A Magical Shavuot

About 7 months ago, I gave a somewhat controversial speech in Shul. It was the story of what I’ll call a “Little Red Truck” moment – a moment in which G-d made it clear he was paying attention to my life (I also wrote it up as my Yom Kippur greeting).


This Shavuot, I had another “Little Red Truck” moment and I wanted to share it with y’all.


Ever since I republished the first of my mother’s romance novels (Pegasus, by Chana Cox) I’ve been reading through a second one of these books. This one is Alethea Brightleigh. I haven’t republished it yet, but I figured reading through it is a great way to have a conversation of sorts with my mom. The first book was filled with tidbits about my parents. The second book has tied in my mother’s nudge-nudge wink-wink knowledge of public company shareholdings. I mean, a character is actually named Mr. Price-Waterhouse!


Despite being published by Regency, these are _clean_ books. Historical novels published under a bodice-buster imprint – rather than bodice busters posing as historical novels.


So the night of Shavuot, my son Yaniv pointed out the connection between King David and Shavuot. Being so focused on Chumash, I mentioned to Rebecca that I often simply forget about the story of Ruth and its connection to the holiday. To me, it has always seemed more coincidental than anything else. Ruth was gleaning as a foreigner, we’re commanded to leave the corners of the fields and the gleanings for foreigners and the poor. Nice story, good place to put it and read it, done.


So, on Shavuot morning, before heading out to shul, I picked up Alethea Brightleigh to read a few pages, as I’ve been doing for the last few months. Note, this is a novel set in 1816 England among the aristocratic class and nothing Jewish has occurred in any other part of these books. Yes, it has my mother written all over it – but it stays carefully in genre. There are lots of drawing room conversations.


So, here is what I read on Friday morning:


Noah hesitated. “In a way, I suppose you are. Can you blame them for resenting you, Thea? Can even you imagine the future Countess of Andover working in a mill, however briefly, much less operating a spinning machine? I can’t. We are all of us captives of our nature, and the incomparable Miss Brendeigh was born and bred a lady and there is no power on earth that can change that.”

“And your sister, is she involved in the mills?”

“Ruth? Not directly, but her husband, Jacob, is the comptroller.”

“Your sister is Mrs. Cohen?”

“Yes, are you surprised? I thought even your Aunt Mathilda knew of my sister’s ‘bizarre’ marriage. I felt certain she had informed you years ago.”

“She might have known, but she did nothing more than allude to it. It is not, of course, what one expects.”

“When one knows the circumstances it is precisely what one would expect. It’s the very best of marriages, and I could not want anything better for Ruth. When our parents died, my sister stayed with the Cohens. They had been partners with my father in a small clothing store in Edinborough. The Cohens would have taken both of us in, but my father’s cousins insisted on protecting the son of the house from ‘such people.’

“And Ruth married the Cohens’ son?”

“No, as it happens, Jacob was a distant cousin. They took him in when Ruth was about fourteen. He had escaped from Russia when his family was wiped out in one of those periodic slaughters of the Jews in those barbaric places. The Cohens heard about it and had him brought to England. Lord but he looked like a pinched-back bird of a boy when he first came. He still looks a bit sickly— I suppose there are some things you don’t outgrow—but he is a fine man and Ruth came to love him. It seemed only natural for them to be married, and I of course had no objections to the match.”


I know I must be a softy, but it really touched me that my mother was telling me a version of the story of Ruth on Shavuot when I’d literally forgotten about it. She was reminding me of how important it was. It could just be coincidence (either the story of Ruth or my reading it). But as Avi Unterman said not long ago in Shul – with the right perspective, you can live in a world of miracles and be blessed by them.


So… I brought the book with me to shul. Sure, a romance novel might look weird, but I had my reasons. And, I managed to sneak in just 2 pages in shul – right before Yizkor.

This is what I read…


Jacob Cohen, a slight man with stooped shoulders and what seemed to a perpetual look of worry on his face, came quietly into the house and welcomed his brother-in-law and Miss Brentleigh with careful politeness. He was followed by four brown-eyed red-haired children, and although the children were almost preternaturally well behaved, the small drawing room began throbbing with life.

