Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)
“Shalom” I called through the open door.
The couple stopped and turned toward the door in one movement. I beckoned to them and invited them to come into my room.
It was my first day in a rehab center following orthopedic surgery.
The couple was clearly Chabad. I could be sure of that from the man’s worn but pressed and clean black jacket, shtreimel hat, and the ubiquitous payes – grey sidelocks cascading over his ears. The tzitzit were clearly visible below the hem of a starched white shirt.
His wife, a fading beauty, wore a long sleeved print dress and a brown curly sheytel (wig.) It was late afternoon on a Friday and I assumed they were making loving kindness visits to Jewish patients.
After a few moments of friendly conversation, the woman offered me a miniature challah from a bag which sagged with many more. Her husband told me proudly that she rose early Friday mornings and baked one hundred of them to distribute to patients in hospitals and nursing homes. He examined the lighting in the room and explained how I could use the switches to simulate Shabbat candle lighting and gave me the exact time. I don’t know if this was a Chabad pilpul decision or if our creative Talmud makes these allowances, notwithstanding the lack of electricity. We are clearly a people who make it possible to adapt ritual under any circumstances.
I was in the rehab center six weeks. They arrived punctually every Friday afternoon with the challah and the time to light Shabbat candles. I had asked on their first visit if they spoke Yiddish as it is always a source of great pleasure for me to converse in that artful and descriptive language, so he and I had very satisfactory conversations in Yiddish.
On my last Friday night in rehab I told them I would not be seeing them again as I was going home the next day. My husband was in the room and the Chabad gentleman asked him if he would put on tefillin (phylacteries) in thankfulness for my recovery. My husband replied, somewhat embarrassed, that he had never done that. The man answered, “Well, then, it will be a double mitzvah,” and my husband, much to my surprise, said “of course.”
The gentleman put a kippah on my husband’s head and wound the phylacteries around his fingers, his arm, all in the prescribed ritualistic process, and placed the box that contained bible verses on his forehead in the centuries old appropriate manner. My husband repeated the prayers and the tefillin were removed.
After the couple left with many good wishes, I turned to my husband and said, “I’m shocked that you, a lifelong skeptic, agreed to put on phylacteries.”
“How could I refuse,” my husband said in a soft voice. “They were so gentle and sincere.”
Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free lance writer for national publications.