The story is told of a young gentile from Brooklyn whose car broke down on the way to the Catskills. He got out and tried to flag down help, but to no avail. Finally, he remembered the advice his mother had given him and he reached into the glove compartment, pulled out a yarmulke and put it on his head.
Within minutes, a car pulled over and a young Jewish man got out to offer assistance. After restarting the stalled car, the driver looked quizzically at the young man and asked, "Are you Jewish?"
"No," he said, "but my mother told me that if I ever got into trouble, I should put this on my head and someone would help me."
As with most jokes, the root of this one is based in reality. Jews are known for their extraordinary kindness and for treating each other as members of one large family. I have experienced this on numerous occasions. Last week, my kids got to experience it too.
My mother, Oralee Stiles, pulled into our Denver driveway in a small camper, ready for a five-week road trip with various combinations of my children. She had spent the previous two months planning for the trip. Her sister and brother in law, from whom she borrowed the RV, had spent the last few weeks installing extra seatbelts, getting the vehicle thoroughly checked out and replacing all four tires so that it would be in tiptop shape for the 6,000 miles ahead. Together, they loaded it up with all that was necessary to facilitate five kosher weeks on the road, along with games and activities to keep the kids happy and involved along the way. My mother began the long drive from Portland, Oregon to our house to gather the children and their things.
On my end, I had shopped for the children's summer clothes, bought easy to fix food and plenty of kosher marshmallows for campfires. I gathered walkie-talkies, embroidery projects, canteens, cameras, and more. The kids, led by 17-year-old Elisheva, who would be sharing the driving, gathered CDs, books on tape, bathing suits, sun block, and skateboards. We got the bikes tuned up, and even bought new locks. All that remained was to pack it all into the camper and the Great Summer Adventure would begin.
Monday was a frenzy of packing and last minute remembering. The bikes were securely fastened to the front of the vehicle and finally, everything was ready to go.
As they pulled away from the house, I felt incredibly thankful to have a mother who was so supportive of the path that I have chosen and who was such an involved grandmother. My mother is not Jewish, but she is very spiritual and extraordinarily respectful of our lifestyle and beliefs. She visits three times a year for anywhere between a week and a month. She even spent four summers in a Catskill Bungalow Colony with us where she was known to all as "Bubbe Bulow."
She loves to attend Jewish classes and she can't understand why some people talk in shul. As a spiritual practice, she is careful not to speak ill of anyone. The bumper sticker on the rear of the RV read "I choose to drive peacefully," and when I went into the camper, I saw a sticker on the mirror that said, "Don't even think of trying to tell me lashon hara [gossip]!" I knew my kids were in good hands. They were headed toward New York for the wedding of a family friend; I would fly out to meet them in a few days.
Tuesday I was busy at work, trying to tie up loose ends so that I could be away for a week. My husband called. "Hi, honey. Are you sitting down?"
Ever the optimist, I wondered: "What, did we win the lottery?"
"Everyone's fine," he said, "but the camper has burned to the ground."
Within five minutes, the camper was engulfed in flames and it burned down to its skeleton.
"Well, it seems that the engine was overheating, so they went to a service station to top off the coolant. Then they continued down Interstate 70 and a little while later they began to hear a knocking noise and saw white smoke. With no service station in sight, they pulled over to call AAA. After everybody got out, Aviva (our 10-year-old) saw flames underneath the front step. Your mother quickly took the fire extinguisher and sprayed the flames until it looked like they were out. A few minutes later they saw thick black smoke and then large orange flames. Some highway workers came with their fire extinguishers and tried to help, but within five minutes, the whole thing was engulfed in flames and it burned down to its skeleton. There's nothing left."
I was stunned. I thought of all the planning, all the shopping, all the details… all gone in a 20-minute fire that left my mother and four of my children stranded on the side of the interstate in Kansas. Traffic was backed up for miles until the fire died down and the danger of explosion passed. Doni, nine years old and the youngest, was sobbing. The rest had a mixture of laughter and tears as they stared in disbelief and tried to absorb what had just happened. When the police arrived, they offered to take them all to a hotel so they could regroup and figure out what to do.
But my mother was worried about how she would feed and care for four kids who could eat only kosher food. She knew that if she could get to a Jewish community, she would be taken care of.
They were 15 miles west of Overland Park, Kansas. Overland Park is the home of Irv's Market, the kosher outpost between Denver and St. Louis. My mother knew this because she had carefully planned the trip around the needs of her Jewish grandchildren and she was headed there for Elisheva's birthday lunch when the fire broke out. She couldn't explain to the police why she had to go to that specific restaurant, but she did ask them to take her there rather than to a hotel.
The police obliged and dropped them off in front of the kosher delicatessen. When the five of them entered the restaurant, my mother asked to see the owner. When Chaim Garfinkel came out, she began to tell him the whole story with fresh tears, as the realization of what had just happened sank in further.
Word of what happened quickly spread through the Jewish community and many people arrived to offer their help.
Mr. Garfinkel immediately sprang into action. He sat them all down and told them to order lunch on the house, whatever they wanted. He called my husband so that my mother would not have to tell the whole story again, and then he called the previous owner of the restaurant to come in and take over for the afternoon so that he himself could tend to the needs of the beleaguered travelers. He invited them to stay in his home for as long as they needed, and he called his wife to let her know that five guests would soon be arriving.
Word of what happened quickly spread through the Jewish community and many people arrived to offer their help. A dentist brought them all toothbrushes, toothpaste and floss(!). A doctor went to his office to gather samples of the prescriptions that were lost. Valerie Vordy, a woman who worked in the store and was organizing a rummage sale, wrote down the sizes of each person and went to gather clothes for them.
Sarah, the Garfinkel's12-year-old, left her post at the deli to take everyone home. She shared her room with Aviva and shared her dog, Daisy, with everyone. She tended to the guests and entertained them until her mother, Laurie, could get home from work. As soon as she got home, Laurie brought them all to a store to buy pajamas and underwear. When my mother took out a credit card to pay for the purchase, Laurie told her that there would be many expenses coming up because of what happened, and that she wanted to cover this one.
After the shopping trip, Laurie brought them all to the junkyard to which the hulk of the RV had been towed. She stood with them as they surveyed the ruins, took a few pictures, and unsuccessfully attempted to find anything that was left intact.
When they retuned to the Garfinkel home, Sarah helped her mother serve supper and conceal the surprise. Secretly, Mr. Garfinkel had decorated a birthday cake for Elisheva at the Deli. He brought it out after supper and they all sang "Happy Birthday" together.
The next morning, after a lovely breakfast, the Garfinkels gave the children a couple of suitcases to carry the things they had been given while they were there. As the kids packed their things, the Garfinkels packed them deli lunches for the plane, complete with chips and treats. Finally, another community member, Kathy Rosenberg, drove them to the airport in Kansas City and gave them each a sweatshirt since "sometimes it's cold on the plane."
Their time in Kansas was full of kindness after kindness. The community of Overland Park was a fountain of chesed, kindness, and it just continued to flow. The Jews of Kansas showed, both to the children and to my mother, what it feels like to be part of the greater Jewish family.
I am thankful that my mother had enough experience with Jewish people to know how kind they are and to know that, in her moment of crisis, if she could just get to a Jewish community, she would be taken care of. I am thankful to be part of a nation that is so kind.
EpilogueThe travelers did make it to New York and were able to attend the wedding. Within a few days the most necessary possessions were replaced, but some, like Elisheva's yearbook that she didn't even get to read yet, and their undeveloped film, are irreplaceable. The trip with Grandma was reorganized, and did continue via rented cars, trains and planes.