I grew up during an idyllic time on the North Shore of Long Island in a town that many people believed was nothing but potato farms. My Great Neck husband can’t fathom a place where a kid could be the only Jew in class. That was just the way it was for those of us pioneers who settled in Smithtown. There was another Jewish family on our block and two more in the adjoining street, but we were primarily a melting pot of Irish and Italian Catholics.
We were cultural Jews during that time. My family made the most of Sunday mornings with trips to the deli for smoked whitefish, complete with the eyes, bagels, lox, and large Bermuda onions. My father ate them as if they were apples. My father bought me comic books like Archie and Little LuLu, which I never realized was just a way for him to buy Superman, Marvel Comics, and Tales from the Crypt.
My father, olav ha-sholom, (of blessed memory) had a belly, worked unG-dly hours to support his young family, and was a five-pack-a-day smoker. When I was about eight years old, he had a great idea to save some money by painting our house on his own. My dad was not someone who fixed things. He was a champion bowler and had played baseball while he grew up in Vermont, but manual labor was not his thing. But when you live in Suburbia down the street from a brick mason, you take chances that a Jewish neighbor might have called meshuga.
At first, it was funny to watch him struggle with the painting. Although I don’t know if I witnessed this firsthand, I remember my mother laughing at how he spilled paint into his shirt pocket. But the weather was hot, the ladder was high, and his bad habits betrayed him. At the young age of thirty-four, my father suffered a massive heart attack that could have killed him. But it didn’t.
As was said by the Baal Shem Tov: Everything is by Divine Providence. If a leaf is turned over by a breeze, it is only because this has been specifically ordained by Gd to serve a particular function within the purpose of creation. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3073/jewish/36-Aphorisms-of-the-Baal-Shem-Tov.htm
Everything changed when my father had his heart attack. Our housewife mother went to work, and there was an uncertainty in the house we had never felt before. It’s not that our parents weren’t volatile people. They were. My mother was a Hungarian hot-tempered Brooklyn woman, and my father was a Vermont New Englander. But this disrupted our routine. When my father was recuperating, the local Rabbi sent some kids over to mow our lawn. He met with my father to encourage him to come to join the community. His response was gratitude tempered with “but I haven’t been a good Jew.”
We had fallen into the cultural role of our Sundays, and I had never been inside of a Shul. “But you are a Jew,” the Rabbi insisted. You are most welcome. That is when Divine Providence stepped in. My older brother and sister were enrolled in Hebrew School, and as my father was getting well and slowly returning to his life, I got to spend the Sabbath with him. We sat together in our Reconstructionist Synagogue and sang all the liturgy loudly. I learned the melodies that still ring in my soul.
One of my most vivid memories was watching an elderly man put on his Tallit at every Shabbat. He sat in the far corner of the front row and neatly folded his prayer shawl and tucked it into a velvet zipped case at the end of the service. The time I spent with my father created the foundation for my love of Judaism.
That Rosh Hashana, my brother, and I attended our first children’s service in a separate building from where our parents prayed. The service was child-friendly even though it seemed interminable. The leaders broke up the day with cookies and grape juice. The first time I heard the blowing of the Shofar, I knew that I belonged to something sacred. We had a shared history connecting us to generations as if we, too, had left Egypt during the Exodus. My father thankfully recovered but was plagued with heart disease for his entire life until he passed away in 1999. But for at least that time, his illness was the turning leaf that opened my heart to my heritage.