By Mort Laitner
Friday night at 7:00, I arrived at the Downtown Fort Lauderdale Jewish Center. I was a bit surprised that an orthodox synagogue, a Chabad house of worship, had invited me to lecture on the subject of miracles. My books were filled with stories about miracles. The Rebbetzin loved A Hebraic Obsession. She read it in one day.
But while I davened in this small temple, I realized a small miracle was about to take place. The author of “A Hebraic Obsession”—a book considered risqué by a few of its readers, a book with a tad of sexual content—would be lecturing to a house packed with seriously religious Jews, true believers,—on Shabbat.
I was honored.
I loved Shabbat. I loved Shabbos. (Yiddish)
My love of Shabbat dinners went way back—to my adolescence in Woodridge, New York. To my Catskill Mountains formative years, when I watched my mother or my grandmother light the candles, cover their eyes with the palms of their hands and pray. Standing at the head of the table, they recited a short blessing over the Shabbat candles. Those six inch candles managed to burn right up to the end of the meal.
These were the years when I still feared lighting a match. My brave mom ran the wooden match stick that had been dipped in sulfur and phosphorus across the rough surface of the Diamond match box. The friction created enough heat to ignite the chemicals and produce a small flame. I observed in awe.
I remembered that matchbox had a diamond and two wooden matches painted on it. One match laid atop the other as if they were man and wife. Each box contained 300 strike-on-box matches or as the Diamond Match Company labeled them as 150 loving couples. (Humor) “They Were Extra Thick For Longer Burn Time” I swear their words not mine.
As my mother struck the head of the match, its tip flared and the pungent odor of sulfur dioxide singed my nostrils. This truly miraculous sight—filled with religious significance—did not escape my underdeveloped mind. Mankind captured and controlled fire! Mankind put fire sticks in boxes and those sticks lit candles which illuminated a room. Wonder of wonders, miracles of miracles.
A wisps of smoke rose as the candles flared. The smells of melting wax and burning wicks ignited memories of Bible studies in Hebrew School. “The fire shall be ever burning unto the alter; it shall never go out.”
In wonderment, I studied the fire’s eternal flames with their yellow tips, red cores and blue bases.
On Friday nights, on my Shabbos table rested two glistening kosher candles—housed in brass candlestick holders. Two shimmering Yehuda candles stood straight and upright, proud of their Jewish name and Israeli heritage. Proud that they were made of pure paraffin and guaranteed to burn for three hours. Proud to be lighting up the life’s of a family of Jews.
The light emitted from those two small flames flickered across the room—causing shadows that bounced off the walls as if dubbuks possessed the edges of the room. These spirits of dislocated souls danced as if they wanted to partake in our ritualistic feast.
On Friday nights, my father blessed the challah and recited Kiddush over a cup of wine. On Shabbat nights our dining room glowed from above as the large festooned chandelier hung from the ceiling. Its crystal prisms, in the form of bevels and facets refracted a rainbow of colors. Below the chandelier, lead-carved crystal glasses filled with sweet Israeli wines shimmered against a soft white linen tablecloth. Place settings of silver forks, spoons and knifes shined, flickered and surrounded the plate. Soft ivory napkins appropriately rested on the table.
This was Jewish family life at its best. A life which required a Leonard Cohen song entitled, Shabbat that burrowed into your ears as it attempted to reach your heart. A life which required a Chagall painting that touched the eyes of your soul.
During winter, frost framed the dining room’s exterior window panes. But on those frosty, Friday nights the dining room radiated the warmth of love, peace and holiness. All who attended the Shabbat meal bathed in this sea of tranquility.
On all of those tranquil Friday nights, my grandmother cooked my father’s favorite meal: boiled chicken of flankin (both of which I hated then and now and I still can not even look at them without my stomach retching) boil potatoes, boiled carrots and chicken soup. Grandma Rose or Baba Roza started preparing the kosher meal in the morning and rested as she watched us eat or not eat her specialties. I often revolted and left most of this boiled meat on the china, only to hear grandma say, “Bubala, esn kinder.” For years after I left my family home no chicken touch my lips.
Tonight I enjoyed the chicken and the rest of the delicious Chabad Shabbos meal. I enjoyed hearing the applause after I finished my speech on miracles. I thanked the rabbi for inviting me and my family to his temple. And then a teenager approached me and introduced himself. He extended his hand and said,”Hi, I’m Chaim and I really enjoyed your speech tonight.”
I shook his hand and replied, “Thanks Chaim. I am glad you liked it. What did you like most about it?”
“The way you were able to bear your soul in your writing. You let all of your emotions hang out. Your words moved me. I’m still in high school but I have a story to tell. I spent seven years in foster care.”
“Wow. That must have been really tough. I worked with a bunch of foster kids when I practiced law for HRS. They faced so many challenges. Some of their life’s really sucked.”
“Well, I eventually lucked out. A loving Jewish couple adopted me and I adopted their faith. That why I’m here tonight. But for the last few years, I wanted to write about my foster care experience and my adoption.”
“Chaim I promise you the writing will be therapeutic. There will be pain and their will be tears but the catharsis will make the experience one of the most important acts in your life.”
“Tonight I decided to do it. I’m going to write my life story. Thanks to your lecture I have decided to become a writer.”
Smiling, I looked into his eyes and said ,”Go for it.”
On that Friday night at 10:00 at the Downtown Fort Lauderdale Jewish Center. I was not a bit surprised that in this orthodox synagogue, a Chabad house of worship, I witnessed two small miracles.
What the readers are saying:
Very nice story, Mort.
I really liked this one. Do you want me to forward it to my editor and see if he wants to publish it as an Op-Ed?
Hope all is well.
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