.
“Julie! Julie what’s wrong?” I can’t look at Chava. Waves upon waves of shock are collapsing on me. I now know the truth.
“Chava.” I whisper. “Mom wanted to be Orthodox the whole time. But daddy, he didn’t let her. That’s how she died. They were arguing that morning. Daddy broke her necklace. She was so mad she couldn’t concentrate on driving. And now me, he won’t let me either. Chava, I don’t think he wants to be Jewish anymore.”
“Oh, Julie,” Chava’s eyes are glistening with tears. “What are you going to do?”
What am I going to do? What can I do? I know there is only one option. I have to honor my mother’s memory. I’m going to live my life how she always wanted to.
“Chava, I’m going to make my mother proud.”