Wednesday

October 22nd, 2014

Short Tales

Rebel at the Smithsonian

Libby Lazewnik

By Libby Lazewnik

Published August 25, 2014

Rebel at the Smithsonian

Washington, D.C. — the center of the free world. In the capital city are such seats of power as the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Tourists from all over the world were swarming through the sunlit streets on this summer morning. They waited patiently — and not so patiently — on line to tour famous buildings. They strolled along the tree-lined Mall and gasped at the soaring grandeur of the Washington Monument, piercing the sky. And the museums were thronged with sightseers, all gawking at the fascinating exhibits that the Smithsonian Institute offered.

The Museum of Natural History was especially crowded. Families exclaimed over the ancient rocks and bones on display; groups of chattering schoolchildren streamed from floor to floor under the harried but watchful eye of their teacher-guides; elderly couples and backpacking loners moved quietly among the rest. It was a hodge-podge of humanity, and Hillel was enjoying it all.

The only thing he did not enjoy was the snail's pace at which his family was crawling.

With six kids to look after — the two youngest in a double-stroller — his parents were taking the museum slowly. Hillel was grateful for this vacation with his family to the country's capital, but at this rate he'd get to see only a fraction of all the wonderful displays in this building.

"Mom, Dad, would it be okay if I went around by myself for a while?" he asked. "We could meet up later, any place you want."

His parents exchanged a glance. At thirteen, Hillel was unusually mature and responsible for his age. Mr. Weiss nodded. "Okay, Hillel. How about if we meet at the information desk in the lobby at" — he consulted his wristwatch — "exactly two o'clock? That'll give you an hour and a quarter on your own."

"I don't think the little ones will last much past then anyway," Mrs. Weiss murmured.

"We can spend the afternoon outdoors," her husband suggested. "Let the kids loose to run and play."

She smiled. "Sounds good to me." The smile faded into a look of concern as she turned to her oldest son. "Are you sure you'll be all right on your own, Hillel?"

"Mom. I'm a big kid now. A bar mitzvah, remember?"

She remembered. How could she not? The big celebration had taken place just two months earlier. "Well, have fun then. And —"

"I know," he grinned. "Be careful."

"Right."

With a wave, she turned the double-stroller around and started off toward the next exhibit. Some of Hillel's younger siblings set up a mild clamor, protesting that they wanted to go with him. While their mother made soothing noises at them, their father made a shooing motion to his oldest son. Hillel made his escape.

He wandered from exhibit to exhibit. Some thirty minutes later, he was surrounded by the crowd around a giant moose display. Hillel gazed up at the moose and listened to the sometimes interesting, occasionally funny comments people made about it. It was fun being on his own. A tiny bit scary too, all alone among so many strangers. It made a tingle run down his spine to realize that no one in this whole crowd had an inkling about who he was or what his life was about. He was the only one wearing the identifying marks of a religious Jew: tzitzis and a yarmulke. He felt like a fish who'd spent his whole life swimming in the same familiar pond and was now plunged into an alien sea.

Good thing it was only for an hour or so, he thought. Strangely, though he was enjoying his independence, a part of him felt drawn toward his family as though with a magnet. He wondered what they were doing right now, this minute...

Maybe it was his sense of being the odd one out that made him notice the other boy. He was around Hillel's own age and nearly the same height — and he was wearing a yarmulke, too! Hillel broke into a grin and inched closer to the kid.

It took some wriggling through the crowd to get near enough to really see the other boy. When he did, Hillel was surprised to see how the kid was dressed. Except for the yarmulke, he looked like any American kid on vacation. Faded jeans, an overlarge tee-shirt featuring the name of some popular music group and brand-name, high-top sneakers.

But it wasn't the boy's clothes that made Hillel freeze in place and his eyes open to their very widest. He took in the curly brown hair, and smattering of pale freckles across the nose, the big hazel eyes and the definite chin. Amazing!

"What're you looking at?" the other boy demanded suddenly.

Hillel started. He hadn't realized that the kid had noticed him. Slowly, his cheeks turned a dull red. "Sorry. I didn't know I was staring."

Now the other boy had taken a closer look at Hillel — and he was staring, too. Softly, he whistled. "Cool!"

"We do look alike, don't we?" Hillel asked, trying to regain his composure.

"Alike? We could be twins, if you ask me!"

"But we're not," Hillel said automatically — and foolishly, he thought a moment afterwards. The other boy just nodded. "The resemblance is uncanny, as they say in the detective books. It's almost like looking into the mirror!"

People were jostling them in an effort to get closer to the moose exhibit. Instinctively, both boys moved aside to a quieter spot. As the stream of sightseers eddied around them, they faced each other and stared some more.

"Amazing," Hillel said finally. "Where are you from?"

"Vancouver," the other boy answered. "In case you don't know, that's way over on the other side of Canada — above Washington State."

"You've come a long way."

"We sure have. I was sick when my class had our eighth-grade graduation trip this year — to Washington, D.C. My mom promised to take me this summer instead. And here we are!" He regarded Hillel curiously. "Where do you come from?"

