The garden is the only place

The garden is the only place there is, but you will not find it/ Until you have searched for it everywhere and found nowhere that is not a desert.  The miracle is the only thing that happens, but to you it will not be apparent/ Until you have studied all things carefully, and nothing happens that you cannot explain. –W.H. Auden

G-d-awareness is much, much more than that which the intellect can envelop. [It]is a combination of whatever the intellect can know, melded with intellect’s own awareness of what it can never know, what it is not made to know. –Rabbi Ozer Bergman

A few years ago while on a trip to America, I was staying — as usual when in Manhattan — at the West Side home of a close friend.. She and her husband, both of whom are successful writers in the general market, have never been card-carrying members of any particular school of thought, but if forced at gunpoint to select a label, they could probably go along with “secular, agnostic Jewish humanists.” In other words, they have a strong sense of identity as Jews, are basically pro-Israel, and don’t want Republicans in the White House.  They regard religious ritual and observance — of any organized religion–as humankind’s institutionalized indulgence in mass self-delusion, while admiring (even in spite of themselves) the apparently moral, spiritually disciplined lives being led by various Orthodox neighbors. On occasion they have expressed a rueful envy of the separation of boys and girls until marriageable age, wishing their own children could be similarly protected.

“I’d love to believe in G-d the way you do,” remarked my friend, not for the first time, during one of our long Friday night discussions. “The way all you Orthodox people do. It must be so comforting. But I just feel as if nothing’s there.”

The Meal Mart takeout had been consumed, the table cleared of paper plates and plastic forks and knives. Her candles and mine were flickering. She’d gone out of her way—way out of her way, as always—to make her believing friend comfortable.

“My intellect is one of the only things I can really say I have in life,” said her husband, whose mother had kept a kosher home, and who retained some details from his Hebrew School education. “I remember what it was like, when I was about 10, or 12, lying in bed at night wondering if there was a G-d, and if He would save us from the Commies. But any hope I had in that department, that G-d would keep the human race from spinning out of control–I lost that when I started reading about the Holocaust.”

When I apologized later on that we hadn’t been able to heat up the food, my friend replied, “No, it didn’t matter. The kids were happy. We were, too. The togetherness, and no one rushing off anywhere. The challah and the chicken and that bubka cake. They like all that Jewish stuff. You know, I’d really love to do Shabbos, but I just don’t have time. I know it sounds ironic, but Saturday’s the one day of the week I can get things done.”

On Shabbos afternoon, my friend was on her way out to do some shopping when she met up with Mr. and Mrs. Grunwald, her elderly neighbors two flights down, as they stood outside the locked electronic entrance to the building. She was eager to be of help and was holding open the door, when their awkward expressions reminded her that they were waiting for a non-Jew to come along.

“I told them about my frum house=guest from Israel–I’m so proud, my little Orthodox friend!–and they invited you to come down about five for shallashulaf. Something like that. They said you’d know what it was. I think you’ll have a good time. They’re a very sweet couple, I think they’re Hungarian. When Michael was born, Mr. Grunwald asked if we were having an Orthodox bris and we said we hadn’t really made plans yet. He organized the whole thing for us in their shul.  I don’t think they like me so much. He always looks the other way when I’m around. I think it’s the way I dress.”

* * *

The Grunwalds had just finished with havdalah, and the three of us were talking. In response to my questions, Mr. Grunwald was recounting some of his experiences in Auschwitz.

Upon arriving there as a nineteen-year-old, he claimed to be an electrician—a field which he then tried to master. One painfully freezing day, an SS Guard ordered him to follow him out to one of the watchtowers at the edge of the huge camp yard, to fix a light that wasn’t working.

The two marched out to the far edge of the camp yard, he in his rags and the Nazi, with his rifle, in his overcoat and winter hat and high black boots. The Jewish teenager climbed up the ladder to the platform and had crouched down to work on the broken light, conscious of the guard standing behind him, when he noticed in the far distance an enormous pit of fire.

The wind up there was so fierce that the young Mr. Grunwald was struggling to control his hands when a weird, shrill, unidentifiable sound reached his ears. Suddenly, from over to the left, an enormous dump-truck sped by, packed with a load of about a hundred naked, screaming Jewish children.

He couldn’t move his head, which would have angered the guard; he followed the truck only with his eyes. The screams and cries were already swallowed by the winds.

The truck stopped at the pit, backed up, and like any dump-truck emptying its load, upended its cargo.

“I can’t get that picture out of mind,” said Mr. Grunwald. “I live with it every day.”

I asked what to me was the obvious question: “Didn’t seeing that make you doubt the existence of G-d?”

Mr. Grunwald looked at me, startled. “No.” He seemed about to say something else, but after a long silent moment he looked over at his wife. “I wouldn’t even let such a thought enter my mind.”

“You know,” said Mrs. Grunwald, “we would like to ask you something. Your friends upstairs, they don’t want to keep Shabbos?”

“They do, but they come from a whole different world. It’s the world I come from, too, so I understand what it’s like, for them.”

“I must tell you. My husband and I are disappointed. You visit them. And we told them about Shabbos years ago.”

“Yes, I know, they would like to believe. It’s hard for them.”

Mr. and Mrs. Grunwald looked at each other. He shook his head slowly, baffled. “Hard? It’s Ha Kodesh Boruch Hu’s Torah.”

* * *

Shortly after arriving for a visit to my friends a few years later, I eagerly ran down the two flights to knock on Mr. and Mrs. Grunwald’s door, but someone else answered.

“Oh!” said my friend, when I came back up. “I forgot to tell you. They moved to Monsey.”

“They moved?”

“Yeah, to be nearer their children. I went to say goodbye, and when Mrs. Grunwald came to the door, all of sudden I burst out crying. I don’t know why I reacted like that. Just weeping uncontrollably. I couldn’t believe it. Totally out of nowhere. She was as shocked as I was, I could see. We were just standing there. I wanted to say I loved her, but I  knew she wouldn’t…you know what I mean…so I just asked her to say goodbye for us to her husband, and to thank him.”

“And then?”

“Nothing. I said goodbye. But then when I went back upstairs,  I just kept on crying and crying for the longest time. I mean, really crying hard, it was so weird. I  don’t understand it.

About the Author
Sarah Shapiro is an author and editor whose books include "Growing With My Children: A Jewish Mother's Diary," "Wish I Were Here: Finding My Way in the Promised Land," and "All of Our Lives: An Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Writing."