Child of the Light
"Are you Jewish?" a young woman asks as mom and I step into the summer heat outside Kroger's market.
"Yeah. I am," I reply, an unfamiliar pride landing in my chest.
The woman smiles, and holds up a cellophane bag. "Would you like some Shabbat candles?"
"Sure," I say, taking the bag. I notice her ankle-length denim skirt and a long-sleeved shirt. "Thanks."
"Candle lighting is at 8:17 tonight," she says, as if announcing the arrival of an eclipse.
"Let's go, Jess," Mom says, pushing her shopping cart into the crosswalk.
When we get to our van, Mom asks, "Why did you tell her you were Jewish?"
"First of all, it's none of her business. Second of all, you're only half."
I shrug. "Half is better than nothing."
I toss the candle bag on the front seat, and then help Mom load the groceries into the trunk. "How come we never light Sabbath candles?"
"We're not religious."
On the ride home, I open the candle bag and read the brochure aloud. "Light up the world! Bring peace and harmony into your home. Connect with generations of Jewish women." I glance at Mom. "Sounds pretty cool."
"My grandmother used to do that," she says.
I study the two candle holders. "I think I'll light one for Sophie."
My sister's name hangs in the air.
My mother says nothing.
During the day, I keep thinking that the young woman outside the supermarket might be a sign. She had a kind of holy aura, but I didn't say this to Mom. I wondered why the woman wanted me to light the Sabbath candles. Mom said she probably wanted money, or for us to join her temple. I can't remember the last time someone asked me if I was Jewish, but it felt good to be reminded of this. Mom is Jewish, but to her it's more like a fact, like checking the "Caucasian" box. My Dad was brought up Quaker. He took me to a Friends meeting once. I almost died of boredom trying to sit quietly for forty-five minutes. That's just not my style. I love to talk, and debate and ask questions.
Later in the evening, I dash home after softball practice. There are just ten minutes left until candle-lighting. The brochure says you can light the candles up to an hour and a half before sundown, but definitely not afterwards. I don't know why, but I figure I might as well do it right my first time. I find a box of matches from Zorro's Eatery. I set the candles sticks on our dining room table. I think about calling Mom to join me, but I hear her and Dad watching TV in the family room, and I change my mind.
The brochure says it's customary to put some coins in a charity box before lighting the candles. I don't think we have one in our house, so I skip this step. I light my candle, then Sophie's. I circle my hands three times around the flames. Then I read the Hebrew pronunciation in English. "Baruch atah adonay elohainu..." I know I've heard these magic words somewhere before. "Asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav, vitzivanu l'hadlick ner shel shabbos." I cover my eyes, like the girl on the front of the brochure. I let myself feel the peace coming in. Then, in my mind, I see Sophie blowing out her birthday candles.
In the middle of the night, I awake choking. I can't get the air into me. I spring up in my bed, force my eyes open, until my throat relaxes again. Nightmare number 17. I wait for my beating heart to calm down, and then I stand up into the patch of yellow cast from my seashell night light. I feel a gentle force guiding me outside my room, down the hall, to Sophie's room. I place my hand on the cold doorknob and wait. I listen, making sure my parents are not awake. Then slowly, I open the door.
The warm air inside her bedroom surprises me. The window air-conditioner is silent. Of course. I sit down on Sophie's canopy bed. My eyes adjust to the darkness. I see the outline of her giant panda bear and her Victorian doll house. She had always wanted me to play doll house with her, but that pretending stuff had already grown out of me. Sophie could be such a girly-girl at times, but then, put a bat and ball in her hand and watch out. She loved to be outdoors more than anything. And she was fearless. I suppose that's one of the reasons she is not sleeping in her bed right now.
"Sophie," I whisper into the darkness. "Are you there? Did you see the candle I lit for you tonight? I miss you."
I make myself wait in the silence until I am sleepy again. I do not cry.