"Oh, just Baltimore. Less than an hour's drive from here." Hillel hesitated. He knew he should just say good-bye and move on, but it was hard to turn his back on someone who bore such an — in the kid's words — uncanny resemblance to himself. It was almost like leaving one's own shadow behind! Instead, he asked, "What's your name?"

"Ben. And yours?"

"Hillel."

"Weird name."

Hillel flushed. "I don't think so. It's a pretty good name, in fact. A good Jewish name."

"I already knew you were Jewish. Because of that." Ben pointed at Hillel's yarmulke.

"You must be Jewish, too. You're also wearing one." There was puzzlement in Hillel's voice. Something about this kid didn't hang together.

"Oh, that." Ben reached up and touched his headgear. "That's my tattoo."

"Your what?"

"Or my earring, take your pick." Grinning at Hillel's bafflement, Ben explained. "My mom says I'm trying to rebel, and instead of getting myself tattooed or starting to wear an earring like some other kids at school, I decided to wear this instead."

Hillel's head was swimming. "But — how did you decide to wear a yarmulke? What happened?"

"Listen, my feet are killing. I've been walking around this museum all day. My mom's around here somewhere. We split up for a couple of hours cause she wanted to spend time looking at the jewelry upstairs and I preferred the bones and stuff. Can we sit down for a minute?"

Hillel didn't mind sitting down. Suddenly, all the exhibits he'd found so fascinating a few minutes before paled in comparison to the real-live exhibit talking to him right now. A kid who looked enough like him to give him the shivers — wearing a yarmulke instead of a tattoo! What next?

They found a bench in a relatively quiet nook beside a water fountain. As they sat down, Ben shook his head and marveled again, "Cool! We really look alike, you know that?"

"There must be some explanation," Hillel said. "Maybe some distant ancestor that we share. We ought to compare relatives." He stopped. "But first, I want to hear more about your yarmulke. You were going to tell me how you started wearing it."

For the first time, Ben's self-assured grin disappeared and he looked uncomfortable — even sad. "It started at my father's funeral."

"Oh! I'm sorry..." Hillel could have kicked himself.

"Thanks. Dad was killed suddenly in a traffic accident. He never knew what hit him... and we — my mom and me — never knew what hit us. I guess you could say we were in total shock. It's been six months now, and we're just starting to feel human again."

"I'm sorry," Hillel repeated. He didn't know what else to say.

"Well, we had a Jewish funeral because that's what my father would have wanted. The rabbi put this yarmulke on my head in the cemetery and told me to repeat the words of the Kaddish after him. Afterwards, I refused to take it off. The rabbi said I could keep it."

"How did your mother feel about that?"

"She blew a gasket. She tried in every way she knew to get me to take the thing off. She called me stubborn, silly, unreasonable — you name it. Then she said I was just trying to rebel. To make a statement. You see, she rebelled when she was young, and she says that I'm a rebel, too. Only, in the opposite direction."

"What did you friends at school have to say when you showed up wearing a yarmulke?"

"Most of them just said, 'Cool'! They think that anything different is great."

Hillel glanced up at the yarmulke again. A rebel... "So — you're interested in religion?"

Ben shrugged. "I don't know much about it. Between you and me, my mom's right. I am wearing this yarmulke to make a statement. I'm just not sure what the statement is..."

Hillel realized that Ben knew very, very little about what being Jewish was all about. Carefully, he said, "I could tell you what kind of statement I make when I wear my yarmulke."

Ben waited.

"It's a sign of respect, you see? Respect for G-d, who created the world."

Ben thought about this. "How do you know He wants you to show your respect that way?" he asked at last.

"Well, G-d gave us a Law, and in the Law he said that we have to listen to our rabbis — our spiritual leaders. It was the rabbis who decided that covering our heads is the proper sign of respect before G-d."

"What's this Law all about? Something like a Constitution?"

Hillel chuckled. "I think you've been in Washington too long... Our Law is written down in the Torah, which Hashem — G-d — gave us Jews a long time ago, at Mount Sinai."

Ben sat back in surprise. "You really believe all that stuff?"

"Believe it? I — I live it! It's my whole life. It's truth!"

This led to a discussion that soon had Ben's head spinning. "Whoa!" he begged at last. "Give me time to let it all sink in... Meanwhile, let's try to figure out how come we look so alike."

"Okay, let's figure it out."

"Either it's pure coincidence," Ben speculated, "or we really do share an ancestor. The question is: Ancient or recent?"

"Why don't we start with recent and work our way back?" Hillel suggested. "I don't believe much in coincidence. Not with G-d running the show."

"I don't know much about my mom's folks — I never met them, in fact. She had some sort of falling-out with them when she was young, I think, and never saw them again." Ben paused. "You know, since my father died I think my mom has been hankering to be close to her own family again. She's lonely, and life has knocked her around some. But I guess she's scared to get in touch with them after such a long time."

"Wow. I can't imagine what it's like not to talk to your own family for so many years."

"You've got to know my mom. She has a will of steel. Lately, though, I get the impression she's starting to wonder if, all this time, she's been wanting the wrong things. Re-thinking stuff, you know?"

