At first, I think only of the Cohens.
Now, I think how to better this world so all the Yisroels and Mosheles and Mushkys and Rivkys and Chanas and Yechiels and Avraham Tzvis have their mothers standing by their side again.
And may Gittel Leah bas Moshe, whose yahrtzeit is on Shavuos, be with us before Yom Tov. And her amazing daughter will see her mother's beautiful face glowing with pride.
I love you Malky.
They were not bad children, for the most part. Only a few were insolent or rebellious. But they were all . . . indifferent. They came straggling in reluctantly every day, chattering about expensive presents they had received for Chanukah or were planning to get for their birthdays, about skiing trips and vacations in Florida. They sat before me and spoke, in their innocence, their ignorance, of lobster and Chinese food, of basketball on Shabbat morning (in the Jewish Center, of course) and movies on Shabbat afternoon. And when I finally silenced them so we could begin Modeh Ani, I wondered if too much had already happened to these children since they had opened their eyes on G‑d’s world, if it was too late in the day to acknowledge the living and eternal King.
I spoke of my frustrations, as teachers do, to Mr. Gruber, veteran of fifteen years at the school. “Let me give you some advice,” he told me. “Don’t beat your head against a stone wall. This is not New York, remember, it’s Lowell—Lo E‑l, the place without a G‑d. It’s no use. Believe me, I tried, for years. Give them a good show for the bar mitzvah. It’s all they care about.”
When I repeated this conversation to Miriam—in the two years we had lived out-of-town, she had become my friend as well as my wife—she was angry. Mr. Gruber might be bitter and discouraged, but that was no excuse for us. We, who had grown up in 770, near the Rebbe, in the strong bright light of his love for every Jew, how could we give up on any Jew, especially a Jewish child? She was right, I knew. The spark was there, waiting. If only I knew how to ignite it, how to open their minds, their hearts. I didn’t expect great things, not any more. “Open for me the eye of a needle . . .”
At that moment, as if on cue, the door opened. Yisroel Levine stood in the doorway, cheeks and nose bright red from the cold, snow encrusting his thick brown bangs. “My mother is still not here, and I’m frozen. Can I wait inside?”
“Sure. Come on in and thaw out.”
I liked Yisroel, a slight, agile boy, with lively grey eyes and a quick smile. His father came to shul once in a while for a yahrzeit, and we had become acquainted. A graying doctor with a bad heart, he spoke sardonically of his strictly Orthodox childhood, but admitted he wanted Yisroel to know more than his older brothers, who were growing up to be “gantze goyim,” as he put it. When it was his turn to pick up Yisroel, he usually stopped for a chat. Perhaps because of the small bond this established between us, Yisroel gave me little trouble, and even took my part sometimes with a “Shut-up-you-guys-the-rabbi-is-waiting.”
Now he looked around the room and said sympathetically, “Wow, this place is a mess.” He tossed his ski jacket in a corner. “Want me to help clean up?”
“Sure, Yisroel,” I teased. “You can begin by picking up that jacket. And check the radiator. I think half the mittens are yours.”
“Rabbi, may I speak to you alone for a moment?” Marsha, the school secretary, spoke quietly, but something in her voice caused me to stride down the hail to her office, my heart racing with fear. Miriam? I wondered. The baby? He had been feverish all night.
There had indeed been a tragedy, I discovered—but found, with guilty relief, that it was not my own. Yisroel’s mother would not be here to pick him up. Her car had skidded in the snow and hit a tree. She had died before the ambulance arrived. I was to take Yisroel home, saying only that his mother had been delayed. His father would break the news to the children when he returned from the hospital.
All the way home, riding through the lovely snow-covered New England streets, Yisroel chattered on. He said that recesses should be longer, and davening shorter, and that once a week was more than enough of Hebrew school. He must have thought I agreed with everything, because I could only nod silently, struck dumb by what I knew awaited the child when he arrived home.