Kroger's supermarket is one of the few places Mom goes to these days. This is at least better than staying in bed all day. I ask her to buy me a box of candles next time she's at the store. "The white Sabbath ones, like that woman gave us."
My mother looks at me funny. "So you're planning to light them every week?"
"I'll give it a try. Whatever."
The candle-lighting brochure says that the Shabbat candles, and the women who light them, possess awesome power. Our silent prayers have spiritual energy that can affect the world. I like this idea, and when I light the candles again at 8:11 on Friday night, I imagine my words floating into another dimension, illuminating the souls of Jewish women and girls who can no longer see the light.
My dad asks about the candles while we eat breakfast Saturday morning. He listens as I explain the little I know about welcoming the Jewish Sabbath and bringing peace into the world. He tells me that Quakers believe we are all children of the Light. The Light is implanted within us from God and it is up to us to seek it out.
"Seeking peace is the cornerstone of the faith," he says softly.
I have already absorbed this from childhood and from hearing my father's reaction to the war.
"I'd like to know more about being Jewish," I tell my father.
"All religions have spiritual truths."
I smile at him. "Do you think there are any Jewish Quakers?"
"Who knows? Maybe you'll be the first."
I take another blueberry muffin. "Sophie loved these."
"Yes. She did. Remember her blueberry tooth?"
I laugh thinking about her dangling front tooth that hung on for dear life, turning pink, then blue, until it finally fell out.
Our smiles fade and we sip our tea. Once again, silence wraps around us. My father has always said that we can find God in the silence. I don't know if Jews believe this too, but I can only take so much of silence, before I have to fill the empty space with words, or sometimes, tears. My mother's silence is a different kind. She won't let me inside it. I do not believe she is seeking God. I think she is drowning in an ocean of darkness.
Sophie's funeral was on the most gorgeous May morning. The sky was an electric blue and the flower arrangements around her gravesite—roses, lilies, lilacs, tulips, and daffodils—were glowing. The warm air smelled of grass and earth and flowers. It seemed impossible that this heavenly day could have anything to do with death.
I had last seen my sister five days before, on Saturday morning. Sophie wore her butter-yellow hair in a pony tail, and a shirt with an ant on the front holding up five other ants. The caption said, Small but powerful. Sophie had spring fever and couldn't wait to hop on her scooter and ride with our neighbor, Jason Roy, who was waiting for her outside.
"Stay on our street," Mom reminded Sophie as she bounded out the front door.
"Later gator," Sophie sang.
Only fifteen minutes could have passed. Jason came running into our house, breathless, his eyes full of panic. "Sophie's stuck!"
As my mother and I raced after Jason, we were still in the Before Zone. That's the place where you will always wish you could rewind to and edit the ending. By the time my mother and I clawed at the mountain of dirt that had swallowed my sister, we had entered the After Zone.
I have managed to light the Shabbat candles for six weeks in a row, one for every year of Sophie's life. After school, I head to the public library, which is one way of avoiding my mother's silence. I've started reading books on Judaism. I have learned that doing is more important than believing. I like that idea, because I like to be doing things, and there certainly are lots of Jewish things to do. These things are called mitzvahs. Then there is the Torah. Turn it over and over again, for everything is contained in it. That's pretty awesome. But how do I begin to "turn it over"? Apparently, I'm too old for Hebrew school.
Mom doesn't get up in the morning with me anymore. So I sit across from my sister's empty seat and eat junky cereal. Before I leave for school, I visit Sophie's room. I feel much better in there with the sunlight surrounding me. I wonder if Mom comes in here during the day. I run my finger across Sophie's nightstand. Not a speck of dust.
A second sign comes to me in the mail. It's a Hebrew/English calendar from the Jewish Federation. The box for each Friday is pink with a Shabbat candle icon. The candle lighting times are listed, too. I discover that Rosh Hashanah is only ten days away. The Jewish New Year. I feel determined that we must do something special, other than eating dinner at Uncle Ray's house. Apples and honey. Isn't that the preschool version? There's got to be more to it.