"Has she said anything to you?"

"We talked a little last month, when I turned thirteen. I mentioned that one or two of my Jewish friends were having bar mitzvahs, and she asked me if I wanted one. I was surprised, 'cause I'd have thought she'd be dead set against it."

"Well, what did you say?"

"I told her I didn't have a clue what a bar mitzvah was even about."

Hillel felt a pang of sadness for the boy who'd never known his mother's family, and who had no clue about what it means to be a Jew. He also felt sad for the mother, who'd let her strong will lead her astray for so many years. What a terrible way to live...

The stream of tourists ebbed and flowed nearby, though in their quiet niche the boys weren't disturbed. Occasionally someone would stop for a drink of water and give them a curious look. Otherwise, they were left alone.

Ben started telling Hillel about his father's side of the family, and then it was Hillel's turn to tell about his own. Speaking about his family meant telling Ben that his father was a rebbe, or Jewish-studies teacher, that his mother illustrated picture books for Jewish children, that he and his brothers attended yeshivas (rabbinical seminaries) and his sisters, a Bais Yaakov girls' school. All this necessitated explanations for Ben, who had been raised in a strictly secular environment far away from anything having to do with Judaism. Except for the yarmulke perched incongruously on his head, he might have been any one of the thousands of tourists plodding through this museum, and this city.

But — there was the yarmulke. That was the difference.

Finally, Hillel told Ben about his own bar mitzvah. He tried to convey a little of what that turning-point had meant in his life. "It's like I've stepped into the adult world and can really serve G-d now," he said warmly. "I wish you could know how great it feels, Ben. It's like — like everything until now has been leading up to this moment. Everything I've learned, everything I've been trained for, all leading up to the great day when I finally put on my tefillin and took my place in the minyan."

"Minyan?"

Which called for yet another explanation.

As they talked, time flowed on. It wasn't until Ben happened to reach up to scratch his head that Hillel caught sight of the watch on his wrist. He gasped. "Three-oh-five! My parents will be frantic. I was supposed to meet them an hour ago!"

"I was supposed to meet my mom five minutes ago," Ben said. "I'd better run, or she'll start worrying."

"Where were you supposed to meet?" Hillel asked as the two leaped to their feet and started for the stairs.

"Down in the lobby."

"Me, too — at the information desk. C'mon, let's hurry!"

They ran breathlessly down the stairs, dodging people who were making their leisurely way up. Even before he reached the information desk, Hillel saw his family, clustered together in an anxious knot. His stomach clenched. His parents would be angry at him — and justly so. He'd kept the whole family waiting for a full hour. He'd been irresponsible and thoughtless.

Maybe if I introduce them to Ben, he thought hopefully, they'll understand why I couldn't tear myself away.

He was about to ask Ben if that was okay with him, when he saw a woman detach herself from the crowd by the front door and wave an arm. "Ben! Over here!" Rather than wait for her son to reach her, the woman began to wend her way through the milling crowd toward him.

They met just in front of the information desk.

"Hillel!" his mother cried, relief breaking out on her face. "I was starting to get really worried. Where have you been? You're over an hour late!"

"I'm sorry, Mom," Hillel said quickly. "I guess I lost track of the time. You see, I met this kid..." He turned to point at Ben, who had hooked up with his mother just behind him.

Hillel's mother glanced over his shoulder to where her son was pointing. She turned very pale and clutched at the handle of the stroller to steady herself.

"Sh-shoshana?" she croaked. She looked as though she was looking at a ghost.

The "ghost" — Ben's mother — turned equally white and gripped her son's arm very hard. "It's Rose now," she said in a near-whisper. "Miriam? Is it really you?"

"It's me." And then the two women were in each other's arms, hugging each other as if they couldn't bear to ever let go. Mr. Weiss, his younger children, Hillel and Ben gaped at them. A few people shot them curious looks as they passed. It is doubtful whether the women even noticed. They were in another world.

It was a long-ago world, when they'd been girls together, growing up in the same house, with the same parents, but with very different characters. Miriam had been the younger daughter, sweet and obedient and eager to follow in her parents' ways. Shoshana, the elder sister, had been the rebel. Always ready to argue, to debate, to find fault with things as they were. Finally, one day, her beloved grandmother — who'd lived with them during her final years — died her sleep. Shoshana had been eighteen then. Without a word to anyone, she'd taken her broken heart and rebellious disposition and disappeared.

"I'm sorry, but I've got to find my own way," she'd written in hastily-scrawled note that her grieving mother had found pinned to Shoshana's pillow the next morning.

"Imagine — meeting you here, of all places," Shoshana (or Rose, as she'd preferred to call herself all these years) sniffled. "In Washington, D.C. The center of the world."

Her sister looked at her with a mixture of love and pain. "I think," she said in a soft voice, "that the center of the world is any place where you find yourself."

And Hillel — watching the emotions struggling in Ben's mom's face — thought that maybe she was beginning the journey to that difficult and wonderful place, right at that very minute.

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Libby Lazewnik, the highly acclaimed juvenile fiction author, writes weekly for Yated Ne'eman.

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