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Flames unseen

For a little girl in an American suburb, December was the beautiful season
Illustrative. (iStock)
Illustrative. (iStock)

If Christians knew the effect of church bells on the Jewish soul, they would ring them all day long.
–Rav Yisrael Salanter

For a little girl in an American suburb, December was the beautiful season.

Twinkling windows, golden bells, red and green and mistletoe. Storefronts with presents, piling high, dolls and balls and spinning tops. Angels and reindeer, ribbons and wreaths, trees all bedecked with stars and lights. Carols ringing through drifting streets, landscape of sugar, crystal white, ice laden down with peace on earth. Steeples soaring in the cold black air. Silent night, holy night, the singers are calling, night is falling, shining wonderland in her eyes.

Joy to the world, goodwill to men. How did she know, in those first years after the Holocaust? No one warned explicitly it wasn’t hers, all this, that her little heart loved.

* * *

Into this white picture, shattering peace on earth, one day there strode a Jewish child.

This is Jeffrey, said Miss Jensen, from the sixth grade. Jeffrey is visiting all the classrooms today to tell us about Hanukkah. Does anyone know what Hanukkah is?

One hand shot up. That’s what Jews celebrate instead of Christmas.

Very good, Doug. And Jeff’s father, said Miss Jensen, is Rabbi G—-, of Temple Emanuel in Norwalk. Does anyone know what a rabbi is?

No hands this time. My friend Donna was whispering to Linda.

Rabbis are like Jewish ministers. Does anyone know what a temple is?

That’s where Jews go to church, said Bambi.

In our own town, of course, there were no Jewish churches, and in my class, of course, no Jews, except for me. And now this boy, the Reform rabbi’s son — who didn’t appear to be embarrassed, standing before us, talking differently from the rest of us, and looking different, with dark curly hair. Why was I ashamed, and ashamed of my shame? What was I scared of? I couldn’t fathom it, and didn’t want to try. I just sat at my desk, not wanting my friends or my teacher to look at me. Did they know? I would’ve sunk into the floor if I could.

Jeffrey held up a multi-pronged brass candelabra. This is a menorah, he said, and he told us what it meant.

His speech didn’t remain with me. All that endured was a little flame of shame, fed from some inborn well of blazing knowledge.

I wanted to belong. I’d grown up with Kathy and Mary and Bambi.

Thank you very much, Jeffrey, said Miss Jensen, for telling the class about your holiday.

The shame would burn my heart, relentlessly, in spite of me, and lit up the path that led eventually to Jerusalem.

* * *

The 40th high school reunion was held in the country club. It was like walking into a costume party — all the kids had come dressed up with wrinkles and lines on their faces, like middle-aged characters in our senior play. Donna was there, and Doug and Linda, and Bambi. Jeff, two years older, wasn’t in attendance; I’d heard years before that he’d married a Catholic girl and settled in Colorado. I was listed on the program as “Classmate Who Traveled the Most Miles to Get Here, All the Way from Israel!” and “Classmate Who Has the Most Children!” (The number wouldn’t have impressed them in Boro Park, nor in Har Nof.)

Tell us what it’s like living in Israel, they entreated, with respect in their eyes. Do you like it?

I was the most popular girl in school now. It was time for Show and Tell.

* * *

One morning during the second intifada after a bombing downtown, I couldn’t hold back; I had to go see where it happened. Among many others, some American teenagers had been hurt at an ice cream shop, one of whom, The Jerusalem Post reported, had permanently lost the use of his legs and arms.

It had been a month or so since I’d last been courageous enough, foolhardy enough, to board a bus. Some instinct drove me to it; some nonverbal understanding that it was urgently necessary to confront this. Something demanded it of me — that it was the right thing to do.

Getting off in the center of town, I was shocked. I was terrified: silent devastation, everywhere. Wandering pedestrians here and there, like me, ghosts in a ghost-town. I wanted a cup of coffee: all the coffee shops had shut their doors. The restaurants, the stores, all dark! Where was my Jerusalem? Would she never return? My beloved city!

“In the gates of Zion,” the prophet Isaiah had foretold, “she who sits desolate, lamenting on the ground.”

Glass crackled under my feet as I neared the cordoned-off site at Zion Square, and there I stood and stared. Spattered blood on the buildings!

Speechless, I turned away, whereupon something in the shattered storefront of a souvenir shop caught my eye. There on a shelf covered with broken glass, stood one little silver menorah, with its bright, blazing lineup of unlit flames.

We would endure!

Sarah Shapiro is an author and editor living in Jerusalem. Her most recent books are Wish I Were Here: Finding My Way In the Promised Land (Artscroll) and All of Our Lives: An Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Writing (Targum/Feldheim).

About the Author
Sarah Shapiro is an author and editor whose most recently published books are "Wish I Were Here: Finding My Way in the Promised Land" and "All of Our Lives: An Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Writing."
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