Chapter Three: Mom Tells a Story on Shabbos
It was one in the morning, Shabbos, and Mom had finally quieted the baby and finished the dishes. You would never know this by looking at her, but Miriam was longing for love. And silks, and moonlight, and secrets. But this couldn’t be; if she thought about love she wouldn’t be able to wake the children for school.
Love was out of reach, mainly because of the mortgage payments, the children, the dentist, the job, and the need to sell enough eggs, milk, and lemons to keep the car. She needed the car for deliveries. Every time she thought she could get what she wanted, the baby woke up, he needed a diaper, he was hungry. The phone rang; a customer needed eggs now. The principal said her son got in a fight and if she didn’t stop it he would get expelled. How did people get the love they wanted? She decided to give up her business and pray. And here it was Shabbos Kodesh. No, she mustn’t think about business. How could she stop thinking?
On the other hand, Miriam needed to be forgiven for neglect. It was all for those car payments and refusing to pay more attention to her children. Every time she entered a house to deliver eggs and milk, plus the biodegradable soap powder and organic protein powder, there was another good mother giving supper to her sweet little children.
Cynthia, in pajamas, crept into the kitchen and sat down. “I can’t sleep, Mom.” She paused, and then she said, “tell me a story.”
Miriam thought for a moment. She might say that she wanted to sleep, and that was true. But then she thought, would she get another chance to explain to her daughter the reasons for their wacko life? None of Cynthia’s friends came from such a crazy home.
“One day,” Miriam began, pouring two cups of tea from a kettle on the blech, “I stomped out of my class in public school and never returned, deciding to hole up in Bais Yaacov until Mrs. Cohen agreed to take me in.
“Who is Mrs. Cohen?” said Cynthia.
“The principal. Anyway, everyone in both schools said this was impossible. I had no background; I had damaged my brain with hundreds of hours reading comic books and could hardly read Alef-Bais.
“The secretary told me to stop being foolish and go home; she was closing the office for the night. I said okay, and then hid under a desk. I tried to sleep but it was cold; I had no blanket and hadn’t eaten any supper. I sat on a bench and tried to read but couldn’t understand any of the books. I had nothing to do but cry, I was so miserable.
“Next morning, I dove back under the desk. People walked in and out, spoke to the secretary, and made complaints to Mrs. Cohen. I was afraid they would lock me out. I lay low until the secretary dashed out for lunch, and then I entered Mrs. Cohen’s small room, the holy of holies, where she started to teach me the Alef-Bais.
“My greatest accomplishment,” said Mom, “has been to get out of that house and get accepted in the Bais Yaacov. This has led to my transformation from a simple person to a student of the wise. It was a fight to leave the darkness of that house, all the familiarity and comfortableness, the place where I grew up and yet didn’t grow up, since in the world of Torah I was still a little kid. I was suddenly surrounded with people who were like angels; I was no longer dragged down by physical needs and wants that used to occupy all my time, and in school with friends who wasted my time when I had to listen to their silly talk, and with the school trips, the packing, preparing, going and coming back, all a big waste of time, and every moment is precious, you know. I mean, the Chofetz Chaim zal cried because he found a few minutes of wasted time. I should cry too, since I wasted so much more of my time. If I think about it I get upset, but at least with HaShem’s kindness I pulled myself out, and I don’t ever want to go back there.
“My father, your grandpa, knew a lot about music but next to nothing about Jewishness, and that was because he’d been kidnapped by gentiles, even though he never told me about it. Mrs. Cohen knew this somehow, and she didn’t blame him. Still Papa felt wary of her and the entire organization.
“‘I’m not paying for this Camp Gehinom; they’re kidnapping you!’” Miriam mimicked her father’s big, booming voice.
“‘Camp Bitachon’, I corrected him. ‘Gehinom is a place where you clean your soul after dying.’”
“‘Same thing,’ Papa said. ‘And who’s going to clean your bedroom now?’
“‘Don’t touch my paints and my paintings! I’ll clean the room later.’
“I didn’t hear what he was yelling; someone was banging on the door. It was Mrs. Cohen.
“‘I’m not paying anything for my daughter to get brainwashed!’ Papa told her.
“‘Don’t worry,” my teacher said. ‘We just want to help.’ She said to me, ‘I’m giving you a note; you can be the arts and crafts counselor.’
“There was no time to think or argue. I packed a few things, the bus left, and three hours later, Raizy, the head counselor, looked me up and down. ‘You can’t wear those clothes,’ she said. ‘Let me see your suitcase.’ My heart sank while she tossed almost all my skirts and blouses into the garbage. ‘Where are your stockings?’ she demanded.
“‘I have to wear stockings in this heat?’ I cried out.
