As written on a Chabad website, “One act, says Maimonides, can change a life, and transform a world. How so? Our acts trigger a chain of consequences — psychological, spiritual, and historical — that reverberate in incalculable ways.”

I know that to be true, since the impact of that one act happened to me. That act of chesed, kindness, came from a jovial man named Marty Safran and his wife Sandy, two utterly Brooklyn characters. It all began with an invitation to a stranger in a strange land.

The Safrans at the New York is Book Country Festival, September 1980

Today I am fluent enough in reading Hebrew to more or less follow along at services and join in the singing. I can lay tefillin and have an aliyah; I recently did the maftir reading for parsha Tzav. But through the end of college, I knew less than your average Hebrew school student about these fundamentals of Judaism.

Raised in the only nominally Jewish family in a town in South Texas, on the Mexican border, I never had a Jewish education. My parents were divorced and my mother farmed out religious education to our landlady, a devout Southern Baptist. After a tortured spiritual upheaval in high school, I began to identify as Jewish. I tried to get involved in Jewish activities as a student at Princeton University, but nothing jelled as I felt too ignorant and ashamed of my background to reach out. Nobody invited me home for Jewish holidays, so I remained stuck on campus for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover.

Then, my classmate Marc Safran invited me to the first-night seder at their home in Mill Basin, Brooklyn. I accepted, nervous because I had no idea what to expect. His parents, Marty and Sandy, welcomed me and I attended my first-ever seder. The boisterous family setting was as far from my straight-laced upbringing as the rituals were from the fried-chicken Easter Sundays of my childhood. The next night I attended a seder in Riverdale, the Bronx, with the family of another classmate. I had taken my first wobbly, culture-shocking steps into living a more aware Jewish life.

The story could end there, but Marty became something of a mentor to me. Judaism was just the start of his benign influence. His support soon proved invaluable when I stumbled badly on my first very job after graduation, as a reporter-researcher at Forbes magazine. I was in way over my head from the beginning and I let him know that. Self-doubt, procrastination, and feeling intimidated by the take-no-prisoners style of Forbes, the home of aggressive financial journalism, sent my anxiety level skyrocketing. On January 4, 1981, Marty sent me a book with this inscription:

Dear Van,

 

It was good talking to you last night. Keep in touch at all times.

 

By the time you receive this book you may be through reading the book on “Procrastination.” I am certain, if you use your will power plus the insight you gain, the costly habit of procrastinating will no longer haunt you.

 

The book I have enclosed, “A New Guide to Rational Living,” is Albert Ellis’s key work and a masterpiece in logic. It has become bible and my guide in keeping my own course straight in this nutty world. It has changed my life for the better.

 

Chapter 20 and Chapter 18 enlarge upon the ideas on the yellow card. I know you may well read the entire book and that it will change and clarify many ideas and feelings you have now.

 

We look forward to having you at our home on January 26th at 6:30 pm. Keep giving us a call.

 

Best wishes for the New Year,

 

Martin Safran

 

P.S. I procrastinated in sending you the article from Newsday and the result was that I misplaced it as soon as I locate it (I hope?) to send it to you under separate cover. My procrastinating habits are usually well contained – sometimes I slip too.

I still have and treasure the book and I remember some of Ellis’s approach to rational-emotive behavior therapy. Scanning the book almost 40 years later, I still nod my head in agreement at the common-sense thinking of Albert Ellis. One underlined passage:

We unreligiously contend: You can change your thinking and emotions associated with this thinking by observing and changing your strong beliefs that underlie them. We hold, more specifically, that you needlessly create inappropriate emotions—such as depression, anxiety, rage, and guilt—and that you can largely eradicate such sustained feelings if you will learn to think straight and to follow up your straight thinking with effective action.

I kept in touch with the Safrans. One evening I attended a jazz concert with a friend at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. As we were leaving, a man walked by and threw me into a playful headlock. My friend and I were alarmed, until I realized that was Marty, who recognized me before I saw him.

Marty and Sandy have passed away since then. Marc and I are Facebook friends and always chat at our Princeton reunions. Every time I see him I think about his parents, who welcomed me into their home, a stranger in a strange land. I didn’t think of it at the time, but they were true role models of Jewish hospitality, the Abraham and Sarah of Mill Basin. Their act of consideration put me on the the path of a more Jewish life. That first seder was both thrilling and baffling, a step into a new world. Other memorable seders have followed in the decades since and I look forward to many others as I continue to explore Jewish practice and faith.

Had the Safrans not invited me into their home, my path into Judaism might have bumped forward somehow, or fallen off a cliff. I’d be, at best, one of those Jews-lite holding to the bagels-and-Jon-Stewart style of cultural Jewishness with little sense of what Judaism is all about. I don’t even want to think about the worst-case scenario.

But mine is a story with a happy ending, except the story never ends.