Work in Progress: Revelation at Sinai

Revelation at Sinai is the real-life story of a personal spiritual journey to reclaim my sacred place within the larger journey of the Jewish people.
A blend of memoir, history, and tradition, unique in content and perspective, and universal in appeal, Revelation at Sinai is composed of three major parts: Beginnings, Journeys, and Revelation, the individual odyssey of standing at Sinai and the ongoing nature of Revelation as it molded a nation. The following scene is from Beginnings, a narrative of a trip to Boston by myself from the Midwest to see my mother's family and to meet many of them for the first time, including a cousin I had never known. On that visit I was suddenly confronted with a Jewish life I had never experienced.

That summer was my first encounter with all things Jewish. Strolling with my cousin and her friend, the buxom Serena, who wore a tight sweater pulled over her full breasts every day, even when the temperature soared into the nineties and above, we wandered down Blue Hill Avenue, past the kosher butcher shops with their haggling housewives, stopping at the drugstore for sodas, the faces around me unlike the bland Midwestern faces I was used to seeing at home. The Jewish stores displayed strange objects in their windows that I found out were prayer shawls, with large bands of blue or black, candlesticks of all shapes and sizes, prayer books with ancient writing I could not decipher and might have been the remnant of some remote civilization I had just discovered. And not only the faces, but also the voices, the gestures, the very intonation of their words, the way they carried themselves, their very bodies, thick and ungainly, seemed to come from another time and place I had never known, as though the exile had just happened, the Temple had been destroyed only last week, and everything was lost. The galut itself, the burden of being a Jew, had worn them down, even the words they used and their sighs spoke of an unhappiness that was never-ending. Happiness was a strange, American concept. It was not a word they knew or understood. Life was hard, an obstacle to be overcome until they drew their last breath. My mother's family always seemed to be fighting their way out of despair, lack of money still yapping at their heels, peering enviously through the looking glass of the America they saw in the movies. Their preoccupation with survival was paramount. The words of the U'Netaneh Tokef, the prayer composed in the Middle Ages by a simple hazzan, recited on the Day of Atonement, enumerating the infinite ways that death could occur without repentance and prayer, never seemed to be far from their thoughts. "Who shall live and who shall die, who in the fullness of years and who before; who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by a wild beast..."

A misstep could cost them their lives. A cold was never just a cold, it could mean the end. No one went to a doctor, and the hospital was certain death. Except for childbirth, no one they knew returned alive. I did not understand them, their accents, their way of life, the things that were important to them. The people I saw on the street looked like visitors from another planet: old men with gray beards and pale faces and black hats and coats in the summer heat. A world that I had never known before and one that felt strange and uncomfortable. All that long, hot summer we walked casually from place to place, from the home of one friend to another, reveling in our growth to womanhood, waiting to cross over the threshold, listening to the women speaking in hushed tones about matters we weren't supposed to know about. Evenings, when the apartments were suffocating with the heat and odors of the day, we would sit on the stoops and talk half the night away, flirting with Eddie who lived next door, with his head of thick, dark curls and eyes that flashed with unspoken thoughts. On the Sabbath, even the air was still and peaceful, the motion of the busy streets during the week, came to an abrupt halt. Years later, when I knew the Sabbath better, when I had prepared for it myself, and lived it, the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel would come back to me, "The Sabbath is the time when the profound impact of man's ceaseless striving is quieted for a time. . ."