“‘Well, I can’t. I don’t have any.’
“She sighed and handed me a used pair of thick pantyhose. ‘Put them on now!’
“I obeyed, knowing I still needed something from this maddening person. ‘Now give me the keys to the arts and crafts shack, please?’ I said.
‘‘YOU’RE the arts and crafts counselor?’ She was really in shock.
“‘Yes.’ I handed her my teacher’s letter. Raizy shrugged.
“‘So, I’ll start now,’ I said, anxious to see the supplies.
“‘No,’ Raizy said, ‘Start tomorrow.’
“Next morning, I found Raizy at the microphone, trying to quiet her baby, singing the camp wake-up song.
“‘I’ll give you the keys later’ she said. ‘We have to daven first!” The baby cried louder; Raizy sang louder, while I hung around until she shepherded me into a long line of girls at the door of a dining hall set up like a shul. She handed me a siddur, leaving me to sit on a bench and start a slow and painful reading of Birchat HaShachar. I had just arrived at Baruch She-omar, stomach rumbling, when the girls stood up and dragged their benches to the breakfast table. I could smell the fresh coffee while I struggled through Ashrei. Every word of Kriyas Shema attached to the smell of toast and butter. Throughout Shmone Esre, all my thoughts focused on scrambled eggs. By the time I got to oseh Shalom the girls had all run outside to activities.
When I got to Aleinu, the place was dead quiet. By now I was ravenous; no food was left on the tables, and so I ventured into the kitchen, grabbed a roll, and froze. A large animal was sniffing around the garbage can; it now blocked my exit. Dropping the roll, I scrambled up onto a table. The animal sniffed at the roll. I trembled and prayed in earnest until lunchtime, when at last I was rescued.
After lunch came arts and crafts. I rushed to unlock the door, finding paper and watercolors in a cabinet, deciding to give these rough little girls an education in fine arts. I was not prepared for the bedlam that followed. Thirty little girls scrambled over the table, fighting over the paints, rummaging through cabinets, scattering all my supplies. My beautiful paints spilled on the table and floor, and so much shouting and laughing filled the room that no one could hear what I wanted to teach. At the sound of the bell, the children disappeared, and another group was stampeding up the path. I hurried to bolt the door, my mind screaming, is this my reward for hours of prayer with nothing to eat? I ignored the banging and screaming outside.
“OPEN THE DOOR!” It was Mrs. Cohen.
I opened, awash with anger. “Look what they did!” The place was a mess.
“I see,” said Mrs. Cohen.
“I’m not going to teach until they clean it all up!”
“My teacher turned around and instructed the girls to wait outside. She came in, locked the door, and motioned me to sit down. “When you are in charge of the house,” she said softly, “and guests come and go, you have to clean up since it all belongs to you.”
“That’s ridiculous! Who made the mess? They are acting like animals. They’re irresponsible!”
“Mrs. Cohen sighed. ‘They are yours. In fact, your thoughts created them. If you died today, you would see them in Gehinom and there wouldn’t be anything to do but hang around and feel the pain for eleven months. You’re lucky to be alive and have a chance to clean up now!’
“‘Clean up what? The mess in here?’
“‘Yes, and your anger.’
“‘What—Can’t I ever get angry?’
“‘It is hardly ever allowed!’
“What she was saying set me so off balance, was so revolutionary, that I felt the room spinning. Because I felt, without anger there would be nothing left of me.
“Mrs. Cohen reached over and embraced me; I burst into tears. ‘How can people ever sit together and not fight? How do you forget the bad things they did to you and you did to them? Is it better to forget, or to talk about everything?’
“‘Would it be better to make violence, theft and murder in the world because I don’t know what it means to be a Jew?’
“‘I’ll tell you what it means to be a Jew’ said Mrs. Cohen. ‘You open your mouth; if you say the right word you create lovely worlds and if you say the wrong word you create the opposite, which is how we got this present intolerable world!’
“Her speech prompted a flood of tears; then Mrs. Cohen relented a little.
“‘Try to see just one good thing and tell it to the kids. Don’t say anything bad; that just makes everything worse.’
“‘You want me to lie and say these monsters are good?’
“‘Shh! Don’t say anything until you see something good.’
“After a while, I saw; I understood. It all belonged to me, these rowdy girls. I mean these high-spirited girls. They were created by me, and even that ravenous animal was created by me; by all my bad thoughts, words, and actions; the mess I had made of my life until now was all mine, and the pain I felt for lack of decent spiritual clothing, being dressed only in carelessness, chutzpah, and anger. Papa was right; they were washing my brains and I too had been kidnapped. This really was Camp Gehinom, and it was all very good.”
Miriam glanced at Cynthia, not knowing where in the story she had fallen asleep.