I wrote this piece for my reading evening at Tmol Shilshom, Sweet Beginnings, in honor of the Jewish new year. Sign up for my mailing list to hear about future events.
It was just me and my parents home for Shabbat. On the brink of adulthood, I was absolutely unsure about the next steps in my life. But that Shabbat I was home. And since my mother had decided to tell each of us in person, it seemed like the perfect opportunity – to my mother, that is – to tell me that she was pregnant.
Oh my effing God. I was imminently turning 20 and my mother was pregnant of all things.
I was alone. None of my other four siblings – the people who were ultimately about to go through this with me – were around.
I shuddered. I shook.
I hid my reactions and nonchalantly said that I was going out for a walk. I paced the Katamon streets, struck and angry.
A few weeks later, in Toronto, my brother stepped out of a moving car upon receiving the same news.
A few months later Shabbat began, this time with my mother in the hospital hopefully in the process of giving birth, and a few of us at the Shabbat table thinking of nothing but.
We had a quick meal – I couldn’t eat – and I ran down the hill to the hospital to get the news.
My father told me I had a new sister. A little, yet very real, person in my life. A person who I loved before I even met her.
I went into the labor room and quickly met the tiny little thing.
I then went out to the hallway, sat on a cold metal bench, bent over and wept.
And wept and wept. Until one man walking by reminded me that this was indeed a joyous occasion.
Silly man, I thought. Does he not know that one can weep. And weep and weep, from joy?
Eight years later…
I had broken up with my boyfriend. I was now very alone in Vancouver. I worked in a job that spit me out after four days. I’d miscalculated and overspent during my move to an apartment with a higher rent.
My God. Good God. What was I going to do?
I knew I needed income immediately in order to keep afloat and so, in this state of urgency, I searched. Although I wanted a job in the Jewish community, I even looked in Craigslist.
Very quickly I found a position in the community posted there. But… with old people? I simply couldn’t work with old people, I thought. It will bring me down. Even more down than I already am.
But I went for the damn interview. I begrudgingly went and begrudgingly put on my best face. During it, on the other side of the room, I could see the elderly people sitting around a table for their morning activities. One man – who I later learned was named Sam – sat slumped over in a wheelchair. The entire site broke my heart. Just seeing the elderly people from afar made me sad.
I got the job. I got the job and I accepted it too. Because I needed to. But it seemed like such a bad fit that I felt like I was misleading my new employers; I really did not see myself lasting there for more than a short while.
But what could I do? I was being dragged along for the ride we call life and I didn’t have much choice.
I hesitantly arrived to my first days. I smiled at the clients, who almost always smiled back. I made conversation and they were happy to talk. I ran programs for them about the Jewish holidays and Jewish history and they loved it all, the ones that stayed awake, that is.
And we had a musical kabbalat shabbat together every Friday. I played the few chords I know on guitar, and we all sang together, the men with synthetic teepee kippas, the women with doilies, all of us smiling at each other.
The opposite of my fears had come true. I noticed that no matter my mood in the morning – which was often down – it was raised by the people I’d so dreaded from afar. They’d stopped being “old people” and instead became just people. Some became acquaintances, some became friends and some became very good friends.
The fact that the two people I became closest with – Cecil and Yvette – have since passed away, does not exactly matter.
What matters is that Cecil, a Jamaican Jew, would have swept me off my feet and never let me go if he had been around half a decade younger (so he said). What matters is that whenever I was talking about Jewish history, I knew I could look over at him and find him listening intently, and laughing in all the right places.
What matters is that I had a kinship with Yvette, a French Holocaust survivor with a similar demeanor to mine (I like to believe). What matters is that after moving back to Jerusalem, we would send each other voice recordings which I adored receiving (Allo Deena, I hope you are well. Have you found a husband yet? Don’t worry, things are not how they used to be…”). What matters is that I was able to offer her my love during the terribly painful end of her life. What matters is that I know she loved me, and I still love her.
My desperate situation forced me to make a desperate choice, leading me to a year of meaningful memories that I cherish.
For me or dust and ashes?
It is said that Reb Simcha Bunem carried two slips of paper. One pocket had a note that said: Bishvili nivra haolam—“For my sake the world was created.” The other pocket had a note that read: Veanokhi afar vafer”—“I am but dust and ashes.”
In these stories and many others in my life, I have felt like things are happening despite me and all I can do is react -
I have often felt like afar vaefer.
But now I wonder, am I dust or, in fact, is the world not being constantly created for me? Especially for me…
And in that case, what is a sweet beginning? What really are beginnings? And what might make them sweet?
I’ll tell you what a beginning is. It’s what is happening all the time. It is doors or windows unlatching, allowing movement. It is the potential all around us. It is the availability of that potential.
But this is not necessarily a pleasant experience. It can be terrifying, it can be painful.
And so a sweet beginning, a sweet moment, is one that we somehow open up to, possibly even embrace, fears and all.
I, for one, think I’ve more than internalized that I am dust and ashes. Now it’s time for me to focus on “The world was created for me.” Because, it is!
And that is a sweet beginning.
שנה טובה ומתוקה.