By Keith Bloomfield
There was the summer I was smitten by a girl from Brooklyn. She was lovely, smart, and a joy to be with. When she spoke so matter of factly about her life as a Jew, I was envious and drawn even closer to her. I convinced her to come home with me for dinner and I quickly called my mother. "Mom, don't embarass me. She goes to Yeshivah," I told her. "She keeps kosher and she's Shomer Shabbos. Do I have to say anymore?" I didn't.
The visit was perfect. We ate tuna and egg salad on paper plates with plastic forks and knives. She told my family about going to Yeshivah and living a life that was so very foreign to ours. I envied her and the life she told me about. How I yearned to be immersed in the stream of Jewishness that appeared so second nature to her.
When the summer was over and I had only days before returning to school, she invited me out to Brooklyn to meet her family. The train ride to Manhattan and the long subway ride to Brooklyn took no time at all. Her apartment building was a short walk from the station. We were having lunch together on a brilliant Sunday afternoon. There was a slight chill in the air and I wore a sports jacket over a sweater and a new pair of blue jeans. I stopped at a bakery along the way and bought parve ruggelah for desert. The woman behind the counter assured me that they were parve and would go with anything her mother put on the table. "Fleshic, milkic it won't matter."
I stood silently in front of her building and counted the floors. I knew she lived on the sixteenth floor, but I could only count fourteen stories as I stared up toward the sky. The ride up in the elevator seemed to take longer than both the train and subway rides and I wondered if this was really a good idea. There was no sound when I pressed the doorbell, but someone must have heard something. "We have company," sang out a voice from inside the apartment and then there was silence.
First the deadbolt clunked open and then the lower lock clinked. The door slowly opened and she was standing in front of me. "This is for you," I started to say, only to have her lips quickly seal mine with a quick peck, before her younger brother and her two sisters ran to see who was there. She led me into the living room for a round of introductions. Her parents were sitting there reading the Sunday newspaper.
"This is my friend from the summer," she began.
Her dad put down the paper and stood up. "I've heard some very nice things about you," he said as he shook my hand.
"You go to school in Maine?"
"No sir, in Vermont."
He shifted his weight and talked around me to his children. "He called me 'sir.' That's showing respect. That's what the Torah says about respecting your parents. You could probably learn a lot from your sister's friend."
"OK," I said to myself. "I've just made points with her dad."
Lunch was more like a Thanksgiving dinner or a Pesach seder. The food just keep coming and coming. Now I was feeling guilty that when she came to my home, all we had served were salads. It was nothing compared to the feast her mom put before us.
Throughout the meal, her dad and I talked about everything and nothing. We talked about school and the Jewish holidays. About Torah and Pirkei Avot. About kashrut and avodah. I could see her smile at me out of the corner of my eye when she wasn't helping her mom serve or take the empty dishes back into the kitchen.
My precious little box of ruggelah was lost amid the collection of sponge cake, pies and pastry that her mom presented as "a bit of desert."
There was little that I could say as the dishes were cleared and her family slipped into their respective rooms. "We'll just give you young people a little room," announced her father as he and her mother padded off to their bedroom.
We sat on the couch in the living room and I told her what a wonderful afternoon I was having. How I was a little afraid of coming to meet her family and how easy they had made it for me. Then I spotted it.
It sat on a lace doily on top of the television set. It was a plastic box with the texture of wood. It had a clock face on the front and two wall plugs, like bizarre ears, protruded on either side.
"What is that?" I queried, pointing an accusatory finger at the strange device.
"That's our Shabbos clock. We set it to turn the TV and the lights on and off on Shabbos."
"You turn the light on and off and you watch TV on Shabbos?"
"No silly, the clock does it for us."
"But it's the same thing!" I argued. "Whether you turn the TV on by hand or use a Shabbos clock to do the work for you. You're being a. . . hypocrite." The words burned my lips as I pronounced them and I regretted saying them before my voice trailed away.
Then she sat silently for a moment, looking deep into my eyes. "You really don't understand, do you?"
I didn't. She would never understand how important that afternoon was to me. She represented a way of life that I had thought I aspired to, only to find that I was enamored of an ideal that was truly out of all of our reach. It was a thin frosting, like the sugary glaze that clung to the deserts at lunch. When we tried to bite down on the sweetness, it quickly melted away in our mouths. We were sailors on the same river; bound for the same destination, but navigating through different currents and eddies. Judaism allows for many routes to the same goal. I was just too stubborn at the time, to accept that her route had more twists and detours than I had originally thought.
It was a long and quiet ride back to Manhattan and north to the suburbs. We never spoke after that Sunday. I guess my pride was hurt, but I still wonder where she is and who she became.
Many years later, I thought I saw her as I went on an excursion with my wife to Manhattan's Lower East Side. She was trundling five young children in and out of stores. All I could think of was that if not for the Shabbos clock, they could have been mine.
from the December 2007 Chanukah Edition of the Jewish Magazine