We’re the only Jews in Pennypack Woods, Pa. We exchange gifts on Christmas with our neighbors and each other, but have never had decorations that look or smell like Christmas.
Except once — when I’m 5.
“Can we please, please have a Christmas tree, Mommy?” I sob. “I’m the only one in our whole neighborhood without Christmas and I feel so left out. We don’t have any holiday, and Christmas is so beautiful.”
My parents finally exchange that look.
“OK, we’ll have a tree — a Chanukah bush. And Nana and Poppop must never know.”
On Friday at dusk, I’m walking down Columbus Avenue on my way to my friend Eva’s house for Shabbat dinner, carrying a bottle of wine to give her. A woman pushing a toddler in a stroller passes me. Recognizing her as someone from my synagogue, I wish her a Good Shabbos, and she smiles and wishes me the same.
I’m standing in a song-leading class at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Cantor David Tilman is leading us in “Ozi V’zimrat Yah” (“You are my strength and my song”). My body is beginning to relax. Natural concerns of middle age — “All four kids will be home for Shabbes, I have to order the chicken, pick up the bok choy” — are beginning to recede. We’re belting it out. The sounds are reverberating with wonder. I am beginning to breathe. The Hebrew word to breathe is linshom. Neshama is at its root. The soul. To give life to the soul.
It’s a rainy Friday afternoon at my country house on the beautiful, still natural Upper Delaware River, and I’m preparing the Shabbos candlesticks. I open a new box of fresh, pearly white candles and place two into my old brass candlesticks. The candlesticks are not particularly beautiful or elegant; they are somewhat graceful, somewhat clunky. Because they seem old and worn you might think they were handed down to me by my grandmother — they certainly look the part. Alas, that’s not the case.
Bang!, was the sound I heard in the middle of my sleep. I jumped up, but my husband Matt wasn’t there. I bolted out of bed and ran down the stairs, tears streaming down my face, praying, “Please God, don’t let this be what I think it is.”
I ran into our home office, where Matt might have been working. No Matt. I noticed the door to our garage was unlocked. I ran into the garage, crying, shaking, and there, I saw my husband of 15 years lying on the ground in a pool of blood surrounding his head. He had finally done what he talked about over the years.
It began last February, when my wife, my daughter, and I went to Israel to visit my son, Max, who had been studying in a yeshiva in Jerusalem for his gap year between high school and college. It was a long-anticipated trip, for which we had planned a fun-filled week. What we hadn’t planned was the sea change in our lives that was about to ensue.
At 4-feet-10, wearing sports goggles, I stood as the smallest captain the eighth-grade basketball team at Yeshivah of Flatbush ever knew.
Like many young Modern Orthodox boys (and girls), I grew up subsumed by sports. I knew the Beckett Sports Card guidebook better than the Bible. When not watching sports, I spent hours on the court, shooting hook shots or making the perfect John Stockton bounce pass. I cried when my team lost, and celebrated in victories I took no part in.