I bring up the subject while following Mom around the house as she dusts the furniture.
"Do you mean services?" she says, incredulously. "I don't think so."
"But we've never gone to temple, except for Danny's bar mitzvah, like five hundred years ago."
My mother dusts the top of the piano which Sophie had just begun to play. "Jess, I'm sorry. I have no need for a temple or any religious service of any kind." She looks at me, perhaps registering my disappointment, and sighs. There are strands of grey in her dark hair that I have not noticed before.
"What is it? Are you mad at the universe or something?" I say, regretting my words already.
"Nice way of putting it, kiddo. Let me tell you a little story. When I was about nine, Grandma sent me to Hebrew school. I hated it. I don't remember learning much, except one thing. On Rosh Hashanah God takes out three big books. One where he writes the names of those who will live the next year, one for all those who will die, and one for those names not yet decided. It terrified me. What a thing to tell a child! That's what I remember of my religious education."
I have no idea what to say to my mother. Aren't these the kind of questions you ask a rabbi?
"Mom. That was a long time ago. Maybe...you had a bad teacher, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't celebrate Rosh Hashanah..."
She waves her hand and continues dusting the family pictures. "I don't think we are ready to celebrate anything!"
"Sorry. I didn't mean it that way."
She runs the dust cloth over the lamp shade. "Fine. You want to go to services? Daddy can take you. But good luck finding a place that will let you in if you're not a member. You have to pay to pray on the High Holidays."
I am determined to prove my mother wrong. (Isn't that the job of a fifteen-year-old daughter?) I call the synagogues listed in the phone book. Yes, sorry, you need to be a member. Yes, we have a few student seats left for one hundred and twenty-five dollars. No one seems to be giving away complimentary seats. I almost want to say, "I'm the girl who lost her little sister last spring in that freak accident. Couldn't you make an exception?"
But of course, I don't.
Then, the secretary at Congregation Rodef Shalom kindly invites me to their open family service on Rosh Hashanah afternoon. I learn that the name of the synagogue means, "Peace Seeker", and I know this is another good sign. I ask Mom once more to go with me. She is lying in bed again, books and newspapers spread all over the place. Her hair needs washing.
"You need to get out more," I offer. "Try something new."
"I'm not having a good week, Jess."
"All the more reason—"
We stare at each other.
"Jess. I'm sorry. I cannot go with you. The only thing I can do is figure out how to move through the minutes of each day." Her silent tears fall, making me feel all the worse. "Can...you...understand?"
The sanctuary of Rodef Shalom is filled with parents and kids. Dad and I sit together in the back. The rabbi is much younger than I imagined. He stands in the middle of the carpeted platform and welcomes everyone. He lets the kids shout Happy New Year in Hebrew. I wonder if he is going to tell them about God's three books. Instead, the rabbi tells us a story about a peasant boy who knew no prayers but yearned to be part of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur service. So he went to synagogue and offered what he knew, his own little songs about God's goodness. The worshippers were shocked when the boy shouted out his made-up songs. They called him a fool. Yet, this peasant boy's prayers were accepted before the others whose minds were wandering during the holiday service. It was the peasant boy's simple songs, so full of conviction, that opened the gates of Heaven.
The cantor leads everyone in singing beautiful Hebrew prayers. We stand up, then sit down, and stand up again. We read psalms in English. We ask for forgiveness. We ask for life.
It is time for the rabbi to blow the shofar. He brings out a long, curvy ram's horn and tells us how the call of the shofar is an ancient call. It calls us to do good deeds, to move us forward into a new and better year. Dad reaches for my hand.
The rabbi recites the blessing and holds the shofar to his mouth. Everyone stands. The room is silent. I can feel the anticipation. The sound that fills the sanctuary is one I have not heard before. The wail of the shofar pierces every cell in my body, and I know without a doubt, it cries for all of us.