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My Most Meaningful Shema

Mishpacha Contributors

The first tefillah a Jew learns… the last he recites. Six words that encompass a lifetime

Monday, September 18, 2017

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he Lost Girls

Rifka Junger

It was a sweltering July day when I stood at the Kosel Plaza awaiting my turn to touch the holy stones. Out of the corner of my eye I observed one of the “Kosel ladies” rise from her chair and approach a group of eight girls standing in front of me.

“Welcome, beautiful girls.” Her smile spread wide over her old, wrinkled face. “Where are you from?”

“We’re from a kibbutz, on a school trip,” one girl replied, tugging on the skirt that covered her jeans. “This is our first time here and we don’t really know what to do.”

“This is a place to pray, ask G-d for anything you wish for,” the lady explained. “Do you know how to pray?”

In unison, they shook their heads from side to side.

“How about saying the Shema together?” the woman gently prodded.

“What is that? What’s Shema?” one of the girls asked.

“Shema Yisrael — the most important prayer a Jew says. Do you not know it?” The woman tried to hide her shock with a smile, but her voice cracked and gave her away. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 560)

Hear Me Now

Peshie Needleman

My toddler had been feeling awful for three days when panic set in.

It was Shabbos, right after Yom Kippur, and his illness didn’t seem to be getting better; he was growing progressively more and more lethargic. He was no longer drinking or interested in his surroundings when we frantically strapped him into his stroller and wheeled him to the home of a doctor friend of ours. Concerned with Pinny’s status, the doctor called Hatzolah to take us to the hospital.

I could only seem to remember one kapitel of Tehillim: Mizmor L’Dovid. I said it again and again. But I felt I needed to do more. I needed to show Him that I knew He was calling the shots here. I switched to Shema. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 560)

Only One

Millie Samson

England, 1985

It’s the cold that hits them, even in this first term at school, when summer hasn’t quite departed. That and the babble of voices they only half understand, the words thrown at them, the commands of teachers that drive them through the day. Even the uniform reflects the weather — gray jumpers, gray shorts, a gray woolen cap to be worn when walking to school and assemblies in the chapel, so different from the comfort of a yarmulke perched precariously on their heads.

The building is old: high imposing ceilings and leaded windows propped open letting in damp air. It’s the only school in their rural catchment area, the one they must attend. Their classrooms are dreary walls dotted here and there with long-forgotten art, rows of wooden desks all facing the blackboard. Their world has become a sepia photo where the sun is a mere memory.

For two Israeli boys, the oldest (Shmuel, now “Sammy”) just ten, the younger (Natanel, now “Nathan”) barely seven, it’s as if they have been dropped into an alien universe where a Jew is a legend from the Bible, and a huge silver cross dominates the wall of the dining room where, every morning, they gather to say their prayers. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 560)


Our Eternal Cry

Shoshana Itzkowitz

When they say that youth is wasted on the young, they — whoever “they” are — are referring to me. How I wish I could go back and relive some of my experiences now, as an adult, and fully appreciate them in a way I never could 25 years ago.

Yet life doesn’t work that way, and once gone, it’s gone forever. The one comfort is that I can pull up an experience in my mind, and, although I cannot go back to that time and place, I can try to tap into the inspiration I might have neglected to absorb back then, and gain from it today. The memory is there; the event transpired….

On April 26, 1990, just one month before my 15th birthday, I tagged along to the Ninth Siyum HaShas in Madison Square Garden. I recall the swarms of people, the gawking passersby, the long ride home on the Long Island Railroad. But all these recollections are covered in a hazy film — pushed-aside memories of some long-ago event, seen in broad brush strokes with no detail.

The only memory of that night that I can relive in full Technicolor is the entire crowd davening Maariv. I have no idea how many people were there that night, but for 20 seconds there were thousands (millions? tens of billions?) of Jews, every type of Jew imaginable, crying out the words “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad!” together. Shlomo, Yoily, Jared, Moishe, Sion, Berel, Eitan… (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 560)


Elana Rothberg

We are safe.

Storms of missiles are raining down in Sderot and Ashkelon, but here in Yerushalayim, we are safe. For that small concession, I am grateful, and a second later, I feel guilty, for there are Jews who must constantly flee for their lives. At all times of day, through the endless nights, residents in the south have mere seconds to descend to the miklat, the bomb shelter meant to protect them from oncoming attacks.

It is summer of 2014, and the country is at war. My brother-in-law Benny, a tank commander, has been deployed to Gaza. To that end, the fighting is constantly on my mind. Despite the physical distance, the echoes of war haunt me; it is a macabre dance flitting through my thoughts. Daily interactions are weighed down by wisps of the latest tragedy.

At night, with the newborn already asleep, I tuck my toddler into bed, tell him a story, sing him a song. Together, we recite the ancient words of Shema. The comfort of our nighttime ritual lulls him to sleep, a deep slumber that will not be disturbed by the sounds of sirens, by worries or fears. He is too young to understand why Uncle Benny has not visited, cannot comprehend the dread we are feeling.

But we are safe, my children can sleep easy, and for that, I am grateful.