At first everyone was very conscious of their company—the great lady from London. And even Alethea felt herself to be very out of place, almost gaudy. Their somber dark clothing seemed to highlight the fashionable splendor of her peach-colored morning gown, and Miss Brentleigh wondered, for the first time, why she had ever picked such an unsuitable gown to tour the mill.

Slowly and with an almost childlike humor Noah was able to draw the children out, and they and their father began responding to their uncle with an answering humor and a brightness that seemed strangely at odds with their austere clothing.

Alethea was unaccustomed to making conversation with young children. In her world, children of that age did not dine with their parents. In the beginning she found herself stumbling for something to talk about with the little girl seated beside her. But Noah helped her by pointing out that Sarah and the other children were fascinated by nursing, and Alethea found the balance of the dinner taken up with discussions of herbal medicines. She was almost disappointed when the dessert plates were removed.

It took the better part of the dinner hour for Alethea to realize that she had somehow misread Jacob Cohen and his family. They were none of them near so pinched back as they looked at first.

It was true that they seemed to walk with their eyes to the ground and they had about them none of the physical assurance that Alethea had always associated with Noah himself, but in their own way, they were very much alive. The way they looked at each other, the way they touched each other, was entirely new to Alethea. There was a curious intensity about everything they did. It was as if their entire life forces were concentrated in their eyes and in their hands and that the power of those forces were magnified by this very concentration. Alethea had never seen such burning eyes and such obvious devotion and love between members of a single family. It was almost as if their ties to the rest of the world, to life itself, were tenuous at best and as if the only reality in the world was vested in the people in that room.

After what seemed like a very long grace—said after the meal—of which Alethea could not understand a word—the whole family retired to the drawing room where the oldest boy brought out his violin to play for his uncle and the little girl attempted a simple melody on the piano. The adults were warmly enthusiastic—indeed Alethea had seen Clementi himself received with a great deal less enthusiasm by the ton—and then Jacob Cohen took the children upstairs to tuck them into bed. A few minutes later Jacob returned and finally he and Noah disappeared, leaving the ladies in peace.


The book went on to discuss the main character’s challenge in finding her place – as she is very much in the world of business and the world of the aristocracy. She was like my mother, everywhere and thus nowhere (and I kind of think I fit the same type).


That dinner description hit me. We kids often had very involved adult conversations about serious topics. We had a long (but very very loud) bensching that was a shock to new guests. But most unusually, after dinner we’d ‘retire to the drawing room’ and – after my mother read from the Tzena Urena – our non-Jewish guests would take out instruments and we’d have an often extensive musical experience. This is weird, I know. The strangest part is that as far as I know, this didn’t start until *after* my mother had written this book.


No, we didn’t wear black and no my father was anything but stooped and pinched. Nonetheless, I was just about to say Yizkor for my mother and I read a description of our Shabbat dinners set in 1816 Yorkshire. Going beyond that, there was this clear appreciation of a somewhat different branch of Judaism – which dovetailed with my speech on Shabbat. Then there was a discussion of one of my big strengths and weaknesses – not quite belonging in any particular world.


So I said Yizkor – but it was said not so much as a memory, but as a way of my mother’s continued presence in my life. That day, my mother had retold me the story of Ruth, then of our Shabbat dinners growing up and then of my ongoing path in life.

Simple coincidence? Possibly. But it touched my heart. I chose to live the miracle.


I’ve been doing a series on the Amidah and a central theme is that G-d’s kindness takes time to mature. It takes time to develop any -positive- kindness. But it is there, nonetheless. The great kindness we do for G-d is to acknowledge the Almighty and recognize Him/Her as our moral guide. So what is great kindness G-d does for us? It is the same. We come to see that G-d is there and we come to understand that we are a part of something greater than ourselves and our physical world. We become a part of the beauty of the infinite G-d.


Over the past week and a half or so, I have been sharing my interpretation of the Amidah – this interpretation. And now Hashem has come along and – through a few well-timed pages of one of my mom’s books – returned the favor.

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