At last we stopped by the neat white frame house with its green shutters. Yisroel, thoughtless, oblivious, jumped out, called, “Thanks, Rabbi. See you on Wednesday, unless there is a snowstorm.” He bent to scoop up a handful of snow, and tossed a snowball lightly at my rear window. That carefree gesture haunted me during the days that followed. It was the last time, I knew, that I would see Yisroel in his untouched childhood.
Two days later, I was walking up the well-shoveled steps to make my shivah call. I had been told that the house was crowded with people dropping in, besides the relatives from out-of-state. I was startled, nevertheless, to be greeted by the sound of music, raised voices, laughter, instead of the hushed sounds of a house of mourning. In the softly carpeted living room, women were serving drinks, passing plates of refreshments, talking. Finally I spied Yisroel’s father, sitting on a low stool. Gray-faced and unshaven, he looked twenty years older than I remembered him. But he spoke to me cordially.
“Some shivah, Rabbi. More like a cocktail party. I keep telling them all to go home, but I guess they like my booze.” He removed his glasses, rubbed his eyes slowly. “Listen, the kids are in the rec room over there, watching TV. Yisroel will be glad to see you.”
Yisroel was not glad to see me. He was flustered and embarrassed. “Hey, Rabbi, what are you doing here? I mean, aren’t you supposed to be in school? Oh, it’s not three o’clock yet.” Nervously, he offered me a drink of soda. He scanned the table, crowded with refreshments. “I guess there’s nothing you can eat here.” His face brightened suddenly. “I know. We’ve got some kosher potato chips somewhere, the kind we used for the school party.” He stepped over the recumbent form of his brother, and, standing in the doorway of the crowded living room, called, “Hey Mom, have we got . . .”
There had been a lull in the conversation. Now there was a sudden frozen silence. The words hung in the air for a moment, then were mercifully covered by conversation. Yisroel’s brother got up and left the room. I couldn’t bring myself to look at Yisroel. To have lost your mother was bad enough. But to have been so dumb as to forget that she was dead, that she was not there, would never be there, to answer you when you called her . . . When I finally looked at him, he was slumped in his seat, staring blindly at the TV screen. The look of bewilderment in his gray eyes was more terrible than tears.
Little wonder that he was bewildered. I looked at the shelves of the rec room, crowded with every expensive gadget. Had Yisroel ever been refused or denied anything for long, in his young life? Had he ever been asked to renounce, to sacrifice, even a piece of gum because it wasn’t kosher, or a ball game because it was Shabbat? How was he to understand, this child who had always had all that this rich land could offer, that he could not have the person he needed most in the world?
It was getting late. In fifteen minutes I had to be in class. I rose, touched Yisroel’s thin shoulders. “I’ve got to be going, Yisroel.” He rose, politely, to walk me to the door. In the hallway, I murmured the traditional words, and translated, “May G‑d comfort you, Yisroel.” The boy looked at me with uncomprehending gray eyes, and I realized the words meant nothing to him. “G‑d” was a word that belonged in Hebrew school. It had no reality in his life. As for turning to his Father in Heaven for comfort in his hour of great need, where would Yisroel have learned to do that? He had never seen his mother wipe away a tear as she lit the Shabbat candles. He had never seen his father crying quietly into his tallit on Yom Kippur. And I, his teacher, the only rebbe that he had, who told him he must daven for fifteen minutes every day—had I done any better? No, I realized with sudden, bitter recognition. I prided myself on being a chassid, but I had taught with my head alone, had been afraid to open my heart to the children. Words that had not come from the heart, little wonder they did not enter the heart.
Yisroel stood patiently, waiting for me to go. Instead, I sat down on the built-in bench in the hallway. “Sit down for a minute, Yisroel.”
The boy sat, warily, on the edge of his seat.
“Yisroel,” I began, “are you saying kaddish for your mother?”
He looked frightened. “Kaddish? Oh. They made us say something when we were standing by . . . when we were standing . . .”