And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, I hear sirens, loud oscillating sounds that pierce the night like a knife. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 560)

Final Ascent

Yael Zoldan

His bruised hands were still, but mine trembled. The only sound in that room was the harsh drag and rattle of his breath. As my hands fumbled against the pages of my siddur, I wondered how long we had.

My husband and I were here to do our final chesed for our neighbor, George. Raised in America during the Depression, he hadn’t had much of a Jewish education. Now aged 99, it had probably been 50 years since he last uttered Shema.

Still, George had lived a life of simple goodness. At 90, he visited the “elderly” in nursing homes to cheer them up. At 95, he joined our family for Kol Nidrei. Cloaked in his bar mitzvah tallis he sat, understanding not a word — just wanting to be with other Jews on our holiest day. He did business ethically, he never gossiped, he judged everyone kindly — “You never know what the other guy is going through.”

He was a truly righteous individual who radiated gratitude, waking with the words, “Another beautiful day.” He offered friendship to everyone he met and was imbued with a desire to do good, to be good.

We, his neighbors, had benefited from his easy generosity as he offered us old memorabilia, books, and, sheepishly, even a dusty pair of tefillin. “I don’t use these much. Maybe you guys could.”

And now, finally, we could pay him back. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 560)

The Blessing of Another Regular Shema

Adina Lover

I was sitting on the hotel bed saying Shema with my daughter. Which was an anomaly in itself.

At nine years old, Shira likes to say Shema herself after reading (more than) one chapter from her book. Then, she deigns to allow me to kiss her goodnight — and only if there’s not a hint of wetness in it. Basically a dry peck.

And the hotel. When do we ever go to hotels?

“Mommy, Chaim was so good in the car tonight. He didn’t scream or cry at all. I was so impressed with him. Weren’t you? I thought you would compliment him,” Shira said.

Four-year-old Chaim had been quiet the whole night. Not because he was working on his middos. It was his reaction to our car accident, which terminated with the nose of our car making impact with a mountain at the side of the highway. I explained that to Shira, who had screamed and screamed and screamed.

Shira nodded, understanding. “Mommy,” she said, “you know how you react to trauma? You scream, ‘Hashem! Hashem!’ ” She’s right, but what she didn’t realize is that this time, I had upgraded to Shema. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 560)

Walled Moments

Faigy Schonfeld

For days, we’d traveled around desolate Polish towns, inhaling the charred dust of a once-vibrant Jewish life. And now, we found ourselves in — of all places — a children’s playground.

It was a beautiful day, the sun hot and glorious in a baby-blue sky. For a few moments, we forgot the ghetto we’d just walked through, the memorials, the old, silent buildings full of secrets. We frolicked on the grass, floating from swings to seesaws to monkey bars, almost crazed with the sudden lightheartedness of colorful slides and little babies in sunbonnets.

Our tour guide gave us a few minutes to romp and laugh. Then we settled down on the swings, in camp-style circles on the ground, and he directed our attention to the chipped cement barrier running along one side of the playground.

The ghetto wall.

I stared. He turned on the little CD player he always carried with him.

He raised his hand to wave goodbye

Saw the pain in Mother’s eyes

Who left her little precious boy of four (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 560)


Faigy Peritzman

It was an emergency delivery.

One minute I was sitting bored and exhausted at my monthly checkup, the next my doctor announced, “I’m sending you the hospital now.”

Now? I’m late for my nap!

Within minutes I was in the back of an ambulance, sirens screaming, my prayers rising and falling with its cry.

A rush of lights, a blur of movement, my doctor’s face. “Emergency C-section. You’re delivering early.”

“It’s a boy!” A flash of a red, round face, then the nurse whisked him away. “You’ll see him soon in the NICU.”

Soon took a long time in coming.

The rest of that day, as I was monitored in recovery, I kept begging to see my baby.

By the time I was settled in the ward, it was nighttime. “You’ll see your baby in the morning,” another nurse assured me.

The next day, Friday, ticked by with me watching the clock, every minute another notch in the moments I’d been separated from my baby.

The sun set and Shabbos arrived, and with it the night shift. Feeling helpless, I reached out to yet another nurse.

“Please. It’s been 36 hours and I haven’t seen my baby. Can someone wheel me to the NICU?” (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 560)

A Thundering Storm

Ahava Ehrenpreis

Brooklyn, New York has many, many yeshivos, shuls, and shtiblach, of every stripe and color.

There are dozens of places that provide deeply moving tefillos. And yet, each year I return to my seat at the corner of the windowed U-shaped balcony of Mesivta Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin.

One year, my son Akiva a”h came home with the proud announcement that he had arranged a gift for me — a place next to the mechitzah with its amazing view. Needless to say, I treasure this seat, for that reason alone, even with the passage of time. As I walk up the many steps, I transition from menus, shopping, and cooking, ascending in both the physical and metaphysical sense. Surrounded by familiar faces, part of the unity that encircles all present, I’m enveloped in the sea of almost 2,000 voices.

The familiar voice of the baal tefillah resonates to the heights of the ezras nashim, the tunes unique to this time and place. So much to communicate, thoughts of the past, the urgency of the present, the fervent tefillos for the future. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 560)

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