by Sharlya Gold (Sarasota, FL)
Sometimes a kid, not necessarily the best looking or the smartest, stays in your mind long after you leave school. For me, that kid was nose-in-the-book, Bible-reading Ernestine Rogers. She didn’t call attention to herself, but if there was a riff in all the horsing around before our 8th grade math class started, you could hear the soft turn of a page. Or even while the teacher was explaining a problem.
The first time that happened, Mrs. Adams didn’t appear to notice. She was at the chalkboard, her back to the class, until somebody tattled. “Mrs. Adams, Ernestine’s not paying attention!”
The teacher turned around, holding the chalk like a baton, and I felt sorry for Ernestine. She’d only been in class for a week; still, she should have known better.
But instead of scolding her, the teacher fixed the rest of us with an angry glare. “People, my job is teaching, and yours is learning. Do you have to write it 100 times to make it stick in your brains?”
“No, ma’am,” we mumbled, and after that we just pretty much ignored Ernestine. When she read her Bible, we just kept quiet, and most of us pretended not to notice.
I noticed, though, because Ernestine was a wonder to me. Imagine! A mousy little thing like that, standing up to the teacher. It began to bug me, wondering how she did it, so one noontime I passed up having lunch with my friends and went to the table near the back wall where Ernestine always sat
I slid onto the bench across from her. “Hi, Ernestine.”
She’d been reading, and now she looked up, keeping her place with a finger. She smiled, a surprised, happy smile. “Do you want to eat with me?”
“Uh…I guess so.”
I didn’t expect to feel so uncomfortable.
“It’s… nice back here,” I managed to say.
“It’s lonely, though.” She smiled again. “But not today.”
She wasn’t making it any easier, acting like we were good friends.
Finally, I just said it. “Ernestine, I’ve been wondering why you always read the Bible, plus how you get away with it.”
“It’s just something I do,” she said. “When you trust in the Lord, you try to follow what He says which means learning the Holy Scriptures.” She paused. “Let me ask you a question. How well do you know the Lord?”
“About as well as I know math. Why?”
Instead of answering, she reached inside her lunch bag and brought out two neatly wrapped squares. “Homemade fudge,” she said, pushing one toward me. “It’s pretty good.”
Pretty good? It was great! Full of walnuts and not too sweet. I’d never tasted fudge like that–and I’d never met anyone like Ernestine.
While I ate the fudge, she read the Bible to me, all about the eternal damnation lying in wait for people who don’t seek salvation through Jesus Christ. “I’m going to help you get saved,” she said, and later, much later, I realized that Ernestine’s ministry had begun with me.
We had lunch together the next day, too, along with a little conversation, more fudge, and Bible reading. My two best friends got mad. They said I could eat with that girl my whole life and wouldn’t let me walk with them to our next class which Ernestine wasn’t even in!
I hadn’t told them about the fudge, but it really was the high point of having lunch with Ernestine. It certainly made listening to the Bible easier. Although I’d gone to Sunday School, those Biblical stories were totally new to me, and before long they started interfering with my sleep. Whenever I closed my eyes, I’d see those poor tormented people. I had to stay awake to keep them out of my dreams.
But Ernestine didn’t always read the Bible. Sometimes, she’d just talk. She’d tell me about regular people who’d played into Satan’s hands. Like the doctor who was too busy saving lives to get himself saved. And the pilot who intended to get saved, but died in a plane crash before he got around to it. And the kind, generous couple who believed that good deeds alone would get them into Heaven. “They’re all in agony this very minute,” Ernestine would assure me. “I just pray that their lives are a warning to others.” I didn’t have to ask what others. She meant me.
After one especially tragic story, I raced home, threw myself into my mother’s arms, and burst into tears. The story of what I’d been going through for almost two weeks tumbled out as did my overwhelming fear: our family was going to Hell. “We have to get saved!” I cried, half-choking in my hurry to spur my mother into action, “We have to do it right away before we die. You and Daddy are already old!”
My mother stroked my hair and held me close until I stopped crying. “Now, listen to me. There are many different beliefs about God and many different ways to interpret the Bible. We Jews believe in God, but not in the existence of Hell or Satan.”
“Are you sure we’re not going to burn forever and ever?” I asked.
“I’m sure, but if you talk to the rabbi, you’ll understand more. He’s better at explaining than I am. Want me to call him?”
I already felt better. I trusted my mother. She didn’t lie to me. She never said that medicine wasn’t bitter when it was or that a shot wasn’t going to hurt when she knew it would.
“That’s okay, Mama,” I said. “I was just so scared.”
She tilted my wet face so she could look into my eyes. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes. One thing.” I took a deep breath. “Ernestine says we have to pray to Jesus.”
My mother thought about this awhile before she said, “Jews pray to God. Not to Jesus. Jews believe that Jesus was a wise teacher and a good, kind man. But a man. Like Abraham.”
I started to cry all over again. “But what’ll I do about Ernestine?”
“I don’t know that you have to do anything but be respectful of her beliefs. You can do that without accepting them for yourself, can’t you?”
I said yes, kissed my mother, and went to wash my face. But I couldn’t wash away what was really bothering me. It was the fudge.
My conscience pointed out that I couldn’t go on accepting Ernestine’s fudge since I had no intention of accepting her salvation.
But I’d be earning the fudge by listening, I argued.
My conscience wouldn’t give up. Is it a fair trade, knowing what you know? it asked
I preferred not to answer, and in the end my conscience was no match for the fudge. Ernestine and I had went on having lunch together. I never told her what my mother said and made sure I was respectful as always. Still, something had changed, a subtle shift in our positions. I think she sensed that I was no longer frightened by her stories or in awe of her. The day she stopped bringing fudge, I knew it was over. I made up with my friends, and Ernestine went back to reading the Bible to herself.
She moved away after that year, and I lost track of her, but, recently, a friend from junior high told me he’d heard that Ernestine had become a preacher. She even had a church of her own.
I hadn’t thought of Ernestine for years, but I didn’t have to dig deep for the memory of how I’d dropped her like a lead weight when the fudge ran out. Guilt has never lain much below the surface in my psyche.
But hearing about her success sent a burst of relief through me, much like the time my mother allayed my fears of Hell. All those years, I’d carried the secret fear that I’d ruined Ernestine’s life. How silly it seemed now. How egotistical to imagine that she’d given up because her fudge ministry with me had failed. Good for you, Ernestine! I felt like shouting. Good for you!
And good for my mother, too, I thought. She could have discouraged our friendship, viewing it as a threat to my spiritual development. Instead, she took the occasion to teach me respect for others and their beliefs. That lesson stuck, even though my passion for chocolate fudge faded. My heart and mind—and waistline—have never been sorry.
Sharlya Gold, the author of The Potter’s Four Sons: A Fable and The Answered Prayer and Other Yemenite Folktales, writes books for children, and articles and memoirs for adults. She teaches ”Writing your Life, Without Starting at the Beginning” at Temple Emanu El in Sarasota, Florida, where she lives with her husband, Len (“who deserves a medal,” she says, “for Support, Endurance, and Patience”).
“I had always considered this personal experience distinctly Jewish,” Gold says about the experience that she shares in Ernestine’s Ministry of Fudge. “Two children, one with an early calling to proselytize, the other frightened into rejecting her own belief system. But as I learned after sharing this story, many non-Jews, too, had their own childhood conversion stories.”