“By the grave?” I prompted him gently.
The boy nodded, his eyes far away, seeing again what he had tried to forget.
“And now,” I persisted. “In the mornings. Who says it when the men come here to daven?”
“I don’t know,” he said vaguely, dully. “My uncle, I guess. The one from Florida.”
“Yisroel.” I put my arm around him, and drew him close to me. His small body was stiff, clenched tight as a fist, but he did not pull away from me. “You should be saying kaddish for your mother. You and your brothers.”
I groped for words, trying to explain what kaddish meant, to the child who said it, to the soul that had passed on to eternity, to the Jewish people. The boy’s intent gray eyes were upon me. Suddenly, I had an idea.
“Yisroel, I’m going to tell you a story. It’s about another boy, a Jewish boy whose name was also Yisroel.”
I told him about the small boy, sleeping in a room with an earthen floor, in another time, another land. His mother, a poor widow, a maid in the houses of the rich, gently shakes him out of his sleep. Together they walk through the still-dark streets to the shul. The boy wears threadbare clothing, broken shoes; he has nothing. But he is rich in faith and courage. The memory of his father is always with him, and he knows that G‑d, the Father of Orphans, is watching over him. The boy begins to recite the kaddish in his child’s voice. His mother, broken by poverty and grief, cries happy tears in the balcony. And thousands of angels, his father’s holy soul among them, descend to hear Yisroel say kaddish.
Later, the same boy, orphaned of his mother as well, walks alone and unafraid in the forest, for he fears no one and nothing, only G‑d alone. There, undisturbed, he pours out his holy soul before the King of the world.
“And the boy,” I concluded, “grew up to be the great Baal Shem Tov, whose name you bear.”
Yisroel had listened silently to my story, all the time crushing and straightening a paper cup in his hands. At last, still without looking at me, and in a voice so low I had to bend close to hear, he asked, “If I say it, say kaddish, can she hear me?”
Minutes later, we sat, Yisroel and I, bent over a siddur we had found on the bookshelf, like two conspirators. Yisroel repeated the words until he was satisfied he could read them without a mistake. We agreed that he would say it with his uncle for the rest of the week. After that, he would come to shul, every day.
“Remember, Yisroel, if there is no one to take you, give me a call. I’ll pick you up.” I left him looking after me through the glass door. I was more than half an hour late for Hebrew school.
I did not see Yisroel for the rest of the shivah week. But his bereavement had made him a sort of class hero, and I was kept posted on his activities. They had seen him at basketball in the Center; he had come to David’s birthday party. His father had been in the hospital for two days, but was home now. On Sunday he would go skiing. He would not be back in school until next Tuesday.
“What a vacation,” sighed one boy enviously. “Well, you would also want a vacation if your mother died.”
“G‑d forbid,” I interjected, with a sigh. It was clear that kind friends and relatives were keeping the boy as busy as possible, to take his mind off his troubles. Saying kaddish at six-thirty in the morning did not seem to fit into this agenda. I had little hope of seeing him in the shabby downtown shul on the coming Tuesday.
But there, on that bleak and gray Tuesday morning, looking strangely out of place among the gnarled old men who made up the weekday minyan, stood Yisroel. Hands in his pockets, he was studying, with elaborate casualness, the brass name-plaques on the wall.
His face lit up when he saw me. “Oh, there you are, Rabbi. I didn’t think you were coming!”
“And I didn’t think you were,” I rejoined. We laughed.
“My father brought me. It was pitch black when we woke up. We didn’t even have breakfast yet.”
“It was crazy to wake him this early.” Gently his father straightened Yisroel’s kipah. “But what could I do. The kid wanted to come, not his brothers, just the little one.”
Yisroel was beginning to squirm with embarrassment from all this attention. But at that moment the services began, and he started to shake up and down like a cork, trying to keep up with the tempo of the grown-up davening. I also had trouble keeping up with the workingmen’s minyan, and didn’t realize the time had come for kaddish until I felt the boy’s tight grip on my arm.
The lectern was too high, so Yisroel held the siddur in his hands. A hush had fallen over the small group. Yisroel’s high, clear voice trembled slightly, but he began bravely. Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmei rabah. At the end, the words were muffled by his tears, but by then he was not the only one who was crying.
“Not bad for a kid of eleven.” The doctor blew his nose loudly. “I don’t know if I ever told you this, Rabbi, but his great-grandfather was a famous rabbi in Russia. A scholar.”
We walked out into the bright daylight. It was going to be a fine winter’s day after all.
“Rabbi,” Yisroel spoke to me. His small, smudged face looked pale and peaked in the brilliant sun. His bangs straggled, unkempt, into his eyes. But those gray eyes looked straight at me, no longer lost and bewildered. “I’ll come every day. I’ll come for the whole year.”
Yisroel’s father was not doing well. He was in and out of the hospital all that winter. “It’s no good, Rabbi.” He thumped his chest angrily. “It’s no good in there. What’s going to be with my little one, my Yisroel?”
So, in the end, it was I who drove past Yisroel’s house in my rattling Chevy, and picked him up on my way to shul. Driving through the quiet, gray streets, as the dawn slowly illuminated the world, we talked. At first, casually, about school, sports, cars, bar mitzvah. Then came the questions, at first shyly, hesitantly, then in a rush. “Could a boy light Shabbat candles? Could you make a brachah on lobster? Kiddush on bagels? If G‑d loves the Jews, why did we suffer so much? Could you jog to shul on Shabbat if it was too far to walk? If you couldn’t handle money on Shabbat, could you tell the storekeeper to take it out of your pockets? Could you say the Shema a second time, if you woke up with nightmare? What if there was a good person, a really good man, but he didn’t believe in the Torah?”
Some of the questions broke my heart. Others were funny, but I couldn’t laugh. How can you laugh at a Jew’s first, faltering steps toward Yiddishkeit?
Of his mother, he spoke to me only once.
—“Is Moshiach really going to come?”
—“He really is, and very soon.”
—“Is it true what you said, that all the . . . dead people will come back to life?”
—“Would I lie to you, Yisroel?”
—“No, I don’t think you lied to me. It’s just that I miss her, I miss her so much.”
Winter changed into delicate spring and a golden summer. People in Lowell found it hard to believe that Yisroel was still saying kaddish.
The boys in school reminded each other, “Don’t give Yisroel a siddur. He davens with the men.” “Still?” “Still.”
“Plenty of people could learn from him,” the minyan-men nodded at each other. They plied Yisroel with herring and crackers. It was with difficulty that I restrained them from giving him a shot-glass of shnapps.
“I don’t understand it.” His father shakes his head, puzzled. “He never kept up anything this long, not even Little League. And you know something,” his lined, bitter face softened, as it always did when he spoke of his youngest son. “He lights the candles every Friday night. Then—he does this all by himself—he takes the small challahs you give him, he covers them, he makes kiddush.” He chuckled suddenly. “The other day the housekeeper is bringing him his supper, those little baby hams. He shakes his head, and says, ‘I’m not eating this. It’s not kosher.’ So I say to him, ‘Yisroel, it doesn’t make sense. Everything in the house is treif, the seafood, the meat, our dishes.’ And do you know what he said? He said, ‘You’ve got to start somewhere!’ A kid of eleven. ‘You’ve got to start somewhere.’”
Mr. Gruber had begun to teach him his bar mitzvah lessons. “I’ve had his brothers for five years. Zero. Absolutely nothing. This kid wants to learn. I’ve finally got a student instead of a tape recorder. It’s a miracle.”
But I wasn’t surprised. And I thought I knew when the miracle had happened. It was the day a frightened and grieving child listened to the story of the Baal Shem Tov, the tzaddik who knows how to reveal the spark that lies hidden deep in the soul of every